Recent comments on Twitter and on SOFREP.com’s Facebook page have spurred some of us here at the site to wonder if we are experiencing first-hand a Russian covert action program to counter-message what the Russian government sees as articles and opinions hostile to Russian interests. Recent SOFREP articles by Brandon Webb and Eric Jones, for example, on Ukrainian “Joan of Arc” Nadiya Savchenko and another possible Georgian war on the horizon, respectively, elicited pretty fierce pushback from voices highly sympathetic to Russian interests, on two separate platforms.
This counter-messaging on Facebook was, in fact, so clumsy in some cases that various commenters were administratively banned from making further comments on the SOFREP Facebook page; they appeared to be spouting pure—and not very sophisticated—Russian propaganda. We let them get their point of view across, of course, as we believe in free speech here in America, but straight-up Russian “propa-trolling” cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged.
To understand what is (probably) going on here, one first needs to understand the working definition of covert action in intelligence operations. A good place to find a definition is in the U.S. legal code, in which Title 50 defines covert action as (paraphrased, to make it apply in general terms to any government):
An activity or activities to influence political, economic, or military conditions abroad, where it is intended that the role of the government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly, but does not include—
(1) activities the primary purpose of which is to acquire intelligence, traditional counterintelligence activities, traditional activities to improve or maintain the operational security of government programs, or administrative activities;
(2) traditional diplomatic or military activities or routine support to such activities;
(3) traditional law enforcement activities conducted by government law enforcement agencies or routine support to such activities; or
(4) activities to provide routine support to the overt activities (other than activities described in paragraph (1), (2), or (3)) of other government agencies abroad.
Simplified, covert action is a way to influence conditions abroad (including public opinion, in this case) without attribution to the government responsible for the actions. Completely hypothetical examples might include: a press campaign using foreign proxies to advance the interests of a certain government, an assassination program targeted against the leadership of a given terrorist group, or a plan to covertly finance a revolution in a country with a hostile government. Make sense?
In this case, regarding SOFREP and other western media outlets, for that matter, Russia appears to have launched a covert action program to counter-message what it sees as stories/commentaries antithetical to its interests. In other words, when SOFREP, or the BBC, or any other Western outlet publishes an article discussing the Russian invasion of Ukraine or Georgia, for example, Russia is likely paying proxies to use existing—or create new—accounts from which to attack the article with pro-Russian counter-arguments.
In the case of Ukraine, a FSB-financed proxy agent might comment on the article that Russia was not invading, but simply protecting ethnic Russians in Ukraine from fascist government forces. Or a proxy might claim that it is America, or Britain, that is the invader and occupier, thus removing its right to question Russian motives with these geopolitical moves.
This low-intensity, covert cyber warfare is a good way to counter what Russia might fear to be a potentially dangerous level of growing sympathy for Ukraine, for example, which could lead to public calls in America or Britain for military intervention or provision of arms to the Ukrainians. Russia could not abide either of these outcomes, and thus preemptively attacks the plan via covert action before it ever gains any public support. If you counter the harmful message before the message influences the public, and the public forces the government to act, you win. Nip it in the bud, in other words.
Again, one need only look at articles here on SOFREP.com to see an illustration of just how Russia might be using covert action to counter-message opinions it finds in contrast to its own interests. As soon as a SOFREP writer addresses a Russia-centric issue (such as events in Ukraine, Trans-Dniester, or Abkhazia, for example), he or she is “trolled” by voices sympathetic to Russian interests who full-throatily, if not dimwittedly, try to shift focus from overt Russian aggression and/or international misbehavior, to American misdeeds and false equivalencies.
As an example, one Tweeter—in response to a SOFREP author commenting on Twitter about the invasion of Ukraine—likened America to “police-state terrorists,” and claimed that Russia was protecting innocent civilians in Ukraine from fascist thugs. When confronted as to whether he was paid by the FSB to voice his opinion in such a way, he not-too-long afterward retreated from the conversation.
Even more vitriol was hurled at SOFREP on its Facebook page regarding the Ukrainian “Joan of Arc.” She was called a “killer” who “put things” in artillery against civilians in Donbass, and was alleged to have called for artillery fire on “unarmed journalists” as an aerial spotter for Ukrainian forces. See how this works?
This is classic covert action/influence operations. If a message harmful to a state’s interests is getting out there via a media platform, and possibly shifting public opinion towards an antagonistic position, it behooves the target state to counter the message, sometimes in a covert way. After all, it is much more effective if “regular people” are seen to be standing up for Russian actions rather than official government mouthpieces.
Russia apparently cannot afford to let stories like these get “out there,” as they might just influence the American, or European, public to call for their governments to do more to counter the Russian threat to Eastern Europe and Central Asia. It appears, therefore, that the Russians might have launched a covert action campaign to counter this threat, and that SOFREP is squarely in the crosshairs.
(Featured image courtesy of ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images)