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Former NATO Commander: Russia Disinformation Campaigns Not Aimed at the 'Learned'

WASHINGTON — The former NATO supreme allied commander in Europe and commander of U.S. European command told a Senate panel Thursday that one of the ways in which Russian disinformation campaigns have such impact in various countries is “they’re appealing to groups of people who want to believe them in the first place.”

“It’s not going to sound very military, but part of what happens here is Russia puts out a lot of disinformation that they really don’t care whether learned people see as being false,” retired Air Force Gen. Phillip Breedlove said at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.

Of the comprehensive campaigns coming out of the Kremlin that roll together media, social media trolling, hacking and more, Breedlove said what he hasn’t “seen among the western nations who are under this attack is a strong unified voice of indignation, outrage, and to bring force to this.”

“We see parcel penny packet responses that don’t come strongly either in a policy sense or in just a public message sense,” the general added. “And I think that the west who is under attack here needs to bring this together to out the behavior and then try to erode that base of people that want to believe them.”

Breedlove advocated “a strong, unified western and European voice” to stop Russian interference with young, weaker democracies in the Balkans.

“I think that we have made huge investment in this part of the world and some of the things that we value the most in democratic institutions have a real chance,” he said. “We should not now wither from the task and, again, I think there is a lack of a strong, broad European voice because there are some nations that are backing away from it a little bit in order not to provoke Russia and others.”

On Russian involvement in Syria, Breedlove said the Kremlin “has a hierarchy of what they’re trying to do and getting after ISIL is the last of that hierarchy.”

“It’s propping up the murderous regime of Assad. It’s retaining access to naval and airbases in Syria. It is raising the statue of Russia as a great power out there in the world. It has been getting after the moderate opposition, which in some cases we support,” the general said. “And then I would say last of the five, Russia is after ISIL or Daesh.”

“…To align ourselves with Iran and Russia in support of Mr. Assad would be very tough for me to deal with. As an F-16 fighter pilot watching the way bombing has been conducted in Syria, to try to associate our type of conducting this conflict in Syria with Russia’s way of conducting this conflict in Syria would be an affront to the way that I believe we should conduct that.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) asked if the “whole notion of a grand bargain where [Russia is] going to help us kill terrorists and fight ISIS in exchange for lifting sanctions is a fantasy.”

“For starters, I think it’s borderline immoral because it views the Ukraine situation as a bargaining chip to be used as a part of a broader deal, in essence an asset that we can give away in exchange for something broader which I don’t think the Ukrainians are going to go for to begin with and I don’t think there’s support for it in Ukraine,” Rubio said. “But this talk about fighting against ISIS, that’s what Putin says he’s doing now. Obviously, why would we have to cut a deal to get him to do what he claims to already be doing?”

“The other risk of that, of course, is the way that he claims to fight terrorists is by bombing civilian populations, so we are in partnership with him fighting ISIS and he kills a bunch of children and bombs a hospital in Aleppo that’s on us too because we’re in partnership with them,” Rubio added.

Julianne Smith, senior fellow and director of the Center for New American Security’s strategy and statecraft program, concurred with Rubio’s assessment. “Eighty percent of the strikes that [Russians] are undertaking in Syria are in areas where the Islamic State isn’t even present,” she said. “So let’s not kid ourselves.”