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How the US and Russia are fighting an information war — and why the US is losing

Alex Lockie
donald trump election night

(President-elect Donald TrumpMark Wilson/Getty Images)
The surprising result of the US 2016 election awoke many Americans to a fact they'd rather not acknowledge: The US is under attack from foreign nations armed with weaponized information.

Indeed, the US's top spy agencies all credit Russia with hacking the Democratic National Convention's email servers, and subsequently leaking information that helped to sway the election.

But from the Russian point of view, the US cast the first stone, and Russia's attempts to influence the US and other countries amounts to little more than an active defense. 

According to Dr. Ken Geers of cybersecurity firm Comodo, Russia has long been a powerhouse of information warfare, and it's "something we haven’t gotten our heads around" in the West. 

US spy agencies since World War II "knew all about the Russia problem," said Geers, who has worked with NATO and the NSA, told Business Insider. Russians are good at math, operational security, and have a long history of perceived threats to their regime, according to Geers.

"Even in the Tsarist period, Russia had a robust secret police and counterintelligence apparatus, so the Soviets in 1913 already had a lot to work with," said Geers. 

Today, this 100-year-old history of information security and warfare translates into a laser like focus in the cyber arena. US cyber warriors focus on vulnerabilities, plugins and holes in networks that can be exploited.

But in Russia, cyber vulnerability is seen as merely a "means to an end," according to Geers.

In the space between cyber security, favored by the West, and information security, favored by the East, Russia and China have left the US behind. No matter how secure US networks become, there will always be some leakage, and Russia and China have proven incredibly capable with deploying information seized in leaks, and controlling the broader information climate.

Even objectively true facts can be massaged and misrepresented in Russia's state-run information space, as they were when Russian troops poured into Crimea in 2014.

nsa phone spying

(While the US's NSA has done everything in their power to protect networks, Russia has instead focused on protecting information.Reuters/Pawel Kopczynski)

Since the Russian and Chinese governments are "more Orwellian than ours," Gears said, it gives them strict control over their media and the access their citizens have to the internet. This allows them to "massage the information space more," according to Geers.  

"It comes up in cyber diplomacy today in international discussions between the East and West," said Geers, where US cyber operators talk about securing networks and Eastern operators talk about securing information, and that often means censorship or even aggressive disinformation campaigns.

"If you look at 2016 election, Russia had real impact," said Geers. "It makes you reconsider that the Russians may have been much more correct about the topic over time ... it really is about information security. A flash browser plugin exploit is a means to an end. What you do with that can be small or large."

With its hacking of a major political party in the US, brutal air campaign that savagely slaughtered civilians in Syria by the tens of thousands, and annexation of a strategic peninsula in Europe under the nose of NATO, Russia has proven it has the correct conception of information warfare, and big plans in the battle space.

How Russia sees itself as a victim of US informational warfare

putin church cathedral orthodox religion russia

(Putin's Russia is extremely conservative, religious, and intolerant of homosexuality.AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Alexei Druzhinin, Presidential Press Service)

Russian lawmakers recently tried to ban the US film "Beauty and the Beast" from the country because it features a homosexual character. 

Russian news outlet Ria Novosti reported that State Duma deputy Vitaly Milon wrote a letter to culture minister Vladimir Medinsky urging that action be taken as the movie is a "blatant, shameless propaganda of sin and perverted sexual relationships," according to Time.

But the film "Beauty and the Beast" wasn't crafted by the US government as a piece of pro-LGBTQ propaganda.

It's just a Disney movie.

Geers said to look to France for examples of how the US's massive footprint in the information space makes waves that can irk even its closest allies.

"For years France has been quite annoyed with the US and also like other countries, fascinated," said Geers. "Think about from a French perspective," McDonalds, Apple, Microsoft, Coca Cola, Google — all English words, all US companies, and all threaten France's cultural identity, according to Geers.

While McDonalds and Coca Cola promote themselves as good products and businesses, their purpose does not match a company like RT, a Russian state-run broadcasting agency purpose-built to counter Western media.

US brands promote capitalism and prosperity, which reflects well on the US. But the autocrats of Russia and China have long known their oppressive societies cannot survive direct comparison with the West, and so even McDonalds becomes a grave threat to regime preservation.

coca cola coke africa kenya

(US brands, and their associated media messaging, have taken the world by storm.REUTERS/Noor Khamis)

Even if the US started funding films and propaganda networks, free speech in the West means that this information would have to go toe-to-toe with more accurate, balanced, verifiable information in the media. Americans and Europeans can disagree with their governments and back whatever products, philosophies, or lifestyles they enjoy. 

In this way, Russia's weaponized information has made a meal of the US's open, non-militarized information space, but Geers has a message for those who fear the sun is setting on the West: "Relax."

"You cannot equate the opinion of NATO to the opinion of the Kremlin," said Geers. "NATO is 28 functioning democracies. If you look at the map you see Bulgaria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Albania — they all joined NATO. Why? Because it’s the future. It’s providing a secure space in which you can build culture and economy."

With just 145 million living in Russia, less than half the population of the US, Geers said the information war is "mathematical in nature." Countries on Russia's border who have seen the freedoms enjoyed by the West, like some current NATO states and Georgia, have all made "incredible efforts to prepare their country" for ascension into NATO, said Geers. 

When a country wants to join NATO, "you start buying the right weapons and using the right uniforms and calling and enforcing democracy and civil rights," said Geers. 

Performing tactical movements latvia nato close air support

(Latvian troops practice calling in close air support with US forces.Master Sgt. Scott Thompson)

The slide towards the US's sphere of influence among some of Russia's neighbors has been nothing short of terrifying for Russia's autocrats, who don't hold power temporarily or democratically. Additionally, the US's second-to-none military and long streak of interventionism horrifies the Kremlin.

Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent military analyst based in Moscow, told Vice News in 2016 that Russia's paranoia grows each time the US removes a murderous dictator from power. 

"They killed Saddam. They killed Qaddafi. Now they want to kill Assad," Felgenhauer said. "And Putin believes he may be next in line."

Perhaps the last straw for Putin's Russia was the 2014 Euromaidan protests in Kiev, Ukraine. NATO had been openly improving ties with Ukraine, a buffer state that would put NATO on Russia's doorstep should Kiev join the alliance. 

A recent NATO research paper cites multiple Russian military officials and publications saying that the Kremlin saw many of the color revolutions and Arab Spring uprisings of the early 2010s as being engineered by the West to undermine stable governments. 

Euromaidan_Kiev_2014 02 18_15_8.JPG

(The Kremlin saw Ukraine's pro-democracy demonstrations as a very serious warning.Аимаина хикари / Wikimedia Commons)

With color revolutions sweeping MENA and Europe, the Kremlin's paranoia took a turn for the worse, and they assumed that Moscow must be next should they fail to act.

"From Moscow's perspective, you see the whole revolution move Eastwards towards you," said Geers. There were protests in Moscow against Russia's autocracy "but you don’t see anything about that," due to Russia's command of media and information. Putin critic Boris Nemtsov was killed on the Kremlin's steps, part of a larger intimidation campaign by Russia, according to Geers. 

Still, Russia's iron grip on information could be its undoing. Because Russia's internet has few points of access and few servers, a US cyber attack could cripple the whole country in moments. 

The very nature of the internet is pro-Western. The information revolution brought about by an open internet has spread like wildfire across the world in a way that uniformly undermines dictators. So while Russia may be winning the information warfare right now through very active measures, it's an uphill battle, and time isn't on their side. 

"Putin will also find, speaking even more broadly, the internet is on the side of the West. It looks more like democracy than it does autocracy. We have all kinds of vulnerabilities in the West — that’s true, but it’s also part of the point that tells me the West we can relax, and not overreact ... You can use those tools for surveillance, but ultimately they’re going to come get you. The pitchforks will come for you," said Geers. 

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