Tag Archives: Integrity Initiative

Bad statecraft

In a 2011 article titled ‘The Rubicon Theory of War: How the Path to Conflict Reaches the Point of No Return’, Dominic Johnson and Dominic Tierney discussed a distinction between ‘deliberative’ and ‘instrumental’ mindsets, and linked this to the origins of the First World War. When in a deliberative mindset, people consider whether they ought to do something; when in an instrumental one, they think about how to do it. Some time in August 1914, the authors argued, European politicians shifted from a deliberative to an instrumental mindset – instead of thinking about whether they should be going to war, they started thinking about how to fight it. Once they did, war became inevitable.

We’ll get back to this a little later, but first we need to take a diversion. As some readers will be aware, the UK-based Institute of Statecraft and its associated project, the Integrity Initiative, have been in the news a lot recently due to leaks of documents about their campaign to combat ‘Russian propaganda’. Today another batch of leaked documents was published on the internet. Among these is a set of notes for a talk entitled ‘Genesis and Features of Russia’s Hybrid Warfare in Ukraine’. The notes seem to be a few years old and to have been written by someone called Jon Searle, who is described as ‘HDIS, Bedford Modern School’. A bit of investigation indicates that Bedford Modern School is an ‘independent day school for boys and girls aged 7 to 18’ and that Mr Searle teaches religious studies there – not an obvious qualification for expertise on Russian hybrid warfare. Given some clues in the document, I’m guessing that Mr Searle didn’t give this talk; rather it was given by a Ukrainian delegation, and these are just Searle’s notes. Anyway, they contain the following striking lines:

General Conclusions.

The Russian Federation is a constant source of aggression aimed at the territorial, economic and political stability of the Russian Near Abroad and other European countries. There is a desire to re-establish Soviet/Czarist Era borders.

Simply responding to Russian actions will be self-defeating.

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

Question: Where does Russia go next?

Military and political leaders harbour a desire to return to the ‘glory’ of the USSR: aggression is inherent in the Russian condition, ‘aggression will [only] be over when Russia is over.’

This reminds me a bit of James Clapper’s remark that Russians are ‘almost genetically driven to co-opt and penetrate’, though it’s a bit more chilling because of the phrase that ‘aggression will only be over when Russia is over’, which suggests a desire actually to destroy Russia. The fact that Mr Searle doesn’t consider it worth his while to comment critically on all this suggests to me some degree of agreement. In another document, the Institute of Statecraft’s director Chris Donnelly also seems to concur, remarking that, ‘A fundamental, universally-held Russian belief is that Russia can only be secure at the expense of their neighbours’ security. All the Russian leadership and military consider that other countries’ security is secondary to, and must be subordinated to, Russia’s.’

Russia, in short, is innately aggressive. What’s interesting is that Donnelly allies this with a very elevated opinion of Russian strategy and of the qualities of the Russian General Staff. According to Donnelly, Western states are incapable of proper strategy – they’re very bad at defining national interests and directing means to achieve them, and they’re also very bad at coordinating the efforts of all the parts of government towards a common goal. By contrast, he claims, ‘Russian thinking is not fixed but very flexible. The General Staff (GS) is able to change and evolve, learn lessons, develop new capabilities and concepts. Today, this is a very dynamic organisation.’ Russia has an ‘integrated strategic campaign’, says Donnelly, which involves more than just the military, but brings together all aspects of state power in a coherent whole. It is marked by ‘strategic coherence … concepts, training, equipment are coherent.’ This combination of strategic coherence and aggressive strategic culture make Russia a particularly dangerous enemy. Connelly concludes:

This is the strategic situation we will face for the next 25 years. Moreover, the “war” mindset is being pumped into the Russian population. It is one of the great successes of Putin’s propaganda offensive.

Donnelly adds a curious statement, that ‘Seizing and occupying territory is not the ultimate Russian objective, whereas for the Soviet Armed Forces it was. Their objective today is the destruction of our Armed Forces and war-fighting capability.’ I say this is curious because as Clausewitz pointed out, in war ‘the aim is to disarm the enemy.’ So of course the objective of the Russian military in case of war against us would be ‘the destruction of our Armed Forces’. But I don’t think that Donnelly is thinking in those terms. He takes a lot of effort to explain that the boundaries between war and peace have disappeared. So when he talks about the Russians wanting to destroy our armed forces, I think that he means right now, ‘today’ as he puts it, not in some future war.

How is that to be achieved? A clue comes in another report which came to my attention this week, published by the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, and entitled ‘Complex Strategic Coercion and Russian Military Modernization’. The Canadian Global Affairs Institute might seem far removed from the Integrity Initiative, but I read in the blurb at the end that the report’s author, Julian Lindley-French, is among other things a ‘Senior Fellow for the Institute for Statecraft’. According to Lindley-French, Moscow intends to achieve its objectives ‘via complex strategic coercion’:

 The modernization of Russia’s armed forces must thus be seen in the context of a new form of complex strategic coercion that employs systematic pressure across 5Ds: disinformation, destabilization, disruption, deception and implied destruction. Russia’s strategic goal is to conduct a continuous low-level war at the seams of democratic societies. … In the worst case, complex strategic coercion would be used to mask Russian force concentrations prior to any attack on NATO and EU states from above the Arctic Circle and Norway’s North Cape in the north, through the Baltic States and Black Sea region and into the southeastern Mediterranean.

Again, we see an interesting combination of beliefs in Russia as a) inherently aggressive, b) remarkably powerful (able to attack all the way from the North Cape to the Mediterranean!), and c) extraordinarily capable when it comes to strategic thinking and to the enactment of coherent policies which integrate all aspects of state power in pursuit of clearly defined objectives. Allied to this is a belief that the distinction between war and peace has disappeared, and that the West must act as if it is at war.

So, let us return to how I started this post and to the distinction between deliberative and instrumental thinking. When you look at the Institute of Statecraft, you see in essence the following argument: Russia is aggressive, its policy is coherent, it aims to destroy us, and it is already waging war against us. Alternatives – such as that Russian actions are largely reactive and improvised – are not considered. The conclusion is that we should stop thinking about whether we ought to be at war with Russia (we are), and think instead about how to fight it – i.e. we should start thinking instrumentally not deliberatively. And that, far more than Donnelly’s connections with British military intelligence (of which I too could be accused), is what worries me about him. For as Johnson and Tierney point out, what gets you into serious trouble is when you start thinking about how to do stuff which you really ought not to be doing at all. Fighting wars with Russia is a case in point. Donnelly and Lindley-French represent the Institute for Statecraft, but the statecraft they propose is one which we should all reject.

It lies within

In his 2008 book Flat Earth News, long before the current frenzy about ‘fake news’ and Russian ‘disinformation’, British journalist Nick Davies sought to explain why the global media contained so much ‘falsehood, distortion, and propaganda.’ According to Davies, up to about the 1980s, mass media was not predominantly concerned with money-making. In particular, what one might call ‘serious’ broadsheet newspapers were rarely profitable and often lost substantial amounts of money. They stayed in business because of the subsidies of rich proprietors who felt that owning a newspaper gave them prestige and political influence. In the 1980s Rupert Murdoch changed all that, and set about turning the mass media into a source of revenue. One way of doing this was by cutting costs, which entailed reducing payroll. Thus began a process in which the number of journalists employed by Western media organizations has plummeted. This process has accelerated in recent years, with newsroom jobs falling by 23% between 2008 and 2017 alone. At the same time, the internet has led to a vast increase in the number of media organizations. The internet has also created intense pressure to produce stories quickly. The result is fewer and fewer journalists forced to produce more and more stories faster and faster. The inevitable consequence has been a decline in quality.

Along the way, investigative journalism, which is slow and labour intensive, has fallen largely by the wayside. Instead, modern journalism has become largely a matter of cutting and pasting. Davies and his research team examined where the stories in newspapers came from. They discovered that the overwhelming majority came from two sources: a) a handful of press agencies, such as AP and Reuters; and b) press releases issued by governments and private corporations. Only a few organizations, such as the BBC, produce most of their own news reports. The majority just cut and paste from press agencies or press releases. Fact checking – which is also slow and labour intensive – has largely disappeared. In his 2006 book War Reporting for Cowards, British journalist Chris Ayres explained how the process works. Arriving in New York as the new US correspondent for the London Times, Ayres meets his predecessor. His job, she tells him, is to watch CNN and read the New York Times and then transcribe them for a British audience. Enough said!

My last post was on a very trivial matter, but I wrote it because it encapsulates the sloppy journalism which results from this process. Unfortunately, it’s endemic, and given the pressures that journalists operate under, it’s probably inevitable and not really their fault. Davies comments that these pressures mean that it’s relatively easy for governments and corporations to manipulate the media. Needing stories, journalists will snap up official press releases and regurgitate them without too much critical analysis. Others will then copy them, and before long the story is accepted everywhere. If you want to know why the English-language media overwhelmingly accepted government claims of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, this explains a lot.

What Davies doesn’t go into, but I think is also important, is the latitude the modern cut-throat media process creates for biases to influence reporting. Many issues are contested. Perhaps more than one party is issuing press releases. You don’t have time to check the competing narratives, or maybe look for some middle ground. The editor wants the story out now. So you have to choose. Whose press release do you cut and paste? The one issued by the side you believe more reliable, obviously. And how do you decide that? Perhaps years of experience have taught you the correct answer. But perhaps it’s just a matter of personal preference. Reporting on Syria, do you cut and paste the White Helmets’ latest press release, or that of the Syrian government? You don’t like the Syrian government, so you go with the former. Ideally, you’d do more research, but, as I said, there’s no time, so biases govern.

Davies also points out that at any time there is a ‘story’ which prevails. If everybody else is reporting on something, then editors feel that they have to be reporting on it too, regardless of whether there is anything to it. If you want to sell copy, you can’t be the only outlet which is ignoring the ‘story’. You can see this with what is called ‘Russiagate’. For the past two years, Russian ‘electoral interference’, ‘disinformation’ and so on have been the ‘story’. Journalists therefore leap upon anything which feeds this story, even if it doesn’t actually amount to much. By contrast, anything which suggests a different story is ignored. You can see this in the case of the British-run Integrity Initiative, a shady organization funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and dedicated to combatting ‘Russian propaganda’. As Kit Klarenburg points out in an article in Sputnik News, the Integrity Initiative set up one of its ‘clusters’ of like-minded opinion formers in Germany. This cluster was headed by a former British Member of Parliament Harold Elletson, who is believed to have once worked for the British secret intelligence service MI6. Imagine if it became known that a secret network had been set up in Germany to push pro-Russian stories in the German media, and that this network was funded by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and led by a former Russian Duma Deputy who had at one time worked for the Russian intelligence service SVR. One suspects that it would be front-page headlines. Journalists would be all over it. It now turns out that a British funded network, run by a former British spy, has been recruiting Germans to influence Germany public opinion. It seems newsworthy. But how much attention has it gathered from the ‘mainstream’ media? Practically none. It doesn’t fit the ‘story’.

Attentive readers will note that in two days I have twice referenced the Russian media organization Sputnik. This is kind of odd, as I doubt that I have ever read more than about five Sputnik stories. But the narrative above tells me why people might decide to read more. Too much reporting in Western media is sloppy, inaccurate, and biased. I’m certainly not saying that all of it, or even most of it, is. There are some excellent journalists and some first class reporting. But when it comes to Russia, there is a lot which falls short, more than enough for many intelligent readers to realize that something isn’t quite right. The result is a loss of faith in the mainstream media, which induces some to defect to alternative sources, be it Sputnik or anything else.

Those alternative sources may, of course, be worse. But it seems to me to be wrong to blame them for the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ and the like. Those who campaign against Russian disinformation often demand that governments take action against RT, Sputnik, and others, and propose setting up counter-disinformation centres dedicated to exposing Russian fake news and spreading their own version of the truth. But none of this addresses the root cause of the problem – the failings of our own traditional media. I’m not sure what the solution is – the pressures of the market and the processes unleashed by modern information technology are what they are – but the solution certainly doesn’t involve blaming others. If you don’t report on the Integrity Initiative, for instance, of course people will turn to Sputnik to read about it. And frankly, they’re right to do so – where else can find out about this stuff? So what I’d say to our information warriors is that if you don’t want people turning to Sputnik¸ you first need to get your own act together. As I’ve said before, the root of problem doesn’t lie without; it lies within.

Lack of integrity

According to an article published by RT on Friday, the hacktivist group Anonymous has unearthed ‘a massive UK-led psyop to create a “large-scale information secret service” in Europe – all under the guise of countering “Russian propaganda.”’ As RT notes, Anonymous has made public documents allegedly originated by a project known as the Integrity Initiative (the ‘psyop’ in question). Despite RT’s breathless claims, I certainly wouldn’t call the uncovered operation ‘massive.’ Nor is it quite as scandalous as RT tries to make out, nor quite as secret, given that the project has a public website. Nevertheless, I do have some concerns about it.

On its website, the Integrity Initiative describes itself as:

a network of people and organizations from across Europe dedicated to revealing and combating propaganda and disinformation. … our members mostly prefer to remain anonymous. … We are not a government body but we do work with government departments and agencies who share our aims.

In the leaked documents, the Integrity Initiative makes it clear that the ‘propaganda and disinformation’ which it has in mind is primarily Russian. Furthermore, the initiative not only works with government departments and agencies, but is largely financed by them. According to the documents revealed by Anonymous, the Integrity Initiative’s funding comes from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), NATO, the Lithuanian Ministry of Defence, the US State Department, Facebook, and the German business community. If this was a Russian project, we can have little doubt that Western commentators would denounce it as an ‘arm of the Kremlin’.

An Integrity Initiative handbook, which is among the items revealed by Anonymous, states that the project operates by forming ‘a cluster of well-informed people from the political, military, academic, journalistic and think-tank spheres, who will track and analyse examples of disinformation in their country and inform decision-makers and other interested parties about what is happening.’ This setup is unusual. Normally, academics, journalists, and think tankers operate independently from government. Here, they are collaborating. Among the British cluster members are members of Parliament, diplomats, Ministry of Defence staff, think tank personnel (from Chatham House, RUSI, Henry Jackson Society, etc), and journalists (from the BBC, The Times, and the Financial Times). The network also extends to academia, as the project is run in conjunction with the Free University of Brussels. As one of the leaked documents comments, this provides the benefit of ‘enhancing the academic respectability of the project’. As an academic, this makes me uneasy; I can’t help but feel that giving ‘academic respectability’ to secretive political projects isn’t what universities are for.

Beyond that, an application for funding from the FCO explains that the purpose of the initiative is ‘to counter Russian disinformation and malign influence. … Our programme to date has helped the UK to lead this process. Expanding this success will cement UK’s influence in N. America and in Europe post-Brexit.’ This makes it very clear that this is not a research project but a political one. Those joining the network aren’t neutral researchers, but active participants in a political campaign against Russia led by the British state and NATO. I have trouble understanding why either academics or journalists should consider this to be their job.

The project’s politics are made clear by its starting assumptions, as laid out in the funding request mentioned above. This document states:

Russia’s leaders say that Russia is at war with the West. The existence of democracy poses a threat to their dictatorial system. Undermining and ultimately destroying Western democratic institutions is Russia’s way of neutralising this ‘threat’. … … the Western system of democratic values will benefit for being protected against attack by those powers who would seek to overturn our system and all it stands for.

This statement is extreme even by current standards. For a start, I can’t recall any Russian ‘leader’ saying that ‘Russia is at war with the West’. Of course, that depends on how you define ‘leader’, but for all his frustration with the West, Putin avoids such language and continues to refer to Western states as ‘partners’. Furthermore, the idea that the Russian government’s aim is ‘destroying Western democratic institutions’ is patently absurd. I’m not aware of any Russian leader ever expressing any interest in ‘destroying Western democratic institutions’. As far as I can make out, Moscow isn’t in the slightest interested in what political systems other countries have. Likewise, the statement that Russia ‘seek[s] to overturn our system and all it stands for,’ is completely over the top – not merely unsubstantiated, but also entirely false. The Integrity Initiative’s politics amount to fearmongering.

Furthermore, as the leaked documents purport to show, the initiative engages in exactly the sort of ‘meddling’ in foreign affairs of which its members accuse Russia. In one instance, project members disliked the Spanish government’s choice for the post of director of Spain’s Department of Homeland Security. The Spanish ‘cluster’ set about lobbying against the candidate on social media, and eventually the Spanish government appointed somebody else. One can well imagine what the reaction would be if it turned out that a network of influential people who secretly belonged to a group funded by the Russian government had successfully lobbied to prevent the appointment of an official in Spain because Russia objected to him or her.

It’s a common complaint that Russian media are controlled by the state. By contrast, the Western media, and Western opinion formers, such as academics and think tank members, are considered to be independent and impartial. Yet in reality, the relationship between them is often far cozier than people understand, and sometimes far cozier than it ought to be. I’m sure that everybody involved in the Integrity Initiative believes that they are acting for the best. But if they have been secretly working with government officials in pursuit of political objectives, they shouldn’t be surprised that some people don’t trust them. There’s a reason why people turn to sources of information which are accused of peddling ‘fake news’: they don’t believe traditional sources. Projects like the Integrity Initiative help strengthen the impression of secret conspiracies and double standards. Far from solving the problem, therefore, they accentuate it,