Friday, October 16, 2015

Quotable: Mark Laity on Russia, operationalized use of information, and narrative

Thursday, October 15th 2015

“Technology transforms conflict. . . . This time the major driver for change is the information age and its associated technology: the Internet, wireless technologies, smart phones, and the many other new screens and gadgets that surround us,” wrote Mark F. Laity, Chief of Strategic Communications at SHAPE, NATO’s military headquarters in charge of Alliance military operations. 

Laity’s essay, “NATO and the Power of Narrative,” was included in the Legatum Institute’s major September, 2015, report, Information at War: From China’s Three Warfares to NATO’s Narratives.  He cited Russia’s Chief of Defense, General Valery Gerasimov:  “The information space opens wide asymmetrical possibilities for reducing the fighting potential of the enemy.” 

Laity’s essay focused on how Russia uses perception in information war, how it has “operationalized” the use of information, and the role of narrative.  Here are some bullet points:

  • For half a century NATO had focused on traditional military power, with the information component regarded as secondary.

  • However, in Afghan counter-insurgency operations the information battle became integral to the overall effort as NATO forces engaged in conflicts where the support of local populations could not be taken for granted.

  • StratCom is not just a new term for public affairs or media relations, but a recognition of the need to make communications more than an afterthought to our planning.     

  • . . . however important Afghanistan was, it was still half a world away. It was the Kremlin’s aggression in the European heartland that brought StratCom to centre-stage in supporting the protection of our fundamental values.     

  • Increasingly the West is waking up to the fact that it cannot take for granted that its perceptions and its narratives are shared, and therefore neither can its interests be assured of prevailing.     

  • The Western instinct is to try to win the day by winning the argument, so we see the public discourse as one where the facts and differing points of view are laid out for debate. However, the Kremlin is not necessarily trying to win the argument, but instrumentalising information in order to achieve a desired effect.

  • Take Russia’s initial military intervention in Crimea. Kremlin denials of their military presence on the peninsula were not aimed at making us believe they were not there, but to create doubt and confusion so that the Ukrainian and international response was slow and hesitant.     

  • This highlights another key lesson in how we handle the challenge, which is not to get obsessed with rebuttal and countering the myriad of accusations that come our way. For they are in part intended to distract us and get us lost in the detail, rather than focus on the bigger picture and contest . . . . Regardless of the strength of the evidence, the facts will still be denied because they are part of a larger information strategy—individual pieces that fit into their larger narrative jigsaw.    

  • . . . a narrative is more than just a story. Rather, a narrative contains many stories, and—more importantly—it is an explanation of events in line with an ideology, theory, or belief, and one that points the way to future actions.

  • Narratives make sense of the world, put things in their place according to our experience, and then tell us what to do.  A strategic narrative aligns the strategy and the narrative so they become mutually supportive and integrated.     

  • This use of narrative, analysis, and understanding of audiences can range from individually targeting countries whose support for Ukraine is perhaps weaker, through to using Russian state-funded media to play upon current Western mindsets. Thus the Kremlin’s international news broadcaster Russia Today (now renamed ‘RT’) mimics the visual style and ideals of Western media with its slogan “Question More”. In an era when trust in institutions has never been lower, this message resonates—though of course the relentless and calculated focus on perceived Western and Ukrainian flaws is not applied to Russian institutions.    

  • The money spent on RT, Sputnik, and the many Russian state-funded websites shows the Kremlin is in this for the long haul. Moreover, the Kremlin’s doctrine of “information confrontation” sees no line between peace and war.     

  • . . . much of the West’s military information doctrine and strategy, and associated resources, rest on a clear division between peace and war. Reconciling this with Russia’s declared strategy is a challenge.    

  • We have to recognise that having our own narrative is a strategic necessity. But while this narrative has to be resonant, emotional, and appealing to core values, we also have to be able to operationalise it: a successful strategic narrative is both inspirational and practical.    

  • NATO and the West do not generally all sing the same song, nor can they be forced to, which is itself testament to the hugely attractive freedoms of our societies and governments. Our diversity is of course our strength, and the reason other nations and citizens want to get closer to us. But it is also a challenge to combine efforts, and opponents will do anything possible to play divide and disrupt. In this context the Russian Federation, as a single country, can combine, integrate, and focus all elements of national power—economic, political, cultural, and informational—while the West’s response is harder, as these elements are disaggregated among a melange of nations, organisations, NGOs, and pressure groups.    

  • Here is the basis of a strategic narrative. Over recent years I have visited countries such as Ukraine, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. Inevitably such visits give only a snapshot, but what I feel is that they are part of our Europe—they have made their choice. The people I have met, the friends I have made, are not (as British prime minister Neville Chamberlain said of Czechoslovakia in 1938) “part of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing”. We do know them and they are part of our Europe. We should not get distracted by the details or blinded by the smokescreen: the big picture is the course we set in 1989, in tune with our values and reflecting the best of us.

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