How Russia's use of reflexive control can drive an opponent to the point of paralysis.

By Serena Balani
06/14/2022 • 08:55 AM EST

Ben Nimmo explains the four Ds messaging strategy that is the basis of reflexive control.

Current Russian disinformation assumes two primary forms, either offensive or defensive.[1] Offensive aims to influence decision-makers and public opinion abroad, while defensive seeks to influence the Russian domestic audience at home.[1] One of the key "offensive" measures is reflexive control. A messaging strategy of reflexive control "conveys specially prepared information to an opponent to incline that opponent to voluntarily make the predetermined decision desired by the initiator of the action."[1] In other words, reflexive control is a way to get an opponent to willingly defeat himself. 

First introduced in the former Soviet Union by mathematician and psychologist Vladimir Lefebvre, reflexive control is a concept that has been perfected by Russia since the 1960's.[2] A strategy of reflexive control can be reduced down to four basic components, also called the 4Ds:[3] 

Dismiss - to simply deny any involvement in a matter and discredit the accuser.
Distort - to warp, twist, or fabricate your own facts.
Distract - to introduce certain novel information into the mix or accuse your accuser of the same. 
Dismay - to play with emotions by using fear-mongering tactics.

The first component is to dismiss any allegation being waged by responding with flat-out denial. This could be seen with Russia's use of "little green men" in 2014 to annex Crimea. In the leadup to Russia's invasion and seizure of Crimea, armed men in unmarked green uniforms were spotted patrolling the streets of Crimea. And even though they used the same guns as the Russian army and spoke with Russian accents, accusations that they were Russian military were flatly denied.[4] 

This is followed by distorting facts that are undeniable. On April 17, 2014, after more than a month of speculation and analysis over the nature of the "little green men," Russian president Vladimir Putin admitted that Russian military had taken part in the invasion, but that the soldiers had been already legally stationed there or later, in Donbas, were "volunteers."[5]

The third component of reflexive control is creating distraction by introducing certain issues that distract from the main focus. After its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia deflected attention away from its own invasion with its accusations of defending eastern Ukrainians and Russian speakers against Neo-Nazi elements in Ukraine.[6] According to their rhetoric, Nazi-ism didn't die out after WWII, but went underground only to coalesce with the emergence of the U.S. becoming a superpower in 1990, following the collapse of the Soviet Union.[6] 

Another means of distraction is accomplished by stoking racial divisions among people or between countries to draw the focus away from the invasion. Shortly after reports started surfacing about Africans and others of color being met with racism at the border as they were trying to flee the fighting in Ukraine, Russian media outlets seized upon the reports and amplified them in Russian media in English, French, and Arabic.[7]

As a final measure, an effort is waged to dismay the opponent, typically by using fear-mongering tactics. On April 11th, 2022 the first concerns against chemical warfare were raised when reports of Russian drones dropping a "poisonous substance" in a defender refuge-steel mill surfaced.[8]

Now, Western leaders are apprehensively preparing for potential chemical strikes from Russia. Likewise, shortly after Russia's invasion of Ukraine slowed, Vladimir Putin announced moving his "deterrent forces" - meaning nuclear weapons - to "combat ready" status.[9] This prompted concerns that Russia might follow through with using nuclear weapons if Putin's strategy is failing in Ukraine or if he feels cornered.[9] To date, the threat remains.

Using reflexive control, Russia seeks not so much to leverage its disinformation to convince, but to use it to "pollute" the information environment and create enough doubt to momentarily paralyze decision-makers, when evaluating Russian actions.[1] Peter Pomerantsev says, "the point of this new propaganda is not to persuade anyone, but to keep the viewer hooked and distracted—to disrupt Western narratives rather than provide a counter-narrative."[10] The end goal is to cause an inner ideological turmoil, driving people to extremes and making it impossible for them to agree on anything. And to ensure that those who haven't reached such extremes give up out of frustration and exhaustion.

1. Jonathan White, Dismiss, Distort, Distract, and Dismay: Continuity and Change in Russian Disinformation. Institute for European Studies. Published: 2016.
3. "COMBATTING DISINFORMATION WITH THE FOUR D’S". Center for Academic Innovation, University of Michigan. Published: March 08, 2022.

4. ""Little green men" or "Russian invaders"?". BBC News. Published: March 11, 2014.

5. "Little Green Men: A primer on Modern Russian Unconventional Warfare, Ukraine 2013-2014 ". The United States Army Special Operations Command. Published: June 01, 2015.

6. "Russian History and the Ukrainian Invasion: How Putin Tries to Turn the Past into the Present". Georgetown Journal of International Affairs. Published: April 21, 2022.

7. "Russian Outlets Seize on Accounts of Racism ". Voice of America. Published: February 23, 2022.

8. "Ukraine’s Battlefield Is Haunted by Putin’s Chemical Weapons Legacy". The New York Times. Published: May 04, 2022.

9. "Ukraine war: Could Russia use tactical nuclear weapons?". BBC News. Published: April 26, 2022.

11. "Disinformation and Reflexive Control: The New Cold War". Georgetown Security Studies Review. Published: February 01, 2017.

12. "The Surprising Origins of Reflexive Control". Ukraine Crisis Media Center. Published: November 18, 2020.

13. "A guide to Russian propaganda. Part 5: Reflexive Control". Euromaidan Press. Published: March 26, 2020.

14. "Reflexive Control - Russia". C-SPAN. Published: September 18, 2020.