Beyond the devastating and widely discussed humanitarian and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the current global crisis also exposes the dangers inherent in governmental shortcomings to provide for their citizens’ welfare adequately. In other words: the downside is almost universally a failure of state capacity. In its broadest sense, state capacity refers to the ability of a government to control its territory and extract the means for survival from the population. However, we emphasize the third aspect of state capacity that is more relevant to the subject at hand: the ability to deliver services that provide well-being and how the populace perceives that delivery. Failure in this regard, which unfortunately is an option, will likely manifest ultimately in a growing lack of confidence among citizens in their governments, which in turn portends an erosion of legitimacy and, if left unchecked, may lead to political and geopolitical instability.
Our Minerva research focuses on this state capacity-legitimacy-stability linkage and the geopolitical dynamic between/among states. Our particular interest is in the post-Soviet space and how inequalities in the provision of social welfare services (such as healthcare) lead to vulnerabilities that can be exploited by aggressor states (notably Russia in our case) through malign influence campaigns (Buckley, Clem, and Herron 2019). The concept, however, is generalizable to other actors (notably China) and other regions.
The White Zone Fight
It is a mistake, in our opinion, to think of national security without considering human security, the latter a product of a state’s capacity to provide its population with the essential elements of well-being such as healthcare, education, infrastructure, and freedom-from-want. The recent focus in the national security community discourse on “gray zone” conflict, including non-kinetic means (Barno and Bensahel 2015) largely ignores state capacity/human security per se. If one imagines a continuum from peace at the left and multi-domain warfare at the right with the gray zone somewhere in the middle, we envision a “white zone” at the “far left of boom” (Buckley, Clem, and Herron 2020), and see that as an arena within which strategic competition also occurs.
Within this white zone, the crucial factor in assessing threats to state resilience is the degree of socioeconomic inequality. Research extant establishes these inequalities as precursors of intra-state conflict (Østby 2008; Taydas and Peksen 2012; Tikuisis, Carment, and Samy 2013). We suggest here that if socioeconomic inequalities persist, then the white zone is particularly vulnerable to disinformation campaigns—“the purposeful dissemination of information intended to mislead or harm” (Nemr and Gangware 2019, emphasis original)—directed against elements of state capacity by external state actors as well, either directly or via proxies. The widespread use of disinformation in the internet/digital age is by now well established (Singer and Brooking 2019), as is the fact that false news spreads more rapidly through the infosphere than true information (Vosoughi, Roy, and Aral 2018). Further, we concur with research in the field of conflict studies that points to the salience of regional versus national-level studies because the latter disguise important internal spatial inequalities (especially in border regions) and have, partially as a result, been ineffective in predicting the outbreak of violence (Raleigh, Linke, Hegre, and Karlsen 2010; Ward, Greenhill, and Bakke 2010; Paasi 2009).
As regards inequalities in state capacity delivery, current scholarship on third-party disinformation suggests that public health is a particularly vulnerable white zone target, with widespread activities across platforms and national contexts directed against that sector well before the COVID-19 virus pandemic. Highlighting the type of issues, regional characteristics, and individual risk factors associated with the acceptance of disinformation, Wang and colleagues (2019) stress the urgency of countering public health disinformation. That imperative derives especially because people will die as a consequence of being mis/disinformed, but such malign untruths also contribute to a “failed state” narrative and, ultimately, instability (Grävingholt, Ziaja, and Kreibaum, 2012).
Russia entered the white zone disinformation fight early and now dominates it. Social media is the primary vector through which Russia directs offensive disinformation against neighboring states in the white zone. But broadcast media has also played a major role, particularly in areas or among social groups with low Internet penetration that typically receive information from television. Russian actions intended to influence “values and identities” to undermine the confidence of citizens in neighboring countries’ institutions have been investigated (Atran, Davis, and Davulcu 2020). Indeed, Driscoll and Steinert-Threlkeld (2020) suggest that, with appropriate cautions, social media analysis can be used to judge the efficacy of Russian information operations in the Ukraine conflict, even, possibly, to some extent guiding the scope of military intervention.
Russia, frequently through its RT (formerly Russia Today) television network, has been very active in propagating disinformation regarding viral epidemics, often depicting the US as the source of contagions, including COVID-19 (Broad 2020; RT 2020). But Russian malign influence operations directed specifically against elements of state capacity have also occurred but are not as well documented (Hurska 2020) nor necessarily seen in a national security context. A case in point is the Twitter bot and troll messaging activity from Russian sources relating “unverified and erroneous information about vaccines” (Broniatowski et al 2018). This specific campaign had a major impact, among other causes, on the prevalence of measles in Ukraine, which became a serious public health crisis in that country (Wadman 2019). That type of crisis, overtly seen as “merely” a contentious debate on the merits of vaccination, readily morphs into a deepening lack of trust in the country’s public health system that, in Ukraine, is abysmally low to begin with (Gallup Wellcome Global Monitor 2019).
Likewise, as a BBC investigation revealed, Russia launched a sophisticated state-sponsored broadcast media campaign in Georgia to malign the US-funded Richard Lugar Center for Public Health Research (BBC 2018; Lentzos 2018). Through a public opinion survey, the authors and a colleague, in a recent working paper, find that a significant proportion of respondents in Georgia report the belief that the Lugar Center is used for US-directed biological weapons research or are undecided on the subject (Buckley, Clem, Herron, and Tepnadze 2020). The irony of this particular Russian government disinformation effort, vectored through the Russian media in Georgia, is notable inasmuch as the Lugar Center is that country’s main testing facility for COVID-19, yet it is portrayed as a source of the virus (Cockerell 2020).
Recognizing and Countering White Zone Threats
Not surprisingly, as discussed previously in this forum, Russian non-kinetic disinformation warfare is a persistent threat and therefore requires persistent engagement if its effects are to be mitigated (Atran, Davis, and Davulcu 2020). Additionally, understanding that all societies have inherent weaknesses—although clearly some more than others-- it follows that states must in the first instance be prepared to recognize malign influence attacks against elements of state capacity (Buckley, Clem, and Herron 2020). The European Union has assumed a leading role in identifying and reporting Russian disinformation operations through its European External Action Service (EEAS). That agency recently reported the breadth of disinformation content directed at European audiences from Russian “state and state-backed actors [seeking] to exploit the [COVID-19] public health crisis to advance geopolitical interests, often by challenging the credibility of the European Union and its partners” (EEAS 2020). Disruptive narratives included the “man made” virus conspiracy theory and providing false “advice” as to how the disease might be avoided. According to this same report, Russian disinformation messaging to Ukraine included the portrayal of that country “as a failed state that was abandoned by its European allies”.
Recognizing that white zone disinformation attacks proliferate, the question of how to counter them remains largely unanswered, although fact-checking and counter-narratives must be undertaken (Nemr and Gangware 2018) and, certainly, deeper “social science research on psychological vulnerabilities and cultural preferences” (Atran, Davis, and Davulcu 2020) that might predispose individuals to be accepting of false narratives are in order. That said, if socioeconomic inequalities are the baseline vulnerability in the white zone, then it follows that in order to bolster security states must place a higher priority on addressing those weaknesses through more robust capacity and enhanced levels of human security. That the state is the dominant, if not exclusive, actor in providing capacity is not a novel idea; the seminal work dates back to 1985 (Evans, Rueschemeyer, and Skocpol) and has been enhanced since (Geddes 1994, Corbridge et al 2005). We understand that the political will and economic wherewithal to execute policies to ameliorate these problems is quite another matter, not to mention the quality of governance and issues with corruption in effecting real change. But absent an understanding that state capacity is the bedrock on which national security is constructed, the ground will remain fertile for disinformation from Russia, China, or other malefactors.
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Cynthia Buckley is Professor of Sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research focuses on population dynamics in Russia, Ukraine, and Georgia.
Ralph Clem is Emeritus Professor of Geography and Senior Fellow at the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs at Florida International University. He specializes in the geopolitics of post-Soviet states.
Erik Herron is the Eberly Family Professor of Political Science at West Virginia University. His research deals mainly with electoral systems and election administration in post-Soviet countries, in particular Ukraine.
Associated Minerva Project
The Central Eurasian State Capacity Initiative: Assessing Threats to Geopolitical Stability and Conflict along Russia’s Periphery
Supporting Service Agency
Office of Naval Research
Content appearing from Minerva-funded researchers—be it the sharing of their scientific findings or the Owl in the Olive Tree blogs posts—does not constitute Department of Defense policy or endorsement by the Department of Defense.