- Russia's Cyber and Information Warfare
Russia's exercise of cyberpower forms an integral part of the far broader concept known as information warfare. The key principle of the Russian approach to information warfare, including cyber activities, is that information is the most important object of operations, independent of the channel through which it is transmitted. The aim is to control—or weaponize—information in whatever form it takes. Thus, "cyber" in particular is just a technical representation of information. In short, in Russia's comprehensive approach to the information domain, cyber is not a stand-alone discipline.
This principle underpins all Russian efforts to extract, exfiltrate, manipulate, distort, or insert information. Alongside cyber activities, the channels available for doing this are as diverse as using fake or real news media to plant disinformation, trolling campaigns, issuing official government statements, giving speeches at rallies or demonstrations, posting defamatory online videos, and sending direct text messages. Russian information activities are not limited to cyberspace. Rather than using the term "cyberspace," Russian officials refer to "information space," which includes both computer and human information processing.1
This essay starts with an explanation of the terminological, doctrinal, and practical distinguishing features of Russian cyber activities as part of information warfare. It goes on to look at a number of Russia's agencies and capabilities involved in the prosecution of cyber activities, both offensive and defensive. In conclusion, the essay emphasizes the main implication of this distinctive approach: the need for nations to prepare a broad range of defenses against Russia's holistic approach to offensive cyber, information warfare, and other forms of hostile online activity. [End Page 67]
Terminology, Strategy, and Doctrine
Russia's approach to defining a doctrine for computer network operations is determined by the core concept of "information confrontation" (or "information war") and includes all hostile activities using information as a tool, target, or domain of operations. The concept implies computer network operations alongside disciplines such as psychological operations, strategic communications, influence, intelligence, maskirovka (military deception), disinformation, electronic warfare, debilitation of communications, degradation of navigation support, and destruction of enemy computer capabilities. The aim is "to influence the perception and behavior of the enemy, population, and international community."2
Russia sees superiority in this broad application of information warfare as a key enabler for victory in current and future conflicts:
Wars will be resolved by a skillful combination of military, nonmilitary, and special nonviolent measures that will be put through by a variety of forms and methods and a blend of political, economic, informational, technological, and environmental measures, primarily by taking advantage of information superiority. Information warfare in the new conditions will be the starting point of every action now called the new type of warfare, or hybrid war, in which broad use will be made of the mass media and, where feasible, global computer networks(blogs, various social networks, and other resources).3
Russian cyber terminology
"Cyber" as a separate function or domain is not a Russian concept.4 The delineation of activities in the cyber domain from other activities processing, attacking, disrupting, or stealing information is seen as artificial. The phrase "cyber warfare" in Russian writing is used to describe foreign concepts and activities. The closest that Russian thinking comes to separating out computer network operations from other activities is the division between the information-technological and information-psychological domains, the two main strands of information warfare.5 [End Page 68]
Cyber activities, however, do not map directly to the information-technological domain: as an integral part of information warfare overall, they are also inherent in information-psychological operations. Importantly, moreover, information-psychological operations are undertaken "permanently"—regardless of the notional state of cooperation or hostility between the opposing sides. Multiple senior Russian officials have emphasized that open conflict need not have been declared for hostile activity in the information space to begin.6
Information security doctrine
It follows that Russia does not have publicly released national strategies relating specifically to its cyber activities. The closest approximation is the Information Security Doctrine. The most recent iteration of this document, approved in December 2016, follows a line adopted in previous strategic documents...