Strife Series on Intelligence in the digital age, Part I – The Information Doppelgänger in Warfare

By: Jessica “Zhanna” Malekos Smith

MOSCOW, RUSSIA. DECEMBER 23, 2014. Russia’s president Vladimir Putin (C) arrives at a session of the Collective Security Council of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) at Moscow’s Kremlin. Ilya Pitalev/TASS [Photo via Newscom]

“Why, what’s the meaning of it?” he thought with vexation.

“Why have I really gone out of my mind, or what?” – The Double

The Russian military’s conception of psychological operations is eerily similar to Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky’s 1866 novella, The Double. In fact, this story is an insightful teaching device for anyone who wishes to understand Reflexive Control.

Reflexive Control is a psychological warfare technique that was developed by the Soviet military to influence enemy commanders in their decision-making processes. To promote an understanding of this technique across the U.S. armed services, this article offers a creative approach. And why not? According to this Soviet military doctrine, “[c]ontrol of an opponent’s actions is a creative character.”

But first, let’s begin with the story

Dostoyevsky was a 19th-century Russian novelist who possessed a remarkable talent for probing the depths of human psychology. His novella, The Double, is about a government bureaucrat, Mr. Golyadkin, who one day encounters his sinister doppelgänger (“a ghostly double or counterpart of a living person”). Shortly after befriending his double, Mr. Golyadkin is incessantly plagued by him and has difficulty distinguishing between reality and his paranoid fantasies. In the end, he is overtaken by his madness. So how does this relate to psychological operations?

Similar to Mr. Golyadkin’s disorienting experiences, psychological operations also serve to mislead the adversary with false information, thereby impairing their cognition and objective decision-making process. Lest the reader think that a physical doppelgänger is coming for them like poor Mr. Golyadkin, this piece is about Reflexive Control in the guise of an ‘Information Doppelgänger.’

The concept is simple: Based on your adversary’s unique proclivities and implicit biases, the aim is to construct a tantalizingly misleading ‘Information Doppelgänger’, that will deceive them and hamper their efforts to discover your true strategic objectives.

Targeting Military Commanders – The Reflexive Control Method

Military commanders are prime targets of Reflexive Control. This method, as defined by Timothy Thomas is “a means of conveying to a partner or an opponent specially prepared information to incline him to voluntarily make the predetermined decision desired by the initiator of the action.” This aspect of Soviet military doctrine is based on three pillars: (1) influencing the enemy commander’s perception of the situation, (2) shaping their mission objectives and planning procedures, and (3) impairing effective decision-making processes. The idea being, if one can indirectly control the enemy military commander’s decision-making process, then the aggregate effect is control over their troops and the combat environment. To influence an opponent, however, it first requires developing a comprehensive understanding of the target’s deductive decision making processes and constructing an Information Doppelgänger to mislead the target: “In warfare control of an opponent’s actions is achieved by deluding him as to one’s own intentions, capability, state, and actions of troops and concealment of their actual position[.]”

While intelligence has traditionally been divided into two basic categories of collection and analysis, perhaps it is time to augment this conventional framework with a third category – the propagation of intentionally false information.  Intelligence, as Mark Lowenthal describes in Intelligence: From Secrets to Policy, encompasses not only military information, but also ‘political, economic, social, environmental, health, and cultural[.]’

Information Warfare

But has Russia applied Reflexive Control in recent years?

According to Maria Sngovaya of the Institute for the Study of War, Russia has used this technique in the ongoing Ukrainian conflict: “Moscow has used this technique skillfully to persuade the U.S. and its European allies to remain largely passive in the face of Russia’s efforts to disrupt and dismantle Ukraine through military and non-military means.”

As a subset of information warfare, the Russian military leverages psychological operations to misinform enemy military commanders. As the Russian Major General Art M. Ionov wrote, false information is thoughtfully constructed based on the adversary’s personal “skill and experience” the operator’s estimation of the “effectiveness of the device utilized,” and surrounding political and social factors. Such methods of psychological artifice help conceal the Russian military’s true strategic objectives. This is achieved by establishing a psychosis in the target to “shape the enemy’s initial situation estimate” and ultimately influence their objective-planning process.

Further, to achieve its strategic objective, Russia’s military will first employ information operations to paralyze the adversary and then, if necessary, apply tactical force to overwhelm and consume it. The rationale being, once information superiority is achieved, the path to attaining the strategic objective will be less perilous. For as Russian Colonel S.G. Chekinov and Lieutenant General S.A. Bogdanov explain in Military Thought  “[n]o goal will be achieved in future wars unless one belligerent gains information superiority over the other.” Another benefit to this approach is that it allows one to maintain the key element of surprise. It also reduces the risk of physical harm to the warfighter by first disorienting the adversary and then striking at it from a relatively safe distance.

Overall, false information campaigns – to include the use of an Information Doppelgänger –  are part and parcel of achieving information superiority over an adversary. And as the effects of psychological warfare become more pronounced in our digital Information Age, the concept of an Information Doppelgänger is an excellent teaching device for educating others about Reflexive Control. Thus, whether you are a civilian or member of the armed services, Dostoyevsky has much to teach us about ourselves; for as he sagely wrote, as “profound as psychology is, it’s a knife that cuts both ways.”

Jessica “Zhanna” Malekos Smith is an M.A. candidate at King’s College London, Department of War Studies. Previously, she was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School. This article was earlier published in RealClearDefense on 13 January 2017.

This Strife series focuses on intelligence in the digital age and will have contributions by Jessica Malekos Smith on Russian intelligence operations; on TOR and the challenges around anonymity by Charlie Campesinos; on Proprietary vs Open source encryption by Hemant S; on digital surveillance by Felix Manig and finally an interview with Prof David Omand of King’s College London on intelligence reforms in the UK. 

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