Russia, Reflexive Control, and the Subtle Art of Red Teaming
To understand the Russian approach to strategy and conflict, we must first understand something about the concept of reflexive control. Initially developed and championed by Vladimir Lefebvre, it’s a uniquely Russian view on stratagem and deception that repackages and reframes much of what we usually associate with Sun Tzu. If we expect deception and stratagem from China but not from Russia, we’ve set yourself up to be surprised. We'd be foolish to assume that the Russians are not currently employing reflexive control against the West.
By definition, reflexive control is “a means of conveying to a partner or an opponent specially prepared information to incline him to voluntarily make the predetermined decision desired by the initiator of the action.” (Thomas 2004, 237) In other words, when employing the theory of reflexive control, you paint a picture of the world, that, if successful, your opponent accepts. This false picture compels your opponent to act in your favor. A close term in the U.S. lexicon is “perception management,” (Ibid.) although the tone of reflexive control is arguably broader and more Machiavellian.
Examples of the types of reflexive interactions include “transfer of an image of the situation,” “creation of a goal for the opponent,” “transfer of a decision,” “formation of goal by transferring an image of the situation,” and “transfer of an image of one’s own perception of the situation.” (Reid 1987, 296–301.) These types (and others) suggest that when employing reflexive control, an opponent manipulates not just our perceptions but also our decision algorithms. According to the Russian S. A. Komov, the basic elements of reflexive control include distraction, overload, paralysis, exhaustion, deception, division, pacification, deterrence, provocation, suggestion, and pressure, all with the intent of manipulation. (Thomas, 248–249.)
Seeing through an effort at reflexive control can be difficult. To do so, we must somehow set aside various incoming signals—some consistent, some contradictory—and perceive what our opponent really wants. In other words, we have to preserve and safeguard our own independent filter and decision making processes. This is difficult if our opponent has already tainted that filter and tangled those processes. Ultimately, this is the domain of red teaming, although at one level higher than we often employ it.
While we don’t usually talk case specifics here at RTJ, we will ask these questions:
Given the framework of reflexive control, what picture is Russia currently attempting to paint in Syria and elsewhere?
How might Russia be employing reflexive control in its overt and covert actions (in the latter case, allegedly hacking politicians’ emails)?
How might Russia have already tainted our perceptions and decision-making processes?
What are Russia’s real short- and long-term goals?
And, just to play devil's advocate, what if the alleged Russian agenda as portrayed in the West is part of a Western program of reflexive control (games within games within games ...)?
We have to add that we must respect an opponent who can employ reflexive control with subtlety. The minute we dismiss such an opponent is the minute we're "owned."
Reid, Clifford. “Reflexive Control in Soviet Military Planning.” In Soviet Strategic Deception, 293–311. Brian D. Daily and Patrick J. Parker. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1987.
Thomas, Timothy L. “Russia’s Reflexive Control Theory and the Military.” Journal of Slavic Military Studies, 2004, vol. 17, p. 237.