As the world fully enters the 21st century, the social and political landscape of America has undergone a profound shift. Republican lawmakers have praised Russian President Vladimir Putin for exposing what can be at best described as a lack of ethics in the Democratic party, and at worst, outright corruption. The Republican president-elect has hailed Wikileaks, an organization whose nearly sole purpose is the exposure of U.S. national security secrets. The party that once called the USSR the evil empire has undergone a complete reversal in terms of how it regards Russia.
The reasons for these shifts are numerous, and cannot be attributed to one or two factors alone. But the question arises as to what role covert Russian influence has played in shaping American perspectives about the Russian government.
“Like the invisible jet streams in the skies that determine the course of a storm, these hidden currents shape our lives, yet their influence is only beginning to be identified,” wrote anthropologist E. T. Hall. “It stands to reason, therefore, that whoever has greater awareness of these ‘jet streams’ and is able to influence the form that they take will have a very powerful tool in his hands indeed.”
To what extent these invisible jet streams have been guided by a hidden hand is something that has gone largely unexamined within defense policy circles and political discourse—until now.
Bottom line up front
The issue of the DNC hacked emails in the run up to the last U.S. presidential election is quickly becoming hopelessly muddled with false premises, political grandstanding, and general confusion. In order to clarify a few points, here is the bottom line up front:
- This article is not claiming that the Donald Trump won the election because of Russian influence and espionage. Donald Trump secured 306 electoral votes while Hillary Clinton won 232. Perhaps if the election results were a close call there could be some question as to what influence tipped the scales, however, American voters helped Donald Trump secure a decisive victory.
- This article is not claiming that electronic voting booths were “hacked,” as this is a straw man false claim resulting from both government officials and the media throwing around the term “hack,” which is then misinterpreted by the public. This is not surprising and all parties concerned should be more careful about the terminology they use. The Department of Homeland Security has publicly stated, “DHS assesses that the types of systems we observed Russian actors targeting or compromising are not involved in vote tallying.”
- This article is claiming that Russia played a role in influencing U.S. elections and more via a sophisticated shaping operation utilizing what is known as reflexive control theory, described in detail below.
- This article does not dispute the authenticity of the hacked emails published by Wikileaks.
- This article is claiming that Russian influence, information, and covert control operations have an even more dire impact on American society than any influence they may have had on the election. The second- and third-order effects of reflexive control theory have created fissures in American society that will last long after Donald Trump leaves the White House.
- This article is not claiming that America and Russia are engaged in a new Cold War, but rather a different type of power struggle in which Russia would like to fracture American dominance, in part by creating fissures in American society, and pave the way to a multi-polar world that allows the Russians to consolidate power internally and abroad, namely in post-Soviet nations.
What happened? What didn’t happen?
In brief, the DNC, Hillary Clinton, and John Podesta had their emails hacked into, and many of them were published on the internet by Wikileaks. The methods used to hack into the emails and distribute them has been widely contested. The U.S. intelligence community has repeatedly claimed that Russia was behind the hacks. Julian Assange of Wikileaks has disputed this, saying that the hacks did not come from Russia but rather that documents were handed over by a disgruntled DNC staffer named Seth Rich, who had electronic access to DNC databases.
Seth Rich cannot be questioned as to what really happened because he was gunned down in the streets of Washington D.C. while walking home from a bar to his apartment. Which narrative is true? Did Rich give the emails to Wikileaks or did Russia hack the emails and give them to Wikileaks? These two narratives are not mutually exclusive. If the Russians did hack the emails, they would have used several cut-outs. Using a cut-out, the Russians could have recruited Seth by misrepresenting their identity. Human intelligence and signals intelligence do not work in a vacuum; professional intelligence services use them in conjunction with each other. Likely, Assange is telling the truth as he knows it, being used as a unwitting cut-out himself.
The conspiracy theory is that the Hillary Clinton campaign murdered Rich in order to prevent him from leaking more information. An alternative conspiracy theory could hold that the Russians assassinated him in order to close a loose thread, and prevent any chance of investigators finding Russian fingerprints on the emails. Officially, Rich’s murder was chalked up to random street violence, although nothing was stolen from his person as one might expect from a robbery. Regarding facts about the murder, few are forthcoming.
The confusion and poor attribution surrounding the hacked and/or leaked emails likely plays into a deliberate strategy of obfuscation, which allows hidden hands the lateral movement they need to cover their tracks and continue to shape the American political environment.
What is Reflexive Control Theory?
One gains an advantage in conflict if one has an accurate image of the opponent’s image of the situation and of how the opponent applies a particular “doctrine” in an attempt to solve the problem as “he” sees it; above all if one is able to influence the opponent’s perception of the situation or his goals or his doctrine and at the same time conceal from him the fact that one “is” influencing him. (Chotikul, 142)
In other words, an enemy first models their opponent, studying their decision-making process. Then, using covert means, information is introduced into that process, knowing that decision-makers will then respond in a manner that favors their enemy’s strategy without them even realizing it.
“In order to predetermine an adversary’s decision (or that of an ally), sometimes it is necessary to send him true information,” wrote Dr. Vladimir Lefebvre in a 1984 monograph. “Thus, reflexive control means conveying to a partner or an opponent specially prepared information to incline him to voluntarily make the predetermined decision.”
The development of reflexive control in the USSR
In the 1930s, ’40s, and early ’50s, Soviet intelligence operations in America centered around the clandestine collection of secret information by KGB agents inside the United States. At that time, there was little in terms of Soviet “active measures” being employed in America.
Dr. John Haynes, a historian who specializes in Soviet espionage in the United States during this time frame, told SOFREP, “Soviet intelligence officers operating the the U.S. in the 1930s and 1940s did not understand American politics and government very well, and most were smart enough to know that they only had a limited understanding, and that knowledge may have limited the temptation to undertake active measures. That would, I think, change in later decades when, in the 1960s, Soviet intelligence thought it had gained a better understanding of American politics and society.”
By the 1960s, the KGB was beginning to have an enhanced view of the nuances within America, a much-needed insight just as reflexive control theory was being developed in the USSR.
To better understand reflexive control, SOFREP interviewed the originator of the theory, mathematician Dr. Vladimir Lefebvre, who currently works as a researcher in the social sciences department of the University of California Irvine.
While working for the USSR’s Military Research Institute in the 1960s, Dr. Lefebvre was focused on creating computer models of military actions. “I studied classified sources describing tactics and strategy and found that in military art, only the concept of disinformation is used,” Lefebvre told SOFREP. “This concept seemed to me too narrow, because the important thing is not so much cheating an enemy as controlling his decision-making, and to conduct reflexive control, we have to start with constructing an enemy’s model. That was the birth of the idea of reflexive control.”
After initially rejecting reflexive control theory, the Russian military eventually began to take an interest. One of Lefebvre’s colleagues, Professor Dimitry Panov, was an important person in Soviet scientific institutions, having created several of them himself. Panov began his career in the aftermath of World War Two, in which he was responsible for capturing and transporting Nazi technology back to the USSR for further study.
Panov created the VINITI (All-Union Institute of Scientific and Technical Information), a scientific institute that, among other activities, gathered and studied open-source scientific journals collected primarily from the United States. Upon the publication of Lefebvre’s book, “The Algebra of Consciousness,” Panov reached out to a KGB officer named Lopukhin working in the classified department of VINITI and asked him to look through their archives to see if the Americans had developed anything similar to Lefebvre’s reflexive control theory. Nothing was found regarding the topic in the VINITI archives.
At that point, Panov wanted Lefebvre’s research to be classified, something that Lefebvre fought against. “I made it my mission to make the concept of reflexive control not classified,” Lefebvre said, as he believed that reflexive control could have peaceful uses and that classifying research only reduced its quality by not subjecting it to peer review. Panov nonetheless penned a classified report on reflexive control theory using excerpts from Lefebvre’s book.
“In 1968, Panov explained the importance of reflexive control to the KGB’s experts. They searched for a similar concept in the USA and found nothing. Then they sent Panov’s report to the KGB’s top executives. As a result, a laboratory for developing the reflexive control methods has been created in KGB,” Lefebvre told SOFREP. The Panov report is said to have included information about “the possibility of military use of the idea of reflexive control, in reconnaissance operations, and as a means of manipulating public opinion inside the USSR and abroad.”
Based on the Panov report, Lefebvre was then asked to give a seminar to scientists assigned to various KGB research institutes, which he did, giving many examples of how reflexive control can work in military confrontations. A few months later, Panov let Lefebvre know that he had been invited to further investigate the practical applications of reflexive control theory within the KGB, an offer he refused. “I didn’t want to be connected with the organization that killed millions and kept persecuting innocent people,” Lefebvre said of the KGB.
Although the KGB and the USSR were new to the concept of reflexive control, they had an intimate understanding of control in the general sense. Lefebvre’s theory was absorbed into a vertically integrated command and control system that knew exactly how to make use of reflexive control. Lefebvre described the USSR’s propaganda and control mechanism in the following manner:
The main ideas are apparently generated in the Communist party’s Central Committee; global goals and their importance and order of priority are also formulated and evaluated there. In addition the Central Committee considers the current international situation and coordinates soviet goals with those of friendly countries and organizations abroad. The KGB formulates these goals in strategical language and works out a general strategy for informational influence on the external world. Coordination of all these projects is apparently done by Service A of the KGB’s First Main Department. All operations of inculcation of new ideas and views into foreign audiences are planned there also. But if an operation is connected with “neutralization” of certain individuals or organizations whose activity seems harmful for the Soviet Union, it is planned and accomplished by the KGB’s Fifth Department (“Struggle against ideological diversions”). Operative feedback and control of effectiveness are done by the Second Service of the KGB’s Second Main Department; for example, this service is responsible for surveillance of Soviet citizens abroad.
Propaganda operations are accomplished through various organizations which are in constant contact with foreign countries. All Soviet citizens traveling abroad are involved in such operations. Before getting permission to go abroad they are specially instructed about what kind of topics to discuss and how, and which topics to avoid. A number of special instructors from the KGB and the Central Committee prepare Soviet citizens for travel abroad. (Lefebvre, 135)
And thus, reflexive control theory entered into what was perhaps the most fearsome and oppressive governmental and intelligentsia system in world history.
How does reflexive control theory actually work?
Reflexive control cannot be implemented on an adversary until a model has been built of the enemy’s psychological makeup. If you don’t understand how the enemy thinks and arrives at decisions, then you cannot manipulate them. This modeling has three primary factors, which include modeling the enemy’s system of logical reasoning (usually some type of deductive logic for Western leaders), modeling specific character traits and personalities, and socio-cultural modeling.
“Reflexive control consists of transmitting motives and grounds from the controlling entity to the controlled system that stimulate the desired decision. The goal of RC is to prompt the enemy to make a decision unfavorable to him. Naturally, one must have an idea about how he thinks,” (Thomas, page 246) according to Timothy Thomas.
Many of these models are openly discussed in American military manuals, texts, and social science journals. For example, the U.S. military uses a process called the Military Decision Making Process, or MDMP. Another model used by tactical leaders is the Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA) loop. By examining these systems, the American decision-making process becomes quite clear to outside observers. Further information can be gleaned through espionage, such as the recruiting of human intelligence assets and information stolen using cyber-warfare techniques.
- OODA loop
It is important to note at this point the feedback systems within these decision-making processes. Leaders make decisions, receive feedback from the external world, and then make additional decisions. An unexpected finding that Lefebvre discovered while refining reflexive control theory is that a single input of disinformation into the decision-making process is enough to achieve reflexive control. Feedback is not necessary to achieve reflexive control.
With an accurate model of the enemy’s decision-making process created, information can then be introduced into that process, which inclines the adversary toward taking an action that favors the home team’s strategy. This information need not be false; it could also be true or half-true information.
“The novelty of this quite traditional analysis is in deliberately formulating a task to influence the adversary’s decision-making process.” Lefebvre writes. “And the author does not suggest establishing a special channel of communication to supply the adversary with controlling information. (It could be by conveying false documents or an open radio exchange, prepared especially so that it is overheard by the adversary, etc.). Informational actions in a given case are a real maneuver of troops on the battlefield.”
The practical application of reflexive control
Reflexive control is extremely difficult to detect by an adversary, raising questions as to how much outside malevolent influence already exists within America’s political elite and military command structure. However, several examples of reflexive control in action can be identified.
Timothy Thomas recounts an example of reflexive control theory used in the context of a bombing in Sarajevo:
Within minutes of the bombing, CNN and other news outlets were reporting that a Serbian mortar attack had killed many innocent people in the square. Later, crater analysis of the shells that impacted in the square, along with other supporting evidence, indicated that the incident did not happen as originally reported. This evidence also threw into doubt the identities of the perpetrators of the attack. One individual close to the investigation, Russian Colonel Andrei Demurenko, Chief of Staff of Sector Sarejevo at the time, stated, “I am not saying the Serbs didn’t commit this atrocity. I am saying that it didn’t happen the way it was originally reported.” A U.S. and Canadian officer soon backed this position. Demurenko believed that the incident was an excellent example of reflexive control, in that the incident was made to look like it had happened in a certain way to confuse decision-makers. (Thomas, 238)
Another example took place in Moscow, with information conveyed through the famous military parades in the Red Square:
Another excellent example of Soviet use of reflexive control theory occurred during the Cold War when the Soviet Union attempted to alter U.S. perceptions of the nuclear balance. The aim of this reflexive control operation was to convince the West that its missile capabilities were far more formidable than they actually were. To do so, Soviet military authorities paraded fake ICBMs to deceive the West. The Soviets developed the fake missiles so as to make the warheads appear huge and to imply that the missile carried multiple warheads. In this case, the Soviets understood their opponent’s reflexes. Soviet authorities realized that foreign attachés regularly attended these shows, since this was one of the few opportunities to obtain military information legally. Moreover, since the Soviet Union did not even participate in arms control fairs, the parade held special significance for intelligence officers. After observing the parade, the Soviets knew that the attachés would then report their findings in great detail to Western intelligence organs. In addition, the Soviets knew that members of the Western military-industrial complex also studied the parades closely.
However, the deception did not end here. The Soviets also prepared other disinformation measures so that when Western intelligence services began to investigate the fake ICBMs, they would find collateral proof of their existence and would be led further astray. Ultimately, the aim was to prompt foreign scientists, who desired to copy the advanced technology, down a dead-end street, thereby wasting precious time and money. (Thomas, 253)
When asked for a more recent example of reflexive control theory in action, Dr. Lefebvre cited the aftermath of the U.S. government’s accusation of Russian influence during the recent presidential election. “Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats,” Lefebvre said. “Putin did not expel any American diplomats; instead, he invited all their children who were in Moscow to the New Year’s party for children in the Kremlin. Putin performed reflexive control over mass cognition: ‘I am for peace, Obama is for conflict.'”
How reflexive control influenced the U.S. presidential election
A recent report from the U.S. intelligence community states, “Russia, like its Soviet predecessor, has a history of conducting covert influence campaigns focused on US presidential elections that have used intelligence officers and agents and press placements to disparage candidates perceived as hostile to the Kremlin.” The Russian Federation inherited a cultural and institutional legacy from the Soviet era, one which includes reflexive control theory as put into practice by the KGB and now the FSB, GRU, and SVR.
According to the report, the CIA and FBI both have a high level of confidence that the “Russian government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him.” The NSA has a moderate level of confidence in this specific claim.
The report continues to state that, “We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.” That Putin preferred Trump is no surprise.
While the Trump campaign said they would work with Russia and even praised Putin on occasion, Hillary Clinton had a history of antagonism with the Russians. One notable example is when the U.S. government promised Putin not to remove Gaddafi during the NATO intervention in Libya, a promise that was quickly broken. Clinton soon went on television to say, “we came, we saw, he died” with a laugh in reference to Gaddafi. This is one example. There are many others.
After Putin made a policy decision to undermine Clinton during the U.S. election, he instructed the GRU to begin their campaign. Working through witting and unwitting cut-outs and patsies such as DCleaks.com, Wikileaks, and Guccifer 2.0, the GRU hacked into email accounts belonging to DNC members and leaked them into the public sphere. The information leaked was true and accurate, the best type of propaganda, but the actor behind the leaks remained obscured. The leaking of stolen documents to Americans, knowing the public would be outraged with the Democratic party, is how the Russians achieved reflexive control over a portion of America’s cognitive process.
“Moscow’s influence campaign followed a Russian messaging strategy that blends covert intelligence operations—such as cyber activity—with overt efforts by Russian government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or ‘trolls,'” the intelligence report concludes. To believe that America’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies are all simply “shilling” for the now-defunct Hillary campaign simply defies any credibility at this point. By now, the damage is done, and reflexive control (which we should recall requires no feedback loop) has taken place. The second- and third-order effects now see the American government engaged in infighting amongst themselves.
“If Russia is managing to control our national reactions, that’s a significant achievement. Russia doesn’t have to actually hack the election, because either way, regardless of what the truth is, they’re achieving their goals,” said US Psychological Operations NCO, Influence Consultant and SOFREP contributor, Salil Puri. “Essentially, the Russians got the Republicans to ignore them and got the Democrats to undermine their own credibility by advancing what appear to be conspiracy theories. To top it all off, the Russians also undermined confidence in our electoral system. The Russians don’t care if they actually hacked anything, or if some high school kids in Utah did it, or if nothing happened at all. It doesn’t matter what they did or didn’t do, what matters is how we reacted to what we thought they might have done or not done. They hijacked our cognitive processes,” Puri explained.
Despite Russian denials and anger from the Trump campaign, “CIA is sticking to their guns on this, and Trump is attacking them; that much daylight between a President and the Intelligence Community is tragic, and no matter what, that is a win for Russia.”
Why are Americans so susceptible to reflexive control?
When the American military or intelligence community talks about getting inside the enemy’s decision-making process, they are talking about taking action so quickly that the enemy is unable to react fast enough to respond effectively. This was the precept behind the F3EAD (Find, Fix, Finish, Exploit, Analyze, Disseminate) cycle that U.S. special operations utilized in Iraq against al-Qaeda. We envision our decision-making process using models such as F3EAD, OODA, and MDMP. When the Russians talk about getting inside the decision-making process, they are talking about completely controlling that process from top to bottom without the person(s) making the decision even realizing that there is a foreign presence inside their cognitive process.
While a larger cultural study of national style is beyond the scope of this article, it has been repeatedly demonstrated that Americans prefer high technology shock-and-awe strategies, while Eastern cultures originating from Russia, China, and Iran are much more adept at various forms of unconventional warfare. By comparison, America’s attempts at information operations and unconventional operations is quite infantile and underdeveloped.
This is one reason, among many, that Americans are particularly susceptible to reflexive control.
Democracies are also at greater risk than other nations. Unlike in Russia or China, America tolerates open criticism of the government.
“Soviet propaganda experts are well aware of this tendency toward self-criticism and guilt in the democratic societies, and take full advantage of it in their literature aimed at the Western audience.
“Totalitarians have understood that where democracy reigns it gives considerable weight to public opinion. That is why they who trample it underfoot in their own domain have no greater concern than to win it over in the other camp, while the democracies who respect it abandon it to enemy propaganda without reacting…. totalitarianism moves ahead less on the conviction of its members than on the confusion of its opponents. Communist parties are merely firebrands, and the main effort of the Kremlin is to pervert or weaken the fabric it sticks them into. (Chotikul, 19)
Puri added that there are also other factors that play into how vulnerable Americans are to reflexive control and other information operations. “First, naïveté: We are so naïve as a society and a culture. We’re perfect targets because we tend to believe that everyone is an honest broker and a good actor,” Puri told SOFREP. “Second: We have been groomed for the better part of a century starting with the Soviets as far back as the 1930s, and then infiltrating our security services in the 40’s, like Kim Philby designing CIA counter-intelligence with James Jesus Angleton. Think about it. One of the men responsible for designing America’s system for defending against spies and Agents of Influence was a actually a Soviet mole ensuring that that system was designed to Soviet specs. Those operations affected decisions that carry over into our decision-making process today.” Philby was a double agent working for the KGB who defected to the USSR in 1963.
“Putin was a KGB officer working Active Measures. Most of what the KGB put resources towards wasn’t just simply intelligence collection, but actively shaping and affecting the environment. When we look at Ukraine especially, I feel like they really just perfected it over the last few years,” Puri said.
What is wrong with American information operations?
While the Russians excel at reflexive control, active measures, and other forms of information operations, the United States is sorely lacking in the development of these capabilities.
In American defense and intelligence circles, “a lot of people refer to reflexive control as ‘perception management’, but to me, that misunderstanding, how we prioritize the perception aspect of it, illuminates why we are so bad at it and they are so good. They [Russians] don’t really care about perceptions, they care about reactions and they want to manage, or control, our reactions. Get your adversary to make decisions not in their interest, but yours, and you win without fighting.” Puri told SOFREP.
In the United States, the organizations charged with conducting information operations are CIA, the State Department, and the Department of Defense, specifically Psychological Operations or PSYOP. America does not have a solid understanding of reflexive control theory, much less a capability to conduct their own reflexive control operations. “There is nothing even remotely close to it. We don’t have a high level influence cell working on these issues, and we need one. Even at CIA, political warfare, psychological warfare, information operations, strategic influence, these are used primarily as tools for intelligence collection, just as the DoD uses them to support maneuver warfare,” Puri described. “The State Department has a fairly new organization tasked with this [strategic messaging] but they are essentially bureaucrats led by a Navy SEAL with, as far as we can tell, no real experience in these types of operations, and who focus on marketing and advertising as their models for influence. You don’t affect Nation States or Terrorist organizations using the same methodology you use to sell a middle aged American man a Porsche.”
“There was a recent attempt to modernize Smith Mundt, which demonstrates some level of policy making awareness of the problems. For example, getting target audience approved is a nightmare. There’s real concern here, we don’t want blowback, or our Influence Activities circulating back into the American population, but that also hobbles us. Of course there are loopholes, and once information is out, like a bullet exiting the chamber, you can’t call it back. We don’t want the U.S. government intentionally targeting Americans, but we do need to counter what Russia and China are doing,” Puri said to SOFREP. The issue is that, in a modernized world, it is impossible to contain the target audience of a U.S. information operation. Information designed and tailored for an audience in Libya could end up being viewed by someone on Fiji due to our modern global instantaneous telecommunication infrastructure—namely, the internet.
“The United States uses information warfare to support traditional military activity. We almost always support HVT [high-value target] targeting, FID [foreign internal defense], and kicking in doors – bangs and bullets. What the Russians and Chinese and even terrorists do, they use kinetic activity to support the psychological objectives, and we just don’t do that. As long as we don’t do that, we will fail in this space,” Puri said, describing American information operations. “What the Russians do is much deeper than just disinformation.”
Meanwhile, American culture itself can hamper information operations. “Some of the most influential people in the national security community have said that information is powerful, and if we just tell the the truth, the pure naked truth will persuade,” Puri said. But he has a different take on the matter, telling SOFREP, “Studies have shown that the truth is one of the least influential ways to change people’s minds.”
“At the highest levels, we just don’t take this seriously. Generally speaking, considering size and application of their PSYOP regiment, the Canadians are way behind us, but in some specific areas, like how they think about information operations, how they look at instruments of national power from the perspective of national influence, they are way ahead of us.”
Positive uses of the reflexive control process
It is also worth examining how reflexive control, or more broadly, the reflexive control process, can have positive uses.
“Reflexive control is not necessary negative. It is sending to another side communication the information leading to making a desired decision. In [the] military, for example, allowing information about an upcoming rocket attack to leak would result in a decision to evacuate civilians. In parenting, it is ‘Santa Claus is coming to town,'” Dr. Lefebvre explained to SOFREP.
Dr. Lefebvre then recounted an example in which the United States employed reflexive control theory against the USSR to achieve a desired end state that benefitted both parties.
“The reflexive control theory was used by the American government. In 1982, the first edition of my book “Algebra of Conscience” was published. I described there the difference between ethical systems dominant in the USA and the Soviet Union. Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Jack F. Matlock read this book and invited me to see him in the White House. After a two-hour conversation, Mr. Matlock asked me to prepare a report about the Soviet way of conflict resolution and international negotiations by using my theory on the two ethical systems and the theory on the reflexive control.
I did it. It was mid 1980s, the time of the Reykjavik Summit between Reagan and Gorbachev. The essence of my plan was that the Americans shouldn’t try to make Gorbachev sign a formal paper of agreement. Gorbachev wouldn’t sign such document, because a compromise would disgrace him in the public eye; in the Soviet culture, only a weak person compromises. Americans would do better to hold reflexive control inclining Gorbachev to unilateral actions toward détente. My plan was realized. As you know, this summit marked the beginning of the end of Cold War. I received a thank-you letter from Matlock.”
As long as America fails to understand reflexive control theory and does not develop a similar capability, we will continue to stumble around in the darkness created by adversaries who gain access to our cognitive process. For instance, President Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats in response to Russia’s reflexive control being used during the 2016 presidential elections. Although this is certainly a disruptive action, it does little to thwart Russian espionage.
It would have been more appropriate to launch an information operation against the Kremlin that exposed corruption in Russia’s ruling class, as well as cyber warfare directed against the Russian state. Throwing out Russian spies working under diplomatic cover demonstrates that America is still playing by the old rules and simply does not understand the current operational environment.
The Trump campaign played into reflexive control theory, taking the bait—hook, line, and sinker—by publicly insulting and diminishing the intelligence community. Creating a fracture between the incoming administration and the CIA is a dream come true for the Russian intelligence services. Meanwhile, the Democrats have also succumbed to reflexive control, creating fissures of their own in American society. The Democrats failed to fight back when White House “Yankee White” secure communications were compromised by the Russians in 2014 and when the Chinese were discovered to be behind the OPM hacks. The moment their partisan politics were on the line, they suddenly, and finally, got angry.
Perhaps the most profound shift in American politics in response to reflexive control is how the Republican party has come to embrace Russian President Vladimir Putin. This is the party that once called the Soviets the “evil empire” and would chant “better dead than red.” Today it is shocking to see how quickly and easily the party shifted gears for cheap political expediency.
“The way the parties have flip-flopped on this shows how little actual principles matter to any of them. Romney said that Russia was a threat and the left laughed at him and said he didn’t know what he was talking about. Now the DNC is freaking out about Russia,” Puri said.
Wikileaks has also undergone a change in the perceptions of the American right. Once scorned for leaking national security secrets, many on the right now adore the organization run by a suspected rapist and fugitive hiding in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. “I think it’s disgraceful, I think there should be like a death penalty or something,” Donald Trump said of Wikileaks in 2010. In 2016, as the DNC emails were published, Trump had an amazing reversal, saying, “I love Wikileaks.”
Another frightening development is to see how many U.S. military veterans support Putin on social media. These are patriotic Americans who dedicated themselves to service to their country, and today many appear to have more trust in a former KGB officer-turned-Russian autocrat than in their own democratically elected officials. “I mean, this is so bizarre; is there a Russian active measures cell that focused on influencing low hanging fruit such as conspiracy theorists with variables like Alex Jones and RT [state-run “Russia Today” news channel], and then went after a harder target, like American soldiers, maturing the approach to make it more effective, and have now graduated to successfully influencing our political parties, learning at each step what works and doesn’t?” Puri asked, mostly rhetorically. “We aren’t thinking about these things, but we should be, because our adversaries are.”
The effects of Russian reflexive control theory being put into practice, before, during, and after U.S. presidential elections will be long-lasting, having fractured American political structures, pitted agencies against each other, and resulted in ordinary Americans distrusting each other. “For some, party comes above country, but when partisanship leads to justifying a hostile act of a foreign adversary, it really defines you,” Ali Soufan, a former FBI special agent, recently posted on Twitter.
Chotikul, Diane. “The Soviet theory of reflexive control in historical and psychocultural perspective: preliminary study.”
Lefebvre, Vladimir. “Reflexive Control: The Soviet Concept of Influencing an Adversary’s Decision Making Process.”
Thomas, Timothy. “Russia’s Reflexive Control Theory and the Military.”
Background to “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections”: The Analytic Process and Cyber Incident Attribution