HYPERSONIC missile gaps may be the hot topic in Whitehall and Washington DC but there is a bigger and graver capability gap between the West and its adversaries.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shown in higher definition than ever before that the “i” in the D.I.M.E. warfare domain acronym – diplomatic, information, military, economic – can be arguably as important, perhaps even more important, than the rest.
Before Russian tanks had rolled naively across the Ukrainian border, the West’s information war began with the speedy and devastatingly effective declassification of Western intelligence proving that Russia was about to invade its neighbour even while Russia sent its spokespeople out to issue denials and talk about military exercises. So, when the unprovoked invasion finally came – as British and American officials had first started warning European allies in November 2021 – it began with the Kremlin being caught issuing a whopping lie.
In the first few days of fighting, the defiance of President Zelensky and “that” garrison on Snake Island as well as the early successes of infantry armed with light anti-tank weapons were shared and liked right across TikTok, Telegram and Twitter. Assisted by the surprising resilience of telecoms infrastructure across the country, Ukraine’s information war successes have since sustained and supplied military resistance – as well as international sanctions against Russia – for the past two months. The world bearing witness to the initial invasion prompted economic sanctions. Further videos of exploding Russian helicopters, images of Mariupol’s bombed theatre and the deliberate shelling of civilian housing proved Russia’s cruelty and military impotence, prompting further military assistance and foreign volunteers. Revelations in more recent weeks of Russia’s widespread massacre and rape of civilians, including children, in Bucha and other territory recovered from Russian occupation is pushing the world – with the ignoble exception of Germany – slowly into completely isolating what is now, more clearly than ever, a thuggish rogue state.
Whereas previous wars were generally witnessed by CNN and BBC camera crews and broadcast hours or days later, Ukraine is arguably the first conflict to have unfolded with quite so much citizen journalist content across mobile phone screens in real time.
Whereas previous wars were generally witnessed by CNN and BBC camera crews and broadcast hours or days later, Ukraine is arguably the first conflict to have unfolded with quite so much citizen journalist content across mobile phone screens in real time. The Ukrainian government and people have led this information war campaign ably helped by armies of mostly amateur overseas military, open-source intelligence and geolocation geeks.
But there are two sides to every story and while Russia may not be winning the international information war in the West with its ‘de-Nazification’ claims - or allegations that the murder of civilians are staged or carried out by Ukrainians on their own people – it seems to be convincing a majority of its own population, and some parts of the developing world, that the war for the conquest of Ukraine is a mission of self-defence, supposedly pre-empting the plans of an encroaching US-led NATO in order to save the Motherland.
Enabled by recent, even more draconian laws to eradicate the very final stubborn remnants of a free press, Moscow’s stranglehold on Russian media allows the State’s warmongering claims to go unquestioned and unchecked at home while internationally the information war is fought with deep fake videos, doctored photographs and plausible, if shallow and usually eventually disproven, explanations of Russian misbehaviour.
What the information warfare domain in the case of Ukraine has shown in high definition is that while the West does have some excellent capability – NATO’s strategic communications centre of excellence in Latvia a highlight – it lacks the same resource or place that it occupies in the configuration of the West’s adversaries, in part because the governments of liberal democracies tend not to need so much domestic information management. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army, for instance, has a literal army of information soldiers which is formally categorised as an arm of the armed forces.
Britain’s information warfare efforts concerning Ukraine is led and co-ordinated by the so-called Government Information Cell, a spin-off from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s previous Counter-Daesh Communications Cell, a strategic communications team that had been formed to counter the Islamic State’s gonzo, yet effective, use of social media. The new Cell, a cross-departmental effort led by the FCDO that included Russian-speakers and tech-savvy social media warriors, is pushing back on Russia’s narratives, and taking the fight to Russian soil on Telegram. Yet the UK needs to do even more.
Ukraine confirms that information warfare, and particularly national and international coordination, is too important to leave to ad hoc arrangements. Whereas in the past such cross-departmental information ‘cells’ have been viewed as operational and organisational rarities, it is time to give them more permanent status and reach, accepting that conflict is returning to the permanent low-level murmur of the Cold War rather than occasional hot flashes in hot places.
Britain may not need to return to the World War II days of a fully-fledged Ministry of Information, or resurrect covert propaganda agencies such as the Political Warfare Executive, but a political choice needs to be taken to upskill our information warfare capabilities and to give it a mandate to engage fully across spectrums. That choice means decisions need to be made to fund and permanently to locate a bigger and bolder Government Information Cell. Britain will only weaponise information as fully as possible by shrinking the current capability gap as fast as possible.
Simon McGee, a former UK senior civil servant and press secretary to two British foreign secretaries, is managing partner of strategic and diplomatic communications advisory Hawkwood Strategy