Putin’s accusation that Ukraine tried to kill him at the Kremlin is really Narrative Warfare
What is Putin trying to do?
This is a tough subject and incredibly complex and dangerous. This isn’t so much because of the actual event but for what it’s intended to accomplish within Russia and among her allies. I will try a walk through of this opening sentence slowly, and just as much for my sake as for readers. The primary reason for this is that NW, Narrative Warfare is difficult for many to understand, especially within the US and NATO national security communities. In fact, all war and conflict is NW, despite the reluctance of national security professionals to accept this fact. Today, we’ll unravel some of this using the drone attack at the Kremlin as an example.
First, in order to make sense of what follows, I will add the most succinct possible description of narrative and hence, NW.
Narrative is not what is portrayed for us daily in media, it’s how humans have made meaning out of life experiences since we first walked upright. Over the course of every human’s life, our minds create shortcuts between our ears that we respond to automatically, without conscious thought. To be clear, most of the decisions we make daily are due to how our we’ve “learned” over a lifetime to respond to certain stimuli and combinations of stimuli. These responses are based on our NI, narrative identity. This is all a bit fuzzy for most so let me use an example:
Picture your self 5,000 years ago trotting down a jungle path with your friends. At a point near a stream, a tiger rushes out and drags way one of your friends. Your mind registers that this spot near the stream is possibly dangerous so in the future, you and your friends avoid the path or take extra security measures near the stream. Over generations, this fear and precautionary behavior is passed down to successive generations. Pretty soon the decisions to avoid this spot become tradition and people stop making a conscious decision to avoid the spot, they just do so autonomously. This is how narrative automatically can trigger specific behavior in humans, if and this is the critical point, if someone who truly understands yours and your tribe’s narrative identity.
Another easy way to describe the above is: everyone has a family member, close friend or colleague that we know how to trigger predictably under certain circumstances. Today, many call this, “pushing someone’s buttons.” This just means that if you wish to make someone laugh, cry, become angry or otherwise, you know exactly what to do or say. This is what I mean by “triggering someone’s narrative identity.”
Narrative is both science and art, when it comes to analysis and execution. We teach all of this and more at our Think/Do tank, called Narrative Strategies. The point is, if we don’t understand what our adversaries are doing, threats are exponentially more dangerous, especially in the long run. This is one of the primary reasons why the US has lost every war over the past few decades… after the primary conflict is over.
We lose insurgencies, terrorist centric campaigns and more, all because we fail to understand the NIs of all of the parties involved. SOF, Special Forces and the rest of the Special Operations Command do far better but still, there are not enough to go around. In today’s case about Russia, we are up against influence operations that we don’t have an answer for. This is due to many reasons but none of them are valid as excuses for perpetual failure.
Now that you have some important background, let’s get to the issue with Putin’s dishonest lying about drones trying to assassinate him this week.
So, today’s point, is that Putin, no stranger to bald-faced lies, mis and disinformation is in a deep hole and without hardly any popular support at home. To try and reverse popular opinion at home and among allies, he has crafted (poorly I might add) a simple ruse, common to those who have worked against Russia from the Cold War on. This is where our short lesson about narrative kicks in. He’s trying to subconsciously trigger, a “defend the motherland” response in the Russia and allied populaces.
It’s common knowledge to those who have operated against Russia or their Soviet predecessors that there is a legacy of paranoia in most of the Russian people, regarding conquerors from the West. Admittedly, the diagnosis of “paranoia” is oversimplified but I will use this term throughout to paint the picture as clearly as possible. This is a deeply embedded identity marker in most Russians and one built on by the past Soviet and now Putin regimes. It dates at least to the early 17th century. If you can instill in people, an instinctive fear, it becomes far easier to rally, or bully them to your cause. We see this daily in US politics, especially from the GOP. This, in and of itself, is a long but critical issue for another time.
So, now that we know that Putin is trying to subconsciously trigger a patriotic defense of the Russian Motherland, it’s critical that we understand what we must do to prevent this “triggering” from having the effect Putin intends. When it comes to success in NW/ Narrative Warfare, the most important first rule is to communicate with words and actions in a manner that doesn’t allow for Putin’s false narrative of a Ukrainian assassination attempt, to occupy as much of the narrative space as he needs. In order to do this, we needed to have started months ago. Allow me to explain.
What matters in NW is that we, Ukraine and allies, must talk to and with everyone involved in the conflict whether they be combatants like Ukraine and Russia or supporting elements like NATO, including allies on both sides. Better said, we campaign with a variety of narrators and supporting elements at every level from Strategic to tactical or in plain-speak, local. Being first in the narrative space allows you to define the meaning of events before an adversary can. This cannot be emphasized enough. When I say, “narrate” I’m not talking about US government PRs/ Press Releases. PRs report sterile facts with no influence potential. Narration for the purpose of influence, narration must be based on those priceless identity markers mentioned above.
As noted in the background section, we must narrate based on the specific NI/ Narrative Identity of each audience, in order to be effective. This means an army of communicators loosely following a script with variations for each specific audience. It means agility between communicators and the authority to adjust in realtime, instead of the, mother-may-I approach now used. Micro-management is the death of effective influence operations.
If we, Ukraine, NATO and other supporters can achieve a majority of the attention in the narrative space, Putin loses much of what he needs to succeed. No side gets all of the attention. All that matters is that people want to hear “your side” at least as much as they wish to hear the opposition. This is the hard part because this depends on how well you understand the NI of all your audiences and if you’re willing to do the hard work of campaigning.
Communications and actions must deliver your side in a manner that resonates specifically with each audience. This requires a great deal of work and a highly specialized type of analysis. That analysis depends on collecting and analyzing in a manner dramatically unfamilar to conventional intelligence entities. Standardized TAA, Target Audience Analysis, is not NIA/narrative identity analysis. NIA must be taught to national security communities born and bred on decades of antiquated doctrine, collection and analysis.
In the case of Russia, we must dig out decades worth of information from the Cold War that analyzed Soviet audiences and mine this for information useful in NIA. We need to get to the point where we know enough about the NI of audiences, that we know precisely what to do and say to subconsciously trigger the responses we intend. This is precisely the same as in triggering a sibling or close friend. We must know them just that well. In this case, Putin does have an advantage. This is simply because he’s Russian and has most of the same identity markers in his NI as do the Russian people. This is not a fatal flaw though if… we do our homework and learn what triggers audiences.
Putin has plenty of weaknesses that allow us to overcome his advantage of identity. He’s widely unpopular, despite controlling what Russians see and hear. The longer the war goes on, the more unpopular he becomes… if he cannot trigger a defensive response in his people by playing to their inherent paranoia of the West. This is our opportunity but it’s only one such opportunity. For example, many Ukrainians are Slavic and so are many Russians. An early complaint by the Russian people and invasion forces was; why are they going to war with other Slavs? In short, why are they killing their own people.
Other inherent advantages for the Ukrainian side is that many Ukrainians still alive, have survived both Nazi atrocities during WW II and Stalin’s Holodomor or the intentional starvation of more than 4 million Ukrainians during the 1930s. This is as ingrained in Ukrainians as paranoia of the West is in Russians. They know that surrender won’t save them from an aggressive and immoral Russia. As we have seen from the beginning, Russia is not only committing massive war crimes but is embarked on a campaign of cultural genocide against Ukraine and her people. Russia is also employing a scorched earth policy when it comes to Ukrainian civilians and the infrastructure required to run a country.
Finally, a deeply embedded identity marker for both Russians and Ukrainians is the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia that ended the Romanov Dynasty with the murder of the last Tsar and his family. Ukraine gained a brief moment of freedom post Tsar Nicholas II that the Soviets took back in short fashion. Playing the Tsar card by influencers, coupled with other of the mention vulnerabilities offer a great deal of promise.
Part of the reasons for the 1917 revolution is tied to a Russian history that saw the Russian people, serfs actually, working for landed gentry as slaves or something close to it, such as the indentured servitude we inherited in the US from our British forefathers. Outside of elite circles, the lives of ordinary Russians were in the hands of the “landed gentry.” In other words, Russia for centuries looked much like the US South until at least, the Civil rights era where workers could be treated as work animals and treated accordingly. The emancipation of the Serfs in Russia, circa 1861, did little to nothing to ease the burden on the average Russian peasant.
The other astonishing parallel between the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and the war in Ukraine is that in both cases and true to form for Russia, is that both armies went to war poorly supplied, and then, things became even worse. Up to a third of Russian peasants going to war in the first world war, had no rifle, little issued clothing and the least possible support for them once deployed. Russian soldiers would often surrender just to get a meal to eat. Deserters were shot. Now it’s 2023 and Russian logistics are nearly as bad as the ragtag Imperial Russian army of the first world war. Political support is even worse.
All of these short history lessons are actually the easily triggered identity markers that could and should be exploited today to support Ukraine. Doing so with the Russian and Ukrainian people would, in my professional opinion be powerful narrative warfare weapons, if deployed and deployed by expert influence operators with resources at their disposal. Of course, Ukraine knows all this and does exploit such, to their significant advantage. Still though, this matters most only on the battlefields of Ukraine and the streets of Moscow.
The way to look at all of these historical events and the narratives around them is to see them as chapters in a master narrative book, and utilize the right chapters at the right time with the most appropriate narrators. Like sitting around a campfire, war provides ample opportunity for storytelling. In war though, it often makes the difference between winning or losing.
The flip side of NW is that the same triggers apply to offense and defense. The intent is either to build unity and passion for offense and also to build resilience in defenders. The military often calls both something very close called, “will to fight.” This was especially effective during WW II. The master narrative was as simple as 3 words; liberty vs. fascism. There were and still are, countless supporting narratives to this narrative as we can see in the US today. Actual American patriots vs. the fascism of the Trump, MAGA movement. Same concept, new terminology.
In order to bring this long, dense piece to a close, it’s important that we look briefly at the failures of Putin’s early, justification narratives for his invasion of a neighboring, sovereign state. De-Nazification, protect Russian speaking Ukrainians from one thing or another, fake bio weapon allegations against Ukraine, that NATO was encroaching on Russian turf etc. All of these false narratives have now, mostly gone by the wayside. The reason is simple, there are no Russian identity markers in these dishonest narratives, to trigger. Putin has the right markers but in his somewhat self-anointed Tsarship, he’s forgotten how to communicate with Russians, as a Russian. He has completely squandered the primary advantage he had, in regards to NW.
As Napoleon said, “never interrupt your enemy when they are making a mistake.” In the case of his fake “assassination attempt” at the Kremlin, Putin is trying, albeit probably too late, to trigger the Western paranoia of Russians that currently don’t support his war. He’s desperate for manpower, logistics and proficiency. I don’t see him pulling this off but the key is, will Ukraine and NATO, deliver sustained, narrative-centric campaigning to deny him success in rallying the Russian people to his evil cause? This is a big, “if,” since NATO, like the US does not understand or compete with narrative-centric influence operations.
I will add one short note regarding the US and influence. It is a critical profession that the US and NATO see as an afterthought to tanks, ships, planes etc. Most in the field falsely believe that CYBER is the most important part of influence operations. To this, I say absolutely not! Influence is about human decision-making. Narrative is how humans make meaning out of all they experience. If we don’t understand the humans on ours and the adversary’s side of the battlefield, no amount of CYBER can help. Where I am very encouraged by technology advocates is in how much technology can support influence efficiency, if whoever writes the code, understands narrative strategy. The problem is between human ears, not between softwares… yet. If we get this right now, maybe one day technology can become the main effort in influence. If we continue operating on Western paradigms and mirror-imaging our adversaries, technology will become a waste of time, money and resources. So far, I have not seen the technology that can collect, analyze and produce results for NW, by itself. In fact, if the research I have seen continues down the wrong path or least effective paths, the threat to the world as we know becomes acute. One of our adversaries will eventually figure this out. The path must lead us to the answers first. Like building a house, you must have a well-designed foundation. At the moment, we’re building on a very poorly designed foundation.
Thanks for your patience with, my wrist in a cast dilemma. I’m doing my best to get back in the saddle on a regular basis.
My very best for the rest of your Thursday and upcoming weekend. I will try to add some of the new, “TaTitos.” In between.