La “combinación”: The view from Spain regarding Russia's successful interference in Catalonia
2017 November 25
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La “combinación”, instrumento de la guerra de la información de Rusia en Cataluña / The ‘combination’: an instrument in Russia’s information war in Catalonia, by Mira Milosevich-Juaristi (@MiraMilosevich1), Senior Analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute, is one of the better treatments of the subject of Kremlin subversion targeting Western nations. The description of the blend of methods used by the Russians and their allies in the case of Catalonia provides a good introduction to the topic, but perhaps the most important point made by the author is that the Kremlin has succeeded in Catalonia - as it did in the German elections, the French elections, the US elections, the EU-Ukraine election in Netherlands, and BREXIT - regardless of the immediate outcome on the ground in each of those cases.

This makes for painful reading, but it is difficult to argue that Milosevich-Juaristi is wrong:

"The West has concentrated on cyber-protection and on the technical responses to cyber threats. The NATO countries are well prepared for a ‘pure cyberwar’. Nevertheless, so far their response to the Russian information war has not been adequate for three major reasons: (1) because they have believed that Russia discredits itself by spreading false news; (2) because they do not understand that the West is at war with Russia; and (3) because they suppose that telling the truth is sufficient, which it is not.

Russia has failed according to Western criteria – it does not tell the truth – but according to its own criteria it has achieved an overwhelming success, particularly in two areas. Within Russia, the mission to engage the information war commissioned by the Military Doctrine has secured the national information space: Russians have been isolated from foreign information sources and most of the domestic media are controlled by the Kremlin. Abroad, Russia is exerting its influence over the consciousness of the masses, generating an atmosphere in which it is difficult to distinguish authentic information from half-truths and fake news."

Where one might argue with Milosevich-Juaristi is in the conclusion that

"It is impossible for the West to respond with total success to the ‘combination’ of instruments and tactics now employed by Moscow. While the intelligence agencies can engage in intelligence work, Western governments cannot effectively restrict information flows. They cannot restrict the use of the Internet as do the governments of authoritarian or totalitarian countries."

Success is not impossible, but must first be defined. Western democracies must differentiate between what needs to be done to mitigate the worst effects of Russian information warfare, and those actions that must be taken to counter the Kremlin's efforts, to blunt their advance and push them back. Fact-checking, exposing the sources and methods of disinformation, and enhancing the critical thinking capabilities of Western populations are all necessary, just as it is necessary to treat wounded soldiers. But no matter how good we get at staunching wounds, the techniques we use to do so will not prevent the next soldier from being shot.

The West needs to meet Russia's asymmetric warfare with asymmetric methods of our own, methods of our choosing, methods that play to our strengths and exploit Russia's weaknesses. The objective of our efforts should be to establish deterrence, leaving no doubt in the mind of whomever occupies the Kremlin that continued efforts to subvert Western democracies will come at an unacceptably high price. Obvious vulnerabilities of the Kremlin include their dependence on public corruption, organized crime, and money laundering. Combat those activities and the West will hit the Kremlin where it hurts most, while cleaning up our own societies at the same time. Success for the West vs Russia lies in containment. If Russia wants to be a part of the West, then it needs to behave itself.

Addenda: Related entries from the KGB Lexicon

La “combinación” in this case appears to be a reference to elements of KGB tradecraft:

Agenturno-operativnaya kombinatsiya — agent-operational combination - A complex of inter-related agent-operational measures using natural conditions and creating artificial circumstances designed to enable Intelligence to solve its appointed tasks swiftly and effectively. (Mitrokhin, Vasili. KGB Lexicon: The Soviet Intelligence Officers Handbook (pp. 10-11). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.)

Dezinformatsionnyye svedeniya (dezinformatsiya) — disinformation - Specially prepared items of information used to give the enemy a false picture of events, which he might use as the basis for decisions; such decisions would then be favourable to the side disseminating the disinformation. The use of disinformation is not restricted to disinformation operations per se. It is also used in operations employing other methods in order to conceal the state security agencies’ operational procedures, forces and resources. It may be used as an additional device (in operational experiments which involve giving the enemy access to ‘secret’ material, in operational combinations or in deflecting enemy effort towards a worthless target etc.).(Mitrokhin, Vasili. KGB Lexicon: The Soviet Intelligence Officers Handbook (p. 193). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.)

Dezinformatsiya operativnaya — operational disinformation - 1. Form of action taken by operational procedure consisting of providing the enemy with specific specially prepared information which will give a false picture of activity being undertaken by the counter-intelligence service (plans, forces, resources etc.) and may encourage the enemy to take decisions which are advantageous to the counterintelligence service. 2. Disinformation of an operational character [dezinformatsionnyye svedeniya]. (Mitrokhin, Vasili. KGB Lexicon: The Soviet Intelligence Officers Handbook (p. 193). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.)

Kombinatsiya operativnaya — operational combination - Operational method based on exerting influence covertly on the enemy and his contacts with the aim of inducing him to act in circumstances which help to solve counter-intelligence tasks. There are four main types of operational combination: 1. Operational combinations designed to expose subversive enemy activity. These include measures in support of clandestine searches and extractions, in support of planting technical operations equipment etc. 2. Operational combinations involving the prevention and disruption of enemy subversive activity. These include measures designed to divert enemy efforts onto the wrong target, exposing, compromising and breaking up anti-Soviet organisations etc. 3. Operational combinations to create the right conditions for carrying out overt measures to disrupt enemy subversive activity (by catching the enemy red-handed, by the ‘chance’ discovery by people who can be questioned as witnesses of material evidence of subversive activity, by withdrawing agents from cultivation, by maintaining the cover of operational forces and facilities while making overt use of information obtained with their assistance etc.). 4. Operational combinations which help to expand existing operational opportunities for carrying out counter-intelligence tasks or to create new opportunities. These include disinformation of the enemy, recruiting agents, planting them on the enemy, creating conditions required for the effective use of technical operations equipment etc.(Mitrokhin, Vasili. KGB Lexicon: The Soviet Intelligence Officers Handbook (pp. 226-227). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.)

© 2015-2016 Andrew Aaron Weisburd