A Five-Point Strategy to Oppose Russian Narrative Warfare

A Five-Point Strategy to Oppose Russian Narrative Warfare  (with the limited tools we currently have available) Image from the Beyond propaganda series: Information at War: From China’s Three Warfares to NATO’s Narratives, September 2015/Legatum Institute.

Click here to download your copy of the complete paper (21 pages) signed Paul Cobaugh.
Paul-Russia-published version – Copy

Before retiring from the US Army in late 2015, I spent most of my career in a community which had as one of their mantras, albeit an unwritten one; that when presented with a problem, “don’t just complain, present solutions”. This paper is just that, a discussion of pragmatic and recommended solutions for protecting ourselves from Russian narrative/ information warfare.

By Paul Cobaugh

This paper is intentionally written in narrative form rather than the usual linear strategy format. We are after all, talking about narrative warfare. It is also written as plain-spoken as possible so that everyone from policy-makers and national security strategy professionals through well-informed citizens can follow the discussion.


Influence, done well is a complex and intricate choreography of sustained actions, words and related activities wrapped around a core narrative. Russia, in our current global security arena is aggressive by way of campaigns with just such choreography. National, regional and individual security dictates that we develop and execute a strategy to effectively deal with such aggression… and do it promptly. While there has been a great deal of talk and hand-wringing within the USG (US Government) on this topic, to date, no comprehensive and executable strategy exists.

Given that influence has become Russia’s weapon of choice, influence operations by default must become the primary strategy of resistance and containment. The USG and most of our Allies have largely ceded the influence battlefield to Russia, offering only token resistance. Of note, many other nations and non-state actors such as DAESH are also executing similar strategies against the US and our Allies with varying degrees of intensity and success. Developing an effective strategy for Russia by default would go a long way towards addressing these other threats as well. Implementing a complete strategy and the massive reworking of USG security architecture as required would be time prohibitive considering the current level of threat and even worse, risky. Pragmatic solutions focused on more effective and aggressive use of the tools we do have now would dramatically improve our defenses.

The following strategy recommendation is not revolutionary; it is sheer, common-sense pragmatism. It also is not entirely unfamiliar to long-time US influence professionals, since as a nation, the US was once quite proficient at managing influence warfare. Sadly, post-Cold War, we have allowed our prior prowess to become a rusting relic of our past. Of additional importance in reclaiming our prowess is the default requirement for training a new generation of influence practitioners adept at the art and tradecraft of influence.

Please remember, this paper only addresses the bare-boned minimum strategy, its five must-do lines of effort and based on the tools we have at hand. Along the way, some of the glaring inadequacies in US information warfare trade-craft, doctrine and architecture will be highlighted as well. If we are to cage the aggressive Russian bear, this discussion is merely step one. Evolving US influence capabilities, architecture and training with vision and expedience is step two. Both steps will be painful but necessary if we are to remain safe and competitive on the world stage.

Framing the problem

Let’s begin by framing the problem. There is a significant, ongoing and unconstrained threat emanating from Russia which I and my colleagues at Narrative Strategies characterize as “Narrative Warfare” or as most people from influence/strategy professionals down through informed citizens call it, ”information warfare”. Regardless of the name attached to this type of conflict, the threat is most simply defined as a war, yes, a war of influence with narrative at its core. Despite the current consternation over what to call this type of warfare, what is missing is not the name but the strategy to effectively engage in and protect ourselves.

So-called “fake news”, propaganda, mis/disinformation, conspiracy theories and so on are not plunked down into the US cognitive environment randomly. Each tweet, online post, RT (Russia Today) news story etc. is carefully designed to support a specialized and highly influential type of story called a narrative. These narratives and their sub-components are designed to exploit vulnerabilities and trigger predictable behavior in US and Western audiences in order to diminish our collective ability to resist Russian aggression. This narrative warfare is an integral and central part of Russia’s overall campaign of malign influence against us. To date, Russia operates with near impunity as the US and our Allies have yet to formulate and execute a comprehensive strategy with which to defend ourselves. This failure is partially due to the fact that Western nations don’t clearly understand narrative warfare and have allowed our former Cold War prowess in information warfare to fall by the wayside. Failure to understand influence warfare also means by default that until we do, strategy development cannot be effectively accomplished.

Why “narrative warfare”?

Narrative warfare is, in its simplest explanation and by default, influence. In a war of influence, the object is to use all available means to trigger predictable behavior favorable for your side. The question then becomes “what” is the object of triggering behavior? States, non-state actors and individuals are perpetually attempting to influence audiences to align with their perspective when they employ influential tactics. At a minimum, the audiences they cannot align are influenced to at least offer no opposition. The intent of this alignment is predictable influence and hence dominance over adversaries and competitors.

As an example, during the Cold War, two opposing belief systems were competing to align audiences with socialism/communism or democracy. Both sides employed a narrative extolling the virtues of their “side” punctuated by events which were then “spun” to support the narrative. The “war” itself was over which belief system was to dominantly endure. This included shaping the identities of those targeted to align with the intended belief system and to erode confidence in the adversarial system. The battles of influence within the war and selected influence weapons used were over individual portions of the overall narrative. Make no mistake, it was never about the battles, it was about the war itself and by default, which narrative would win.

Narrative is a specialized story that gives meaning to a set of facts, events or associated information expressed as truth. The single most effective reason narrative is so powerful as a tool of influence is because narrative is all about identity and meaning, rather than truth. When narrative is employed based on the art and science of narrative, it triggers predictable behavior based on the identity of the targeted audience.

“Life stories do not simply reflect personality. They are personality, or more accurately, they are important parts of personality, along with other parts, like dispositional traits, goals, and values,” writes Dan McAdams, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, along with Erika Manczak, in a chapter for the APA Handbook of Personality and Social Psychology. 

So, if narrative is the intent, the vehicles for delivering narrative based content are social and traditional media. It’s not just the media employed but the media in conjunction with delivery methods in support of the narrative that must be impacted or displaced in order to defend against a virtual, media-based narrative assault.

At a minimum, there are multiple measures which can and should be taken by DoD and the USG as a whole in order to displace adversarial dominant narratives, disrupt adversarial content and delivery of narrative-centric content. These basic measures must also be integrated into a strategy as unilateral measures will not accomplish the mission of mitigating the threat. To date, there is no such comprehensive effort. So, as with the earlier quote regarding complaining and solutions,

I submit that at a minimum, the five following efforts need to be at the core of our strategy.

1. Build resilience in US audiences that aids in recognizing and resisting influence.

2. Apply CYBER tools proportionately, both offensively and defensively.

3. Regularly disseminate effective alternate and counter-narratives.

4. Message by all available and appropriate means, messaging in support of our narrative strategy.

5. Deterrence or rather: Demonstrate by action that aggression will be firmly resisted.


Click here to download your copy of the complete paper (21 pages) signed Paul Cobaugh.
Paul-Russia-published version – Copy