The topic of the Russian cyber military, and more precisely the Information Operations Troops, has been practically not discussed since 2017, and there are no publications about it. It is interesting, however, that the Russian Ministry of Defence announced the deployment of cyber troops in each of Russia’s military districts in mid-2020. Since then, this issue has not appeared in public. What could this mean for the West, given that there are still more questions than answers regarding Russia’s actions in this sphere?
For Russia, cyber warfare means something completely different than for the West. The first to speak publicly about the need to create a cyber command of the Russian Federation was then-Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin. It happened in 2012. The cyber command was established within the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation in 2014. Officially, its main task was to protect internal communications and command systems against external interference. It is the starting point for the formal establishment of the military cyber structures in Russia.
In 2017, at a session of the State Duma, answering a question about the need to recreate the counter-propaganda unit, Russia’s Minister of Defence, Sergey Shoygu, has publicly announced that the Information Operations Troops (Russian: Войска Информационных Операций) were created. They are much stronger and more effective than the previous units from the Soviet era. Interestingly enough, for some time, some representatives of the Russian state have been officially denying the existence of any cyber troops.
In 2017, the official number of Russian cyber soldiers was 1,000. For comparison, the Russian data showed what other powers had at their disposal:
1. USA – 9,000 of cyber soldiers,
2. China – 20,000,
3. Great Britain – 2,000,
4. South Korea – 700,
5. Russia – 1,000,
6. Germany – 1,000,
7. France – 800,
8. North Korea – 4,000,
9. Israel – 1,000.
According to this classification made by the Russians, their country made to the top five most developed countries in the world in terms of the cyber component in military structures. This ranking was supposed to be based on real capabilities and not on quantity. Given the Russian information and, especially, disinformation campaigns, this data should not be overestimated. But, rather treated as a projection of Russia’s aspirations in this regard.
We should also highlight that the issue of the Russian cyber soldiers and their quantity should be approached through different layers. One of the most important for the West is the point of view on the approach to the information activities per se, i.e. combining cyber with information aspects. For Russia, there is no distinction between the information space (infosphere) and cyberspace, as it is common in Western concepts or approaches. Another, no less important issue is the secrecy of the activities carried out and the resulting information blockade, and thus the unavailability of data, even on the number of Information Operations Forces. These two factors make it difficult to analyze Russian activities in this area. Even if the estimated amount of the strictly military component was known, it would still be unclear what percentage of them works in the cyber sector (e.g. in the area of hard cybersecurity) and what percentage works on information operations.
It is also worth noting that apart from military units, other structures are also taking part in the Russian operations against the Western states. An excellent example of this will be the military unit 54777 of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (Russian: Главное управление Генерального штаба, GRU), which is responsible, inter alia, for psychological activities. Moreover, other state entities also take an active part in the information and cyber operations, such as the civil intelligence, that is the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, and the counterintelligence, which is the Federal Security Service.
What we know from Ukrainian sources is that the information troops units are a part of information warfare centers present in the military districts of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. The network of the Southern Military District of the Russian Armed Forces, composed of the 8th Air Defence Army, with its headquarters in Novocherkassk, directly participated in the operations against Ukraine. Kyiv distinguished four separate Information Warfare center’s departments:
a) Department I – “Battlefield Information Isolation”, responsible for neutralizing telecommunications systems, life support systems, and TV and radio broadcasting signals in specific areas,
b) Department II – “Information protection of troops, disinformation, and counter-propaganda”, responsible for battle documentation (including photo and video), disinformation and counter-propaganda,
c) Department III – “Civil-military interactions, work with the population in the controlled territories and conflict resolution”, which cooperates with the authorities, the population and is responsible for humanitarian activities,
d) Department IV – “Information support”, which is responsible for linguistic support and the so-called “Special materials”.
When assessing the security situation related to the activities of the Russian Federation, the broader political and geopolitical context should not be overlooked. For instance the issue of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which, apart from Russia, includes: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. In recent years, we have been observing Russian efforts to activate the information security component of the CSTO. For example, in 2019, the Information Security Cooperation Agreement (Russian: Соглашение о сотрудничестве в области обеспечения информационной безопасносной) has entered into force. At the beginning of December 2020, there was a joint declaration by the CSTO Council on the possibility of creating an information and analytical center. Moreover, the member states are to intensify cooperation in order to jointly counteract threats and challenges in the information space, including under the Operation “PROXY” (Russian: Операция “ПРОКСИ”).
In other words, in addition to the undisclosed number of Russian information soldiers, the hypothetical actions of the Collective Security Treaty Organization member states and their comparable military structures, which may be instrumentalized by Russia, should also be taken into account. By doing this, the Kremlin would be able disclaim its involvement in certain operations, e.g. against the Western states. Although, the real Russian capabilities in the cyberspace are difficult to measure and estimate, it is clear that the Kremlin has been building and strengthening its resources in this area for years. The work in the legal and institutional dimension is also becoming more and more advanced. The Western societies are still mostly unaware of the complex nature of the information and psychological threats coming from Russia, as well as the aspect of the approach, in which Russia does not divide the infosphere and cyberspace, but treats them as a unique military domain.
Adam Lelonek, Denys Kolesnyk