Due to various historical-political and cultural factors, Italy is more vulnerable to operations of Russian influence than other countries of the Euro-Atlantic community. The article by Luigi Sergio Germani, director of the Gino Germani Institute of Social Sciences and Strategic Studies
Cognitive warfare – a form of warfare in which the human mind is the battlefield – is set to assume increasing importance in the interstate conflict scenarios of the 21st century. It is fought with weapons such as disinformation, propaganda and psychological operations (psyops) and makes use of the most advanced cybernetic and communication technologies.
Western democracies are particularly vulnerable to cognitive warfare campaigns promoted by adversary states. The great autocratic powers of the non-Western world – above all Russia and China – systematically resort to cognitive warfare to try to influence and destabilize liberal democratic societies through the massive diffusion of strategic narratives false or misleading. These narratives aim to create a distorted perception of reality, in public opinion and in the political decision-makers of the target countries, to favor the geopolitical interests of the aggressor state.
One of the geopolitical actors that practices cognitive warfare with greater intensity and systematicity on a global level is Russia of Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin has built a powerful propaganda and disinformation machine both internally (to control its own population) and externally (to condition and weaken other states). Putin’s regime has in fact resurrected and modernized the Soviet tradition of dezinformacija and active measures, adapting it to 21st century technologies. The Soviet term “active measures” (aktivnye meroprijatija) embraced various overt and covert activities undertaken by the KGB and the Soviet Communist Party (Pcus) to sharpen divisions and instability within states opposing the USSR: disinformation and propaganda; the hidden financing of communist and anti-system parties; the support given to revolutionary movements and insurrectionary groups in the Third World; the support offered to left-wing and ethnic-separatist terrorism in Europe; the exploitation of pacifist movements.
From 2013-2014 Moscow has increasingly intensified its disinformation and propaganda operations against Western democracies by systematically disseminating pro-Kremlin strategic narratives of different types.
- Narratives that aim to create a false image of Russian foreign policy and its goals. Like, for example, the idea that the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 would have the aim of “denazifying” the country and defending the Russian-speaking minority from an alleged genocide, or that this aggression represents a response from Moscow to an alleged strategy West aimed at encircling and disintegrating Russia.
- Narratives aimed at feeding the fear of a nuclear war in public opinion in Western countries. Since 2014, Moscow has systematically threatened to launch nuclear attacks against NATO countries (as well as against Ukraine). This Russian “nuclear propaganda” – which has become increasingly accentuated after the aggression against Ukraine on February 24, 2022 – aims to exert psychological pressure on Western political and military decision-makers, fueling their fear of a escalation nuclear power, with the aim of inducing them to limit and weaken the Western responses to Moscow’s expansionism.
- Narratives, promoted by the Kremlin especially in Europe, aimed at discrediting NATO, the United States, and the European Union. For example, NATO has always been represented by dezinformacija Russia as a threat to peace and security in Europe and in the world, as well as a tool used by Washington to control European countries and nullify their sovereignty. Another recurring pro-Kremlin narrative portrays American foreign policy as inherently aggressive, dangerous, and destabilizing to world peace. One such narrative claims that Washington, in order to gain world hegemony and prevent the transition to a multipolar world, risks provoking a nuclear war with Russia.
- Narratives aimed at provoking internal instability in Western countries, exacerbating their internal divisions and polarizing confrontation. For example, in the United States, disinformation campaigns promoted by the Kremlin have repeatedly attempted to strengthen both radical black movements and white supremacists, in order to incite them to fight. In Europe, pro-Kremlin narratives have often aimed to radicalize the debate on divisive issues, such as mass immigration and the “multicultural society”. Moscow has also attempted to exploit the Covid-19 pandemic to fuel the growth of no-vax extremism, promoting conspiracy theories on the pandemic and narratives tending to discredit vaccines produced in the West, described as ineffective and harmful to health .
- Narratives that aim to discredit and delegitimize the values and institutions of liberal democracy and the “open society”, accrediting Putin’s authoritarian model. For example, Moscow’s propaganda often portrays liberal democracy as an outdated and ineffective system of government that produces ungovernability, if not chaos and anarchy. Another type of pro-Kremlin narrative argues that the West – and Europe in particular – is a decadent, materialistic, and godless civilization dominated by unbridled individualism, nihilism, and deviant sexual behavior. While Moscow, according to this narrative, defends traditional values and the Christian religion, threatened by “post-modern” Western culture all over the world. Narratives that have often inspired far-right movements in Italy and other European countries and in the United States.
Russia has developed an ecosystem of pro-Kremlin disinformation and propaganda through which strategic narratives, such as the ones listed above, are created and disseminated globally and through multiple channels. which favor the geopolitical interests of Moscow. This ecosystem comprises several components.
- Official communications from the Russian government and statements by Russian political and institutional representatives.
- Media, clearly financed by the Kremlin, aimed at the internal public (the Russian population) or at target audiences in foreign countries. For example: Pervij Kanal, Rossija 24, TV Zvezda, RIA-Novosti, RT, Sputnik.
- Internet sites, aimed at an international audience, which present themselves as independent sources of geopolitical information and analysis but which in reality are closely connected with the Russian intelligence services (such as, for example, The Strategic Culture Foundation, New Eastern Outlook, News Front, South Front, BRICS, Info-Ros) or are financed by oligarchs close to the Kremlin (for example, Geopolitica.ru and Katehon).
- “Alternative information” media and influencers in all target countries who, knowingly, or unknowingly conditioned by Russian cognitive campaigns, systematically spread pro-Kremlin narratives. Among these influencers, often well established in the mainstream media or in the political world of their country, there may also be agents of influence recruited by Russian intelligence services.
- Disinformation and propaganda campaigns on the web conducted through bots and fake social media profiles.
- Cybernetic aggression operations to steal sensitive political data which are then disseminated – often after being manipulated – to public opinion to guide its attitudes (cyber-enabled disinformation operations).
Our country – which is perceived by the Kremlin as a weak link in the Atlantic Alliance – has been an important target of the dezinformacija and active Soviet and Russian measures aimed at undermining Italy’s Atlanticist and Europeanist orientation and its democratic values. Moreover, due to various historical-political and cultural factors, Italian society is more vulnerable to operations of influence by Moscow than other countries of the Euro-Atlantic community.
It is no coincidence that Italy is currently among the Western countries most conditioned by pro-Kremlin strategic narratives. Even after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which in Italy aroused strong condemnations of Putin’s regime, the pro-Kremlin narratives, often divulged by mainstream experts and commentators, continue to exert a non-negligible influence in our country. Furthermore, Italy still lacks a serious political debate on how the country-system should face the challenge of cognitive warfare and disinformation promoted by opposing states.
The Gino Germani Institute of Social Sciences and Strategic Studies has organized a series of three conferences on the theme “Dezinformacija and active measures: pro-Kremlin strategic narratives in Italy”, which will take place in the period January-March 2023 in Rome.
- The first conference, “Dezinformacija and active measures: Pro-Kremlin strategic narratives in Italy on the war in Ukraine”, will take place on 26 January 2023 (4-8pm) at the Casa dell’Aviatore (Viale dell’Università, 20 – Rome).
- The second conference, “Dezinformacija and Active Measures: The pro-Kremlin strategic narratives in Italy on NATO, the foreign and security policies of the West, and the risks of nuclear war”, will take place on 27 February 2023 (4-8 pm) at the Casa dell’Aviatore .
- The third conference, “Dezinformacija and active measures: pro-Kremlin strategic narratives in Italy on liberal democracy and the decadence of Western societies”, will take place on 28 March 2023 (4-8pm) at the Casa dell’Aviatore.