By Marcus Kolga, March 28, 2023
Russian government information and influence operations are a persistent and growing threat to security and stability throughout the democratic world. Over the past 20 years, Russia has returned to its traditional Soviet era deployment of cognitive warfare against its allies and adversaries as a tool to advance its broader geopolitical interests, to undermine its neighbours and adversaries, and to consolidate domestic political control and power.
The Russian government’s efforts to manipulate public opinion and interfere in elections in the western world has been the focus of considerable media coverage and academic analysis over the past seven to eight years. The long-term ramifications of the disruption caused by Russian intelligence agencies during the 2016 US presidential elections underscore the serious, destabilizing impact that Russian information and influence operations can have in democratic societies.
Russia began fully reengaging in offensive information and influence operations in the mid-2000s, when the Kremlin tested its initial hybrid warfare tools and tactics against Estonia during the 2007 Bronze Soldier Riots. The pretext for the crisis was the Estonian government’s decision to relocate a WWII Soviet monument, which glorified Russia’s Soviet era colonial occupation of Estonia, to a war cemetery.
The attack on Estonia involved a mix of information operations that included manipulation and falsification of history, influence operations to provoke anger among ethnic Russian speakers and organized protests that would lead to violent rioting. Perhaps most significantly, the incident marked the first ever cyber attack by a foreign government against another nation, when Russian GRU and SVR hackers unleashed a Denial of Service Attack (DDoS) against Estonia’s core online infrastructure, taking down government, media and financial websites. Estonia rebounded from the attack and has since become a global leader in cyber and cognitive defence.
The Russian government has since refined and expanded its hybrid warfare capabilities. Today, few democratic nations have escaped being targeted by Russian information operations or criminal cyber attacks, including Japan. The low cost and relative impunity with which they can be carried out ensure that Russia will continue the development and expansion of its hybrid warfare capabilities including information and influence operation.
Japan’s physical proximity to Russia and its relationships and alliances inside the democratic world, including the G7, make it a significant target of Russian information and influence operations. However, Japan should learn from its allies – in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland and Taiwan – to actively and preemptively prepare to defend against Russian information warfare.
While China represents the greatest threat to Japan when it comes to information and influence operations, the threat of Russian information and influence operations is clearly growing.
Since the start of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Russian information operations have intensified throughout the world – and Japan has also become a target.
In July 2022, the former head of Russian intelligence and head of the Russian Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, suggested that Japan was preparing for military action in the Kuril islands. A month later, Patrushev falsely accused Japan of taking “a leading position among the world movement of Russophobes.”
A story posted to a Russian military blog site in February 2023 falsely claims the United States is seeking to turn Japan into an Asian version of Ukraine so that it can attack China. This wildly false claim was also reported in Chinese state media, demonstrating a growing alliance and possible coordination between Russian and Chinese government disinformation narratives.
The Russian government is clearly preparing to intensify information operations against Japan. Among the most significant indications of this intent is the Kremlin’s creation of Japanese language versions of its largest national news platforms, Sputnik News. The Russian government uses Sputnik News, along with RT, as its primary state propaganda delivery platforms for the weaponization of information, allowing it to inject and amplify disinformation and conspiracies into the information environments throughout the democratic world.
In Canada, Sputnik has provided a global platform for domestic separatist movements and anti-democratic extremists and is used to advance narratives that are intended to erode support for Ukraine in the democratic world.
Sputnik’s Japanese site is no different. A recent Sputnik Japan headline falsely claims that, “The United States and NATO are trying to bring Japan and South Korea into the Ukraine crisis,” and that this is intended to “destabilize the Asia-Pacific region.”
These headlines and stories are further promoted and amplified by the Kremlin’s constellation of proxy platforms, which the US State Department has identified as the Pillars of Russian Disinformation. Among those platforms is “Global Research,” which in January 2023 published an article that aligns with emerging Russian narratives, falsely claiming that Japan’s “military expansion fits in with Washington’s aggression aimed at China, the DPRK and Russia.”
While Russian state media RT doesn’t yet have a Japanese service, its English language platform has taken a close interest in Japan and Asia. On January 17, an article appeared on RT’s English language portal headline that reads, “Japan rearms for war” and it “could destabilize its entire region in the process.”
Another RT story from December manipulates history to target Germany and Japan in order to cast doubts about their motivations. The headline, “‘Pro-Nazi’ Germany and Japan have no place on UNSC – Russian ambassador,” is a clear example of channeling decontextualized WWII history to vilify Japan. Accusing critics of the Russian government and policy of neo-Nazism is a tactic that has been employed by Moscow since the Cold War.
Other Russian state narratives posted to RT as news stories portray Japan as a puppet of the United States. An opinion piece written by Fydor Lukyanov, the editor of a Russian foreign policy disinformation journal Russia in Global Affairs, falsely claims that “NATO appears to be using Japan as a Trojan horse to gain a foothold in the region and maintain its relevance.”
When left unchecked, there is evidence that these Russian information operations do significantly contribute to polarization within our societies, having been successfully exploited by far-left and far-right illiberal extremists to manipulate domestic public opinion.
In the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin’s anti-Ukrainian disinformation narratives that seek to erode public support for Ukraine have been echoed by platforms and groups on the illiberal extremes of the political spectrum. Narratives that blame global inflation on western support for Ukraine or accuse NATO and its allies of seeking a nuclear confrontation with Russia are all aimed to breaking down democratic resistance to Russia’s imperial ambitions. Japan is now clearly falling into Moscow’s crosshairs, along with its democratic allies.
To collectively defend ourselves against this growing menace of authoritarian information and influence operations, governments like Canada and Japan should learn from those frontline nations that have successfully defended against and challenged authoritarian hybrid warfare, like Taiwan, Estonia, Finland, Lithuania and other Central and Eastern European nations. The entire democratic world would benefit from much greater international coordination between all democratic nations, and not just the G7.
The threat of authoritarian regimes targeting Canada and Japan with information and influence operations will only intensify in the coming years. The long-term resilience of our democracies and societies to withstand these attacks is dependent on our commitment to preparing our entire society to defend against them today.
This Inside Policy article was supported by the Japan Foundation.
Marcus Kolga is a Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.