A guide to Russian propaganda. Part 5: Reflexive Control

Featured, Hybrid War

While fake news and disinformation receive lots of attention nowadays, they are only part of Russia’s hybrid war, which is based on a Soviet secret technique of reflexive control. Using disinformation, cyber attacks, blackmail, provocations, fabrications, military deceptions, and other active measures, Russia creates a virtual reality that prompts its victims into making the political decisions Russia wants without suspecting they are being manipulated.

Fake news and disinformation receive most of the attention of western security institutions when it comes to examining Russian meddling in democratic countries. What escapes the attention of many an analyst is that disinformation is only a small part of Russia’s toolbox of hybrid war, one of the manifestations of Active Measures, by which Russia seeks to rebuild its former empire and gain dominance over the West.

Source: adapted from Ajir et al, “Russian Information Warfare & Implications for Deterrence Policy”

Russia’s strategy is based on a method called Reflexive control. The Soviet and Russian intelligence community have researched it for half a century.

Reflexive Control is best known to the western public thanks to the works of Timothy Thomas. The theoretical basis for Reflexive control was laid down by Vladimir Lefebvre, a Russian researcher who developed Reflexive control as the Soviet answer to Game theory used in the USA for military purposes. While Game theory allowed predicting outcomes of decisions of social players, Reflexive control allows the subject to direct his object towards making a decision in the subject’s interest, and without the object being aware of the manipulation.

Today, Russian military and social researchers continue developing the theoretical basis of Reflexive control.

With Reflexive Control, Russia changes its opponent’s view of the world, so he is tricked into making the self-defeating decisions Russia wants without even knowing it. Russia achieves this by creating a simulacrum, or “virtual reality.” This simulacrum influences the decision-making centers of the object of manipulation. As he now thinks that the simulacrum constructed by the manipulator constitutes reality, he will make decisions that correspond to the construct.

By meticulously studying its objects, the manipulator comes to know their vision of the world and what prompts their decision-making. In Timothy Thomas’ terms, this is called gaining “reflex.” In a conflict where reflexive control is used, the adversary with the highest degree of reflex wins, as he can out-manipulate the other.

Russia’s active measures that employ reflexive control target both decisionmakers and the general population. They aim to prompt political decisions made in Russia’s favor or to sow paralysis and confusion which weaken societies. According to Russian military theorist S. Komov, and as paraphrased by Timothy Thomas, the basic elements of reflexive control include:

  1. Distraction, by creating a real or imaginary threat to one of the enemy’s most vital locations (flanks, rear, etc.) during the preparatory stages of combat operations, thereby forcing him to reconsider the wisdom of his decisions to operate along this or that axis;
  2. Information overload, by frequently sending the enemy a large amount of conflicting information;
  3. Paralysis, by creating the perception of a specific threat to a vital interest or weak spot;
  4. Exhaustion, by compelling the enemy to carry out useless operations, thereby entering combat with reduced resources;
  5. Deception, by forcing the enemy to reallocate forces to a threatened region during the preparatory stages of combat operations;
  6. Division, by convincing the enemy that he must operate in opposition to coalition interests;
  7. Pacification, by leading the enemy to believe that pre-planned operational training is occurring rather than offensive preparations, thus reducing his vigilance;
  8. Deterrence, by creating the perception of insurmountable superiority;
  9. Provocation, by forcing him into taking action advantageous to your side;
  10. Suggestion, by offering information that affects the enemy legally, morally, ideologically, or in other areas;
  11. Pressure, by offering information that discredits the government in the eyes of its population.

Examples of Reflexive control used in Russia’s war against Ukraine

The Kremlin’s operation of occupying Crimea in February-March 2014 was very rapid and smooth. Apart from the undoubted benefit of having a considerable military presence in Crimea, information operations played an important role. The local population was conditioned to fear the Euromaidan revolution in Kyiv and the occupying troops were unmarked – an act of deception. The latter impacted the locals because it was unclear who was the enemy that needed to be resisted, and western officials and Kyiv were prevented from making the proper reaction. Additionally, the military buildup on Ukraine’s eastern border obfuscated Russia’s real intentions – distraction; thus, Ukraine’s will was paralyzed and it decided not to transfer troops to Crimea, as it appeared there was a real possibility of an invasion on the eastern front. The Ukrainian authorities were prompted into making this decision with the help of Ukraine’s western partners, who abhorred the possibility of a war in Europe – aka pacification:

“Both Americans and Germans in one voice ask us not to start any active actions, because, according to their intelligence, Putin will use it to start a large-scale land invasion. We have to hear Western partners, and they need time to make decisions,” said Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, then-head of the Security Service of Ukraine, at an emergency meeting of Ukraine’s NSDC on 28 February 2014.

The ongoing de-facto occupation of Donbas, in which Russia has been maintaining two puppet statelets that keep fighting against the Ukrainian army with the help of Russian troops and weapons, is an example of a reflexive control operation which targets different audiences.

The Russian-backed militants in Donbas are fed fake news about supposed Ukrainian atrocities to keep them fighting against Ukraine, while the Russian population is conditioned to support the Donbas militants and Putin. As a result, Russia’s aggressive actions are approved by the majority of Russians, some of whom rush to the support of the “people of Donbas.” Reflexive control methods used include distraction, deception, suggestion, and information overload. Meanwhile, the unpredictability and fog of war Russia creates over Donbas deters the international community from entering the conflict, with deception, information overload, paralysis, exhaustion, division, pacification, and pressure being used.

One of the most vivid examples of Russian reflexive control usage in the Donbas war is that of how Russia militarily pressured Ukraine to accept the second Minsk protocol as a roadmap to conflict resolution in Donbas. If implemented verbatim, Minsk-2 will lead to Russia achieving its goals for Ukraine in the war. Ukraine entered the “Minsk peace process” from a position of military defeat caused by the invasions of regular Russian troops. Meanwhile, Germany, France, and the EU were urged to pressure Ukraine to accept the Russian conditions for Minsk-2 with the help of Vladimir Putin’s threats of starting a nuclear war.

In the meantime, Russia continues to interfere with Ukraine’s westward movement by fabricating pro-Russian protests and movements, employing a wide range of instruments to divide and exhaust the Ukrainian population – demoralizing Ukraine and prodding it back to Russia’s sphere of influence. Methods used include provocation, division, exhaustion, pacification, and pressure.

In each case, Russia gets into the minds of its opponents and exploits their weakest spot. The leaked emails of Putin’s advisor Vladislav Surkov, tasked with running Russia’s hybrid war against Ukraine, reveal the extent to which Russia studied its victim. Surkov’s grasp of Ukraine’s vision of the world was based on painstakingly detailed daily analysis of the political and media environment of the country compiled by two think tanks linked to the Kremlin. These reports made up the bulk of Surkov’s email boxes, allowing Russia to find the smallest cracks which could be exacerbated and cognitive vulnerabilities that could be exploited.

Example of visual analysis received by the office of Putin’s advisor Vladislav Surkov (material from Surkov Leaks). Title: “Ukraine’s information picture of the day.” Contents: “Main information topics of the day; topics given attention on TV; most cited publications of the central press; visual row of Ukrainian TV channels; visual row of Ukrainian media; key discussions and topics for consideration; main events of the day; agenda for the next information day; Southeast – Novorossiya (resonant declarations, dynamics of the number of publications on the topic of Novorossiya; rating of citations of persons in the topic of Novorossiya)”

Example of visual analysis received by the office of Putin’s advisor Vladislav Surkov (material from Surkov Leaks). Title: “Information picture of the day for Novorossiya: regional breakdown.” Contents: “Donetsk People’s Republic. Luhansk People’s Republics. Main topic. Central local topics.”

Example of visual analysis received by the office of Putin’s advisor Vladislav Surkov (material from Surkov Leaks). Title: “Ukraine’s information picture of the day: regional breakdown” Contents: “Stories of the region with the largest number of publications.” Regions in south-eastern Ukraine are examined, as well as Zakarpattia Oblast, a region bordering Hungary with a great deal of ethnic tensions.

Summing up, Russia is going to great lengths to subvert Ukraine and the west with covert political warfare employing methods of reflexive control, of which disinformation is a crucial part. Russia is studying its victims very closely. Are we doing the same?

This is part 5 in our series “A guide to Russian propaganda.” Check out the previous episodes here:

  1. Part 1: Propaganda prepares Russia for war
  2. Part 2: Whataboutism
  3. Part 3: Rapid fire conspiracy theories
  4. Part 4: Russian propaganda operates by law of war
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