Russian Information Warfare
Assault on Democracies in the Cyber Wild West
by Bilyana Lilly
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Pub Date 15 Sep 2022 | Archive Date 28 Jul 2022
Russian Information Warfare: Assault on Democracies in the Cyber Wild West examines how Moscow tries to trample the very principles on which democracies are founded and what we can do to stop it. In particular, the book analyzes how the Russian government uses cyber operations, disinformation, protests, assassinations, coup d'états, and perhaps even explosions to destroy democracies from within, and what the United States and other NATO countries can do to defend themselves from Russia's onslaught.
The Kremlin has been using cyber operations as a tool of foreign policy against the political infrastructure of NATO member states for over a decade. Alongside these cyber operations, the Russian government has launched a diverse and devious set of activities which at first glance may appear chaotic. Russian military scholars and doctrine elegantly categorizes these activities as components of a single strategic playbook — information warfare. This concept breaks down the binary boundaries of war and peace and views war as a continuous sliding scale of conflict, vacillating between the two extremes of peace and war but never quite reaching either. The Russian government has applied information warfare activities across NATO members to achieve various objectives. What are these objectives? What are the factors that most likely influence Russia's decision to launch certain types of cyber operations against political infrastructure and how are they integrated with the Kremlin's other information warfare activities? To what extent are these cyber operations and information warfare campaigns effective in achieving Moscow's purported goals? Dr. Bilyana Lilly addresses these questions and uses her findings to recommend improvements in the design of U.S. policy to counter Russian adversarial behavior in cyberspace by understanding under what conditions, against what election components, and for what purposes within broader information warfare campaigns Russia uses specific types of cyber operations against political infrastructure.
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Average rating from 8 members
I haven't learned so much from one book in such a long time. I feel like this is one of the most relevant and eyeopening books that I could have currently read. There is a lot that has been written, in my view, on the state of Russia or of Vladimir Putin, but nothing that analyzes its foreign policy, strategy, and grand narrative. This work stands in a class of its own.
I really appreciated the case study approach, each chapter being a different circumstance describing the methods, depth and success of Russian interference into other countries operations. While the common reader or news follower might see Russian maneuvering around Ukraine as just part of Putin's bullying or authoritarian behavior, I always think that to combat those behaviors, an accurate understanding of motive is needed. This is what Lilly brings to the table in Russian Information Warfare. It really is about securing Russia and its fanatical view of NATO as a threat. To be clear, I am not justifying Putin's actions, nor does the book. However, when reading about all of these events, I have always wondered: "Why? What's in it for them?" Why meddle in US elections, other than to support a particular candidate? Why get involved in France's elections? The answers are here, and it is very enlightening.
I really appreciate that the author also includes instances where Russia has not been as successful. It seems that being one step ahead of them is key, if we're thinking about this from a rivalry standpoint. That is to say, there is a way to resist it and to prevent it, rather than just accept the fact that Russia will manipulate information and cross one's fingers.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in global affairs or wanting to better understand Russia's motives in why it is doing what its doing, and how states can respond.
This book it's essential reading to understand the trucker convoys, the war against Ukraine, Russian interference in the 2016 election and so much more. The first few chapters are meticulously detailed, making it a challenge to read but I urge you to persevere because it's worth it and it really picks up a few chapters in. With cold and well-documented precision, Lily outlines the chess pieces Russia has put into place to gain information and cause social disruption and polarization in the western world. If you only read one book this year, it should be this one. We all need to understand Russia's slick methods of undermining our democracies.
This book provides information about known cyber operations against political infrastructures attributed to the Russian government. These few examples underline the ongoing evolution of the different techniques used world while along the last fifteen years. In all certainty, this is just the minuscule tip of the iceberg. And even though it is enlightening and helpful for having a broad understanding of how the cyber warfare has worked until now, more importantly, this work can be very useful as a prevention tool, in order to be watchful and foresee disinformation.
The opening chapters may seem a bit tough because she explains in detail the methodology and goals of the research, but the central chapters up to the end of the book are worth the effort.
It’s an exhaustively researched book that throws back the veil on Russia’s playbook and its attempts to influence, destabilise and violate territorial integrity. Given the current confrontation, this book’s insights could not be more acute or relevant - not only for those interested in foreign policy but the wider public. In this sense, there is a solid argument to bring forward its publication date.
My thanks to NetGalley and Naval Institute Press for granting this e-ARC in exchange for an honest review.
I started reading this book about four weeks into the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, making this quite the timely read. Unless you have been living under a rock, Russia has been firmly placed into a perpetual adversarial role in the media for a while now, and especially since 2016. While I feel that certain politicians want to use them as some sort of 1984 forever enemy (“Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia”), Vladimir Putin and his regime do not really help matters with how they handle foreign policy in any way whatsoever. The controversial book by Aleksandr Dugin, Foundations of Geopolitics (which you all should read about, it’s somewehat scary) basically echoes everything Russia has done in the past twenty years to destabilize The West, and a book like today’s topic – Russian Information Warfare – Assault on Democracies in the Cyber Wild West by Bilyana Lilly is a heavily documented record of those policies in action.
“Russian Information Warfare: Assault on Democracies in the Cyber Wild West examines how Moscow tries to trample the very principles on which democracies are founded and what we can do to stop it. In particular, the book analyzes how the Russian government uses cyber operations, disinformation, protests, assassinations, coup d’états, and perhaps even explosions to destroy democracies from within, and what the United States and other NATO countries can do to defend themselves from Russia’s onslaught.”
You can take the information in this book and apply it to things like the rise of extreme right-wing Facebook groups, trucker convoys, Twitter astroturfing campaigns, and the spread of conspiracy theories that collectively plagued social media from 2016-2020 – ironically rendering an entire generation of people, that lived through the entirety of The Cold War, unwitting Russian assets. As someone far outside the State Department Intelligence Bureaus, it seems to the layman that these destabilization efforts have “mysteriously” slowed to a crawl ever since Russia invaded Ukraine. One can assume the war is diverting resources away from these projects in the broader world at large. This is something I have tried to explain to people for a long time, especially those that easily fall for conspiratorial content on social media. I somewhat feel vindicated after reading this book and witnessing the Russian espionage industry disappear overnight after February 24, 2022.
The gist of this book is that the author analyzed and collected most known and suspected Russian espionage/destabilization efforts from around 2006 to 2020. The author details attacks on various neighboring countries such as Estonia, Bulgaria, Ukraine, as well as more brazen attacks and information warfare campaigns on the United States and the United Kingdom. Each chapter goes into heavy detail on all of the whos and whys regarding each attack, and grants the reader a fairly firm idea of exactly what Russia is up to and why they are doing what they are doing. The beginning of the book lays out the book’s parameters and methodology and can be a bit of a slog, but once the chapters regarding the attacks get going the book becomes quite interesting. It’s not a long read, but it is VERY densely packed with information.
Overall, this is a well done highly researched book. The foundations here are definitely more of an academic paper turned into a full-on book (as the author states), but once you get going it is a great read. Like I stated before, I suspected a lot of this was going on, but sadly had to parse information together through a highly politicized media lense (the US in the last decade) – having a cohesive book on this topic that strives to be somewhat impartial is a godsend and does a lot to help the layman understand exactly what is happening in Europe right now and what Russia seemingly went to war with Ukraine “on a whim”. As you will find out, things like that are all according to plan and the way Russia plans to carry out their foreign policy, assuming regime change doesn’t occur. Russian Information Warfare – Assault on Democracies in the Cyber Wild West by Bilyana Lilly comes out this fall from the US naval Institute, do yourself a favor and check it out as it is quite eye-opening.
"As the head of the Main Operational Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, Colonel-general A.V. Kartopolov remarked on April 15, 2015, 'if in the past war was 80 percent combat operations, and propaganda was 20 percent, then in wars today 90 percent of activities consist of information warfare.'"
"Russia’s information warfare is sustained and unceasing, and, therefore, so should be our defenses."
In George Orwell’s 1984 there are three super-states, Oceania (North and South America, UK, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa), Eurasia (The Soviet Union and Europe), and Eastasia (China, Japan, Korea, northern India). While the boundaries of the superstates have not come to pass quite as Orwell imagined, one could easily see similarities in the power centers of 2021, with China atop Eastasia, Russia atop Eurasia (without Western Europe, of course, although that is becoming a bit squishy), and the USA atop Oceania. One of the elements of Orwell’s if-this-goes-on imagined dystopia was a state of perpetual war.
There is plenty of incentive for those in charge of societies to sustain a war-based economy, whether or not actual wars are fought. War has always been pretty lucrative for some business interests, and offers cover for those in power to attack dissenters as unpatriotic. It has been the case for as long as there have been nations that countries will spy on and seek to manipulate other countries for their own benefit and/or protection. The tools for doing this are diverse, including spying, diplomacy, seeking to impact elections, and the more kinetic special ops, targeted assassinations, and actual tanks-and-planes attacks. But the range of available tools has grown considerably in the last generation. The means for gaining insight into,and of manipulating, the leaders and populations of other countries have become widely available. One result of this is the realization of one of Orwell’s dark visions, albeit in a different form. Russia, under Vladimir Putin, has been engaged in a ceaseless war on other nations for a long time. This warfare does not always entail the use of heavy machinery. It was not tanks that impacted the 2016 presidential election in the USA. It was new, diabolical, and effective weapons of mass communication. The internet, with its social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and countless lesser applications, has made everyone accessible, and vulnerable.
"Moscow’s attempts to sow popular distrust in governance would not stop after the elections, which are only one event, but would continue after the elections when Russia may attempt to exploit socially divisive themes that could increase suspicion in democratic institutions. And drive communities further apart."
Dr. Bilyana Lily has been looking at this for some time. Born in Bulgaria, she has seen Russian actions from a perspective shared by few general readers. She earned a Masters degree from Geneva Graduate School, in International Relations and Affairs, got another MA at Oxford University, specializing in Russian, Central European, East European and Eurasian Studies, and her PhD from Pardee RAND Graduate School. She has worked at the Bulgarian mission to the United Nations, led DoD research efforts out of RAND, designing analytical tools to predict cyber incidents, and worked on RAND’s election cybersecurity project. Oh, yeah, and she’s a paramedic. Probably has an invisible plane tucked away somewhere, too.
She defines her terms. Just what is considered Information Warfare? How does it fit within Russia’s military planning program? What are each of the actions intended to accomplish? What are the tools the Russians use? Lily selected seven attacks that met her criteria. She limited her study to publicly available information. So, no state secrets are in any danger of being revealed here. She took out of play some attacks that any reasonable person would deem to be at least partly Russia-based, but which lacked publicly accessible confirmations. She looks at what prompts Russia to act and considers differences in how it goes about its operations.
Several chapters of the book are about process. Here is what I am doing. Here are the things I am looking at and the things I am ignoring. Part of this is to talk about a tool she has developed for presenting the gathered information in a graphical format. It could come in handy if you need to update your boss, who is averse to reading. I know, hard to imagine. It may be of considerable use to Intelligence Community (IC) workers, but really, for the rest of us, that element of the book is skippable. It makes for slow, tough reading.
Chapter 1, however, on how Russia sees the world, and thus justifies their actions, is fascinating. It explains a lot. Russian leaders tend to the paranoid and are blind to their own crimes, and the legitimate security concerns of other nations. They see, for example, the bombing of Yugoslavia, the Afghanistan invasion by NATO, the Iraq wars and the operations in Libya as all illegitimate US led attempts at regime change. But Libya was not US-led. If anything, the USA was dragged into that. Afghanistan was the result of 9/11. The first Gulf war came about after Iraq invaded its neighbors, and the West got involved in the former Yugoslavia to prevent Serbian genocide of its neighbors. I guess everything the West does is bad and everything Russia does is ok. They do feel outgunned by the West, though, so feel justified in utilizing asymmetric tactics against their perceived enemies.
Lily uses seven case studies of Russian info warfare. Therein lies the strength of this book. Bet you recognize in the actions taken against other nations many of the actions taken by Russia against the USA. And it will make you very suspicious about the behavior of many on the far right as to exactly what relationships they have with Putin’s Russia. Who is “Q” for example? Personally, I would bet that Q is either a Russian him or herself, was paid for by Russia, or at the bare minimum, was trained and/or advised by Russia. Moscow seeks to foment discord in states it wants to impact. This does not cease when agreements are arrived at over this or that. It does not cease when guns are put down in a conflict here or there. Warfare for Russia is a permanent state. They are always trying to pit group against group, whether in the USA, France, Germany, or any other nation which has interests that clash with Russia’s.
"…this book analyzes under what conditions, in what contexts, and in what combinations with other nonmilitary and military measures Russia has employed certain types of cyber operations. In particular, this book explores what conditions have been associated with the employment of various types of Russian state-sponsored cyber operations against political IT infrastructure of NATO countries and invited members."
Lily arrives at some conclusions about what the parameters are that define what Russia will do, and how far it will go. For some countries, this and then that. For other countries, only this. And it looks at what Russia hopes to accomplish with various actions. In some cases, there is hardcore spying involved, assassinations, bombings, concerted attempts to disrupt electoral systems, for example. But in others, Russia acts merely to undermine people’s confidence in electoral systems, or the viability of target governments.
"If we had paid more attention to Russian military doctrine, we could have been better prepared for what happened in 2016." [in Russia’s attack on the USA election] – from the JSOU presentation
Gripes – When I was in graduate school, a professor once said that the standard format for reports to be submitted, not only in his class, but in the jobs we were training for, was 1) Say what it is you are going to say 2) Say it, and then 3) Say what it is you have just said. Lily follows this formula not only for the overall book, but within each chapter. It makes life particularly easy for those looking to speed read their way through this, but for those of us who insist on reading every word, that element was a bit of a chore. It reads as a very academic paper. No problem for folks in the field, but off-putting to the more casual reader. While it is understandable that Lilly restricts her case studies to those with publicly provable Russian connections, I was yearning for her to go a bit beyond, and incorporate looks at instances in which it is plain what is going on, despite there not being public proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
Not gripes – Clearly explaining Russia’s motivation and world view. Read these case studies and you will recognize much that is going on all around us, get a sense of how Russia goes about manipulating populations. Breaking down the methods, aims, and impacts lets one talk about information warfare in specific, rather than general terms, and thereby consider actions that target individual elements for ways to defend.
It is often the case that analytical books that delve into political or social problems offer excellent insight, but fall short when it comes to offering real-world solutions. One can look at successes that targeted nations have had in beating back or preventing Russian Info attacks, and seek to apply those best practices across the board, for NATO nations in particular. Thankfully, some of Lilly’s advice seems doable.
She recommends that states should make public more of the information on cyber operations and actors directed against them, to help understand Russia’s playbook. There are benefits to be had beyond that as we saw recently, when President Biden publicly outed Russia’s plan to fake attacks on Russians and blame Ukraine, as a justification for their invasion. She also recommends transparency in political party funding sources. This really is a no-brainer, but the reality is that it is currently, and for the foreseeable future will remain, a non-starter federally in the USA where so many of those in charge of making the laws benefit directly from that very secrecy. She also recommends federal funding of cyber-awareness training for state and local campaigns. I can certainly see this meeting resistance from those legislators who might benefit from external interference in our elections. It might have a chance in individual states as a state program. There are more. It is a mixed bag, containing no silver bullet. The inherent conflicts of interest will keep the USA vulnerable. At this point we have to rely on the IC and the Department of Defense to fend off the gravest attacks. Cleary, relying on the moral concerns of companies like Facebook and Twitter is a sure cure for any feeling of security.
Lilly may not have all the solutions, but she has gone a very long way in identifying the problems, at least as far as Russia goes, pointing out what is likely, and under what circumstances, and letting us know where such attacks have failed and why. In the larger sense, she has made it very clear that Russian military policy contains a drive to ongoing information warfare. If you want to understand how Russia seeks to undermine Western democracies, see the techniques they use, and understand their fondness for using local allies, or puppets, Russian Information Warfare is a must read.
For Russia a particularly useful way to keep the West, or Russia’s enemies in general at bay, is to wage an information-based assault on them all, constantly. Why take casualties when you can achieve your objectives by conducting daily operations on the sly. Orwell would recognize the notion. For Russia, permanent War is Peace.
"Information warfare is applied through strategic media messaging disseminated through all media channels that reach the population of the targeted country. The aggressive party uses information technologies to engage public institutions in the targeted country, such as mass media, religions institutions, NGOs, cultural institutions, and public movements receiving foreign financing. To further help the demoralization of the population and ensure chaos, the adversary targets the disillusioned population and infiltrates these groups with provocateurs. Disinformation, or deliberate falsification of events, can also be considered among the principal information warfare components."
Review posted – April 15, 2022
Publication date – September 15, 2022
I received an EPUB ARE of Russian Information Warfare from The U.S. Naval Institute in return for a fair review and agreeing not to give away any state secrets. Thanks, folks. And thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.
For the full, formatted review, with links, please go to my blog (https://cootsreviews.com/2022/04/15/russian-information-warfare-by-bilyana-lilly/) or Goodreads, for a slightly truncated, but formatted version, with most of the links (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/4659499086)
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