Russia Announces 'Information Operations' Troops With 'Counter-Propaganda' Remit

Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu attends a wreath-laying ceremony to mark the 71st anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow, Russia, May 9, 2016. Shoygu has just announced a Russian military unit dedicated to 'informational operations.' Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

Russia's armed forces have set up troops for "informational operations," the country's defense minister said, in a speech during which he declared that "propaganda must be smart, competent and effective."

Speaking to the lower house of parliament, Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu made several explosive announcements, including the confirmation of reports that Russia's military has "counter-propaganda" troops.

"In the meantime, an army for informational operations has been set up that is much more effective and stronger than what we had previously created for the purpose of what we call counter-propaganda," he told parliament, state news agency Itar-Tass reported.

The head of parliament's Defense and Security Committee, Vladimir Shamanov, explained to the Interfax news agency that the new unit would likely deal with cyber warfare, but he did not specify how it would go about doing that.

"My understanding is that this is not just the cyber warfare capabilities, which the Russian Ministry of Defense most probably has, but also information warfare capabilities," Alexander Kokcharov, Russian defense analyst at IHS Markit, said. "Shoygu's comment on the importance of "clever and efficient propaganda" are indicative of that."

"The news will probably be of concern for Western countries, especially those countries in Europe which have elections scheduled for 2017—Netherlands, France and Germany," he added.

Keir Giles, Russian military expert at Chatham House, says a unit of this type has been promised ever since the Russian armed forces faced difficulties in dominating the information landscape during the 2008 conflict with Georgia. But its role could extend to much more than just cyber warfare, he said.

"Some people may confuse this unit with the setting up of a cyber command unit, but that is a mismatch of definitions, since in Russia cyber is not a distinct area of warfighting," Giles said. "Under the broader Russian definition of informational confrontation, you are not limited just to computers and networks, but you are looking more generally at other types of information space as well—the media, or what is in people's heads."

The unit's activities of "information operations" could include activities the West calls strategic communications, psychological operations and influence activities among the population, as well as cyber warfare, he said. According to Giles, all of these areas are disciplines that "we silo out into separate activities in the West, but they exist under a single heading in Russia."

"It remains to be seen what lies within the remit of these troops, but this announcement has been a long time coming," he added.