Deterrence and information operations are closely connected. Deterrence is about knowing the mind of the adversary; information operations are about targeting the mind of the adversary. Information operations directly relate to deterrence in two ways. First, through ‘positive deterrence,’ or supporting deterrence vis à vis the adversary (i.e., making the adversary less likely to do something). Second, through ‘negative deterrence’ or subverting the adversary’s ability to deter you.
Whilst the information space has evolved, information operations are not new. During the Cold War, the USSR conducted extensive information operations for ‘negative deterrence’ or undermining NATO’s nuclear deterrence policies, which were largely focussed on the political left and disarmament campaigns. To be clear, Soviet support of these groups does not mean that the Soviets created or controlled anti-nuclear civil society; rather, that information operations get the most traction where the audience wants to hear the message to begin with.
Today, the situation is different, with less alignment between disaffected Western audiences and those with anti-nuclear views. Current Russian disinformation campaigns have most traction with the political right, where the audience is not interested in disarmament and anti-nuclear appeals may be counterproductive. This results in ‘negative deterrence’ information operations being less utilised and less effective against Western audiences than during the Cold War. However, today’s changing audiences and widening rifts within societies can also provide important opportunities for disinformation campaigns. Rather than targeted campaigns, Russian current campaigns have mainly sought to flood the information space, making it difficult to distinguish fact from falsehood, in order to erode the notion of credible sources of information, and of truth itself.
Russian disinformation operations have the potential to erode NATO cohesion, making it critical for the alliance to address it. NATO should counter Russian disinformation and do so in a manner that respects its own core values, i.e., by not engaging in its own disinformation campaigns. There was debate about how NATO Allies could increase their resilience with regards to disinformation. There was consensus that NATO should increase transparency around nuclear matters, and that NATO should be more forthcoming and active in debates on nuclear deterrence, as a means of countering disinformation. Several participants pointed to successes in NATO countering Russian disinformation narratives about the war in Ukraine, pointing to several examples in which Russian disinformation did not manage to achieve their expected result (e.g., Ukraine biolabs). Finally, it was argued that NATO’s messaging should focus on a rule-based order narrative, and on the UN Charter—to reach countries and audiences beyond the Euro-Atlantic area