Russia’s soft warfare

Hackers, fake news, freaks, trolls and pranksters are Russia’s new soft power weapon arsenal.

Russia's new information warfare is more powerful and effective than Soviet propaganda, writes Dobrokhotov [Patrick Lux/Getty Images]

Russia has been making the headlines of international media for a while now. But none of that had to do with a strong economy or a powerful army because Russia simply doesn’t have either. Instead, it has learned to interfere through other means in the politics, media, elections and national security of other countries.

The United States still cannot get over the Russian interference in last year’s presidential elections, while European countries are terrified at the prospect of something like that happening to them this year.

The new methods of Russian influence are well-known, but it seems that Western countries have turned out to be unprepared for them.


In the coming months, a whole bunch of European countries will be having elections: in March, the Netherlands; in April, France; in September, Germany and Norway; and perhaps early elections in Italy. And all of these countries without exception have already complained about attacks by Russian hackers.

In France, they attacked Emmanuel Macron, the main opponent to far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who insists on the revoking of sanctions on Russia.

In Germany, they attacked Angela Merkel, a big critic of the Kremlin. In Italy, reportedly, the foreign ministry and armed forces suffered attacks.

In Norway, Russian connection was discovered in a phishing attack on a police station and a host of government officials. In the Netherlands, after many attacks by Russian hackers on government servers, it was decided that votes will be counted by hand.

And these are not all the incidents by far. International media has focused on the scandal with Russian hackers in the US, but actually there isn’t a western country that has not faced cyberattacks from Russia.

The United Kingdom recently complained about the increase in Russian hackers’ activity, while cyberattacks were also reported by Turkey, the Baltic countries, Ukraine, Georgia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Finland, Sweden and many others.

In Russia, there are two major Kremlin-sponsored hacker groups: Fancy Bear (APT 28) and Cozy Bear (APT 29). They use similar methods and both have a big budget, state of the art equipment and a wide network of employees working every day.

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They know well which politicians, officials and journalists they should attack and who to send the obtained compromising information to. It is known that one of these groups Fancy Bear also attacked Russian opposition activists inside the country and enemies of the Kremlin abroad, including the Democratic Party in the US.

This has been confirmed by at least four independent cybersecurity organisations which analysed the phishing emails used in the attacks. Given the objects of these attacks, it’s not difficult to guess who stands behind Fancy Bear.

Even Al Jazeera’s website suffered an attack by Fancy Bear. Clearly, the Kremlin has not limited its cyber-warfare to the West.

Fake news

Cyberattacks are not the only tactic the Kremlin has used trying to boost its political influence abroad. Another fashionable tool these days is fake news.

Spreading disinformation was a favourite KGB tool in Soviet times, but now in the Facebook era, old methods are being used on a new level.

All around the world there are enough people who are earnestly ready to share news in social networks. According to a BuzzFeed investigation, if one is to judge by the number of shares, the 20 most popular fake news about the elections in the US turned out to be more popular than the 20 most popular real news.

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A separate role is played by the Russian diaspora, a significant part of which watches mainly Russian TV channels. This is quite a big problem for countries where Russian speakers are a significant part of the population – countries of the former Soviet Union.

But in recent times, it has also become a problem for Western Europe, where the diaspora, too, has become an active object of Russian state influence.

For example, some of the demonstrations of the marginal nationalist movement Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (Pegida) in Germany were organised by representatives of Russian diaspora organisations, which are funded by the Kremlin; speeches at some of these rallies would be given in Russian.

Fake news broadcast by Russia One channel about a Russian girl who was raped by migrants was used as an excuse for one of these rallies. The news of course was widely shared within the Russian diaspora.


Pegida is only one example of the tens of marginal political parties and movements which the Kremlin supports in different countries and more often than not these are ultra-right, anti-globalisation, and separatist movements.

Every year, the Kremlin organises a major get-together for these movements in Moscow and sometimes in other countries. Within the network of Russian influence, there are also members of parliament, even if not that prominent, of some major parties.

Some of them will attend big Kremlin-sponsored forums in exchange for a serious honorarium and when needed will make the necessary statements about, for example, the Crimea referendum being transparent and free.

The world economy survived Trump and Brexit but if Europe is hit by another wave of protectionism and nationalism as happened after World War I, the consequences of that would be so grave that it would put the survival of the Russian state under question.


At first glance, it seems that the support of local freaks is simply a waste of money. But it can be seen as a venture capital investment. Most of the supported projects will fail, but there is a possibility that some of them might take off.

Sometimes marginal politicians such as Marine Le Pen, who received a loan from a Russian bank turn into political heavyweights.

Donald Trump was seen for a long time as marginal and an outsider and, if the rumours about his ties to the Kremlin are confirmed, then certainly he would be the most successful of all Russian venture capital investments.


Another player in Russia’s cyberwars are the trolls who try to simulate societal reactions and undertake the vicious persecution of targeted individuals on social networks and in the comment sections of foreign media outlets.

А sizeable troll office is located on Savushkina Street in St Petersburg, where employees work a full work day and receive $500.

There are also other troll factories, including one in Moscow which specialises in spamming outlets such as Fox News, CNN, BBC, the Huffington Post and others.

Usually a troll’s account is easy to recognise: it is either empty of content, or is filled with reposts. Even if trolls don’t succeed in convincing their victims that they are real, they still manage to interfere with attempts to have a normal discussion with an audience. Because of trolling, many media organisations have been forced to drop comment sections from their websites.


One of the latest inventions of Russian propaganda are the Kremlin’s pranksters. A prime time show on Russian One channel had pranksters call high-level politicians – such as former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and US Senator John McCain – using a variety of pretexts to try to provoke them into saying something not politically correct.

The task – if not to discredit – is at least to poke fun of the politicians who don’t have good relations with the Kremlin. In a time when, on Russian state TV, one cannot even sneeze without the permission of the censor, it is not difficult to guess the motivation behind having such a show.

Soft power v propaganda

Russia’s new information warfare is more powerful and effective than Soviet propaganda. But no matter how inventive Moscow is in using new technologies for information warfare, it still has the same vulnerability which led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union – propaganda is useless if it is not backed with soft power, or the power of being a model nation.

Hackers and trolls might help you discredit the opponent, but they cannot create a positive image of your country, when it is a poor, unfree state with rampant corruption, backward education and a weak healthcare system.

Yes, Russia is a serious threat to the West in the sense that it can encourage the growth of the ultra-conservative and populist forces, pushing for disintegration and nationalism – all this might affect negatively economic growth and security. But the problem is that Moscow does not really get anything out of it.

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The children of US officials don’t go to study in Moscow University; Swiss businessmen are not depositing their money in Russian banks; Germans are not buying Russian cars.

Paradoxically, Russia will be the first to suffer from the weakening of the West. In a time of crisis, investors will first withdraw their money from unstable developing markets, including Russia.

The world economy survived Trump and Brexit but if Europe is hit by another wave of protectionism and nationalism as happened after World War I, the consequences of that would be so grave that it would put the survival of the Russian state under question.

Roman Dobrokhotov is a Moscow-based journalist and civil activist. He is the editor-in-chief of The Insider.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.