Russia’s special operations specialists have inherited decades of practical psych-ops experience from the former Soviet services. During the attack on Ukraine and Moscow’s broader neoimperial aggression, they have targeted a number of societies and political elites in the West. The case of neighboring Central-Eastern European (CEE) countries is particularly instructive in how this mode of warfare is conducted.
For the past year, Russian services, information outlets and state officials have been in overdrive to spread confusion, fear, insecurity and paranoia among CEE audiences. The goal is to deflate public morale, foster defeatism and reduce trust in national governments and international institutions.
Psych-ops can create uncertainty and ambiguity, thereby preventing any immediate response to Russia’s assertiveness. They can also inculcate cynicism among the audience, convincing them that no government is truthful and that the Russian and Western positions deserve equal treatment.
Psych-ops also spread and manipulate resentment and grievances inside Russian society against alleged Western interference and purported Russophobia. But the ultimate goal is to influence political decisions in other countries and to undermine the will to resist Moscow’s policies.
Pertinent examples of Russia’s operations have been evident in two CEE states that are members of NATO. Bulgaria’s Defense Minister Nikolay Nenchev recently stated that a Russian propaganda center operates in Bulgaria attempting to create tension in the local and international communities over alleged war preparations by NATO leaders. Moscow’s purpose is to spread confusion and panic among the Bulgarian public and to imply that NATO has been planning to engage in a military offensive against Russia.
Nenchev issued his charges after the Bulgarian-language website of the Voice of Russia ran a report citing the TV station of the ultranationalist and pro-Kremlin Ataka party, according to which scores of Bulgarian men received call-up orders for the military. The government flatly denied the rumor. According to Ataka and the Voice of Russia, ''The threats to Bulgaria from its involvement in a dangerous adventure as a satellite of NATO in Eastern Europe, not too far from the borders of Ukraine and Russia, are very realistic.''
In reality, NATO plans to position a command and control center in Bulgaria and establish similar facilities in five other CEE countries—Poland, Romania, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. These centers will focus on planning and coordinating joint training and exercises, some of which will be held on Bulgarian territory, in line with commitments under the Readiness Action Plan adopted at NATO’s Wales Summit in September 2014. They will also coordinate the dispatch of military reinforcements from other NATO states in case of an emergency.
In the midst of a parallel Russian psych-ops offensive in Lithuania, the country’s army chief, General Jonas Vytautas Zukas, had to publicly deny reports implanted by Russian media and agents of influence that Lithuanian conscripts in the planned Lithuanian-Polish-Ukrainian brigade will be sent to fight in Ukraine. The psych-ops goal in this case is to discredit the restoration of military conscription in Lithuania and the creation of any international military units involving Kyiv. Acts of self-defense are thereby distorted to look like preparations for an offensive war with Russia.
Where psych-ops are combined with other offensives, whether in cyberspace or on-ground subversion, the heady brew can deflate public morale and cast doubts on whether the country possesses adequate defenses or will be protected by NATO. As the Kremlin’s ultimate goal is to foster national passivity and neutrality in the entire CEE region, one can expect a psych-ops onslaught as the Alliance develops its “forward presence.”