The elements of hybrid war like disinformation,cyber- attacks – these are not abstract terms, but very real threats and challenges
Interview with Robert Pszczel, Senior Officer for Russia and the Western Balkans, Public Diplomacy Division, NATO HQ (Former Director of NATO Information Office in Moscow)
Are Poland and Central Europe taking part in informational warfare?
If we take into consideration the countries which are members of NATO, then they do not participate in any kind of war. It is true however that the security environment has changed significantly over the last few years, and therefore so has the context and terms we are using to describe it. The elements of hybrid war like disinformation, cyber-attacks – these are not abstract terms, but very real threats and challenges. These tools are not used by the NATO states for offensive purposes, but such actions or elements can be attributed to the Russian Federation or the Islamic State.
One such operation was the Crimean occupation in 2014 where we could see – for the first time in modern history – the “little green men” being employed on a large scale. We all know who they were and what they did, so let’s not forget that their first acts involved taking over and occupying local media centres. There was also a disinformation campaign, and a military exercise seemingly used as a decoy which preceded the operation in Crimea. So, the answer from the Allied side is no, we do not engage in
information warfare, but if we talk about the negative and aggressive actions in the informational sphere, then there is plenty of evidence to suggest that others may see it differently.
What strategy does NATO have concerning this hybrid warfare?
This is a very broad topic. Since 2014, NATO has developed and initiated a hybrid strategy to deal with such threats. It encompasses many elements ranging from a better coordination of intelligence products, work on resilience of our institutions and infrastructure, incorporating hybrid scenarios in our exercises, as well as cooperation with partner countries and the European Union.
NATO has 29 member states united by a collective defence pledge, forming a stable, permanent coalition that primarily looks after the security of its members.
Moving to the issue of your main interest, information policy as a dimension of our response to hybrid challenges, as is the case with other aspects, the first stage of our approach is analysis and situational awareness.
Comparing to where we were a few years ago, our awareness of, for example, how social media are used for aggressive aims of disinformation has improved a great deal. NATO’s situation awareness is an essential starting point because if we
lack the tools to identify the problem, it is hard to devise optimum countermeasures against it.
The second question is what can be done in a particular situation. We, first of all, need to stick to our mandate and our principles. This means simply that NATO does not answer disinformation or propaganda with its own propaganda or disinformation. We aim to present facts and our arguments in a dynamic way, using diverse platforms and tools. We do it via interaction with traditional media, but also through the internet and social media – see for example our “Setting the Record Straight” portal. But we also try to correct many “false facts or fake news” which target NATO and individual Allies – by engaging with journalists, opinion formers and ordinary people.
In the NATO family, there are many so called Centres of Excellence, and two with the highest public profiles are those which deal respectively with cyber security and with Strategic Communications. Both institutions help NATO and member states by undertaking research, running courses and workshops – real educational work.
This long-term effort does not happen solely within NATO borders. The fact that Sweden, a non-NATO country, has already trained thousands of its civil servants on how to deal with the problem of disinformation shows that the threat has an international character. People who work in specific spheres are likely to face certain kinds of disinformation attacks, and if they are made aware of this then they will know how to react and would hopefully share their knowledge among their communities.
One paradoxical advantage we have in NATO is that we have been the target of disinformation for many years, only the methods have changed somewhat. Recognizing this, NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division (PDD) and other NATO representatives and experts are very active in organising and participating in a variety of seminars and conferences, debating both cyber and disinformation threats (which often go together). These topics also come up high on the list of issues discussed with parliamentarians from all member states. This last point is crucial if we are to contribute to long-term solutions, such as for example media literacy projects.
International cooperation is essential. It is not a coincidence that among the 42 areas which were collectively defied as priorities for joint work by the EU and NATO, one of the fist agreed items was disinformation.
Recently, there was the ceremonial opening of the Helsinki Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats. While established under the EU aegis, this Centre has close links to NATO. The Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, standing next to the EU’s Federica Mogherini, described hybrid threats as “a combination of covert and overt operations and measures: everything from propaganda, from disinformation to actually the use of regular forces – from tweets to tanks.”
Returning to the challenges posed by Russia, it is interesting to compare our agendas and thus approaches. For NATO a “comprehensive approach” is a concept which aims to ensure synergy of different kinds of resources – civilian, military and Strategic Communications – in order to assure stability. To illustrate: for many years now, we have been working in order to stabilise Afghanistan. We know that ensuring security is an essential task. Without security there can be no development. But stable institutions, rule of law, support of the local population and economic prospects are in turn factors without which long-term security will not be guaranteed.
Unfortunately one gets an impression that from the Russian perspective, a hybrid approach applied in many regions in Europe and beyond is serving a very different purpose which has more to do with destabilisation. For example, we are well aware that 2/3 of negative online comments on social media about NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence (bringing many Allied troops to the Baltic States and Poland) are generated by Russian online accounts operated by bots. And these comments have nothing to do with the real debate, with transparency and the truth: they aim to denigrate, undermine our governments, distract soldiers and destabilise the region.
Does Poland at all need to be ready to react and resist such kind of threats? What is the priority action for Poland?
On the one side, the Polish society is very resistant towards any misinformation campaigns directed by foreign countries. It is not easy to persuade Poles in believing something which is not true as they have a high level of awareness following years of communist propaganda. On the other hand, there is no state, including Poland, which can ignore fully well financed disinformation operations, some of them devised on individual basis and targeting specific recipients.
One hears of plans of the Polish MOD to create a centre to deal with cyber threats. This certainly sounds like a very good idea, a route taken by other allies too. But one should also take into account that potential opponents are always improving their methods, and they are not stingy with resources, so our approach should be a comprehensive one, using a mixture of military and civilian capabilities and institutions, at both the state and local level.
A good example of work in this domain was a conference (co-sponsored by PDD) on hybrid threats hosted in Szczecin in October. It brought together representatives from the Polish parliament, academia, the military, business and media. There were a lot of presentations and discussions on policies, best practices from divergent experiences: ranging from crisis management systems at a city level to airport security. But participants could also take part in a specialised workshop where business expertise was shared on practical solutions to improving security of cyber space, e.g. on protection from hackers’ attacks – which is badly needed today.
Not only NATO and the EU should act but also on more local levels there should be coordinated actions. This is a very long-term process when it comes to such measures as raising awareness of citizens of dangers of hybrid threats and disinformation, as teaching university students, improving resilience of critical infrastructure or honing the role of military forces. There are many good experts in Poland and their expertise should be fully utilised. But other states, including those among the Visegrad Four, have a lot of very useful experience, be it on the government level or non-governmental organisations. So, it is very important to share our knowledge, our experience and available tools among states, organisations and ordinary citizens.