Sun Zi in the shadow of Bucha
We hope that this report will contribute not only to reducing the effectiveness of Russian disinformation but also disinformation in general. It is worth mentioning that most of the methods used in the Russian disinformation campaign are commonly used as manipulation, so this report and its conclusions should generally raise awareness to the presence and range of disinformation in the public space.The Russians are distinguished by the great importance they attach to the field of information warfare. This is deeply rooted in their political tradition.
There are two sources of such behaviour indicated by modern political scientists, historians and journalists writing about Russia. The first, presented, for example, by Thomas Rid, the author of the book ‘Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare’, came from the Bolsheviks’ practices, applied, and perfected throughout the USSR. The theoretical basis are the well-known ideas of Vladimir Lenin who appreciated the role of cinema and modern measures of propaganda. He treated them as the key to political advantage by creating a monopoly on information. The exceptionally effective operation ‘Trust’ from the 1920s that targeted services of “imperialist” countries, including Poland, is often seen as the initiation of information warfare.
The second approach goes much further and sees the source of the Russian predilection for the use of so-called active measures, i.e., disinformation, slander, and falsification, in the Asian influence on Russian history and political culture, starting with the Mongol conquest in the 13th century. A prominent authority on this approach is the well-known Polish historian Prof. Andrzej Nowak. Through the Mongol intermediary, the Russians adopted the Asian tactical approach to war, whose most prominent theorist was the still fashionable Chinese philosopher, Sun Zi. Sun Zi lived in the sixth century BC. Since ancient times, European masters of strategy have focused on troop deployments, building the morale of their armies, and on maximising the power of military impact, or what today is often referred to as kinetic warfare. The best-known representative of this school was a fan of decisive strikes and maximum mobilisation, the Prussian war theorist and general, Carl von Clausewitz. He is still very popular in Russia as he fought on the Russian side during the war against Napoleon (Leo Tolstoy used this theme in his masterpiece ‘War and Peace’). However, Sun Zi and other Chinese masters, unlike Clausewitz, focused on psychological warfare—winning the battle before it even takes place. Demoralising the enemy, intimidating him, mixing up his ranks, conflicting his allies, undermining confidence in command, distracting from the battle, dragging the army and the society to their side.
If we take the latter approach and recognise that the lessons of the master Sun Zi had an overwhelming influence on Russian political culture, we quickly see that the Bolsheviks simply made them total, just as their mode of power was totalitarian. It encompassed every area of life, and ultimately the whole world. The next revolution came with the development of the internet, the digitalisation of communication and the growth of social media. An example is the 2016 U.S. presidential election, where both sides accused each other of benefiting from Russian support, with the election of Donald Trump essentially still being challenged to this day, showing that the Russian Federation’s active measures, or even awareness of their existence, has played a major role.
From 2021 onwards, Poland has had to deal with a new iteration of information warfare. The major part of our report starts at that moment. Russian disinformation supported the hybrid conflict, conducted by Alexander Lukashenko's regime, where living human masses, migrants deceived by Belarusian secret services, were used as weapons. Then it began accompanying a regular war on a huge scale, namely the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Clausewitz joined Sun Zi.
Moreover, the Prussian general would not have been proud of his Russian students. On the battlefield, Russia lost the first phase of the war. The plan to break the enemy with a powerful rocket and artillery strike followed by entering cities failed. Today, the further fate of the war is unknown. There are several analysts who share the view of Oleksiy Arestovych, a former advisor to President Zelensky, that the clashes will last until 2035. How do active measures perform in such a situation?
The report leaves no doubt that a campaign is taking place unprecedented in the history of the Russian Federation’s international relations, the largest operation to use active measures. It is also the largest campaign Poland has ever faced. When considering the overall scale, it is perhaps the largest modern disinformation campaign in the history of the internet.
It has used, or attempted to use, every available channel for spreading disinformation, and has had a powerful multiplier effect thanks to aware and (probably more often) unaware users, including, unfortunately, public opinion leaders, politicians, journalists, artists, directors, scientists and influencers. Numerous narrative lines have been pursued. Our report demonstrates their diversity. Let us not be deceived by their contradictory theses; after all, the intention of the Art of War was to disintegrate and create chaos. In defence of the Chinese master, it must be stressed that he would have underestimated the actions of the Russians. He was, after all, an advocate of avoiding armed combat if it was not necessary and of winning over the enemy’s population. He relied on the high morale of his army and several other elements that are in opposition to what the Russian army and its command represent. This does not change the fact that the arsenal of propaganda tools he recommended has been used by the Russians. Were they effective in this?
There are two extreme responses to this question in the media and analysis. One, that Russian propaganda and disinformation are all-pervasive, and internally conflicted, welfare-drenched and naïvely pacifist societies of the Western countries are incapable of resisting them. Or at the very least, that Russia continues to extend its propaganda reach, acting, for example, through alt-right parties, environmental movements and artistic circles. The second is that the coarse nature of Russian propaganda is too obvious, and that Putin's manipulators are nothing but a shadow of Leninist sophistication and determination.
This report does not incline towards either of these radical approaches. The Russians have undoubtedly achieved some results, and their actions cannot be seen in isolation from their activity on the battlefield. An example of tangible success is the involvement of the Polish artistic elite in attacking the officers protecting Poland’s eastern border and the approval for such behaviour expressed by some members of the political world. The Russians, as our report also shows, for a long time have been putting strong emphasis on strengthening pacifist attitudes in Germany, which may have influenced the reluctance of Chancellor Olaf Scholz's government to help Ukraine. On the other hand, the effectiveness of the Russians has been severely limited by military defeats and, above all, moral disgrace symbolised by the mass atrocities in Bucha revealed after the recapture of that town by Ukrainian forces. This can be seen in the fact that, despite an intensive propaganda campaign, the sympathy of the majority of Poles towards the fighting Ukrainians has not been countered. The Russians also have not succeeded in creating serious animosity between the Ukrainian refugees and their Polish hosts.
Ultimately, the effectiveness of the Russian disinformation operation will be assessed only by taking into account the final outcome of the war struggle.
We hope that this report will raise awareness of disinformation and will allow everybody to navigate more efficiently in the conditions of information warfare. And that it will help distinguishing truth from potential manipulation, as well as developing countermeasures. As the initiator of this publication, I’m also allowing myself to express my dream. I hope that at least some journalists, who unknowingly duplicate Russian narratives, will rethink their behaviour. Being a voicebox for Bucha murderers does not sound good and should not make them proud of their work.
Co-founder of the FakeHunter website