Authors: Aidan Yusif and Nanuka Bregadze
For the past five years, the State Security Service (SSS) has been naming hybrid war as one of the major challenges in its annual reports. However, their measures do not properly respond to this threat, which can be seen in their activities as well.
We have studied all the public announcements of SSS that were posted in 2016-2021 on their official Facebook page. These posts show what SSS is doing to neutralize the threats facing the country. The term “hybrid war” is mentioned twice in the posts in 2017, and once in 2018 and 2019. It is not mentioned not even in the posts published in other years.
While speaking with iFact, Lasha Dzebisashvili, the co-founder of the Georgian Center for Strategic Studies and associate professor at the University of Georgia, mentioned that the 2008 War was not yet over because we only have the Six-point Ceasefire Agreement, which Russia had already violated. We have no other restraining documents. Consequently, the fire might resume and we are in a de facto war situation.
“The occupier can resume military operations at any time, which must be preceded by information-related operations. When the state is in such a condition, as a rule, it should be aware of this danger. Therefore, its task is to protect the population from hostile information attacks before the start of the military actions, “Dzebisashvili said.
Georgia has been the target of a hybrid war since 2008. Since then, a number of local and international organizations have reported that the dangers coming from the Russian hybrid war are growing stronger and stronger.
For example, a report prepared for the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2018 states that the Russo-Georgian War of 2008 was the first case when Russia led military conflict in line with a hybrid war. Later, the same method was applied in Ukraine and Syria.
“Since 2008, Russian propaganda and Russian-funded political parties and groups have remained a major problem in Georgia as the country’s democratic assets seek integration with the West,” – we read in the report.
Giorgi Bilanishvili, a researcher at the Rondel Foundation, says the main task of the Russian hybrid war is to weaken support for NATO and EU integration and meanwhile to strengthen pro-Russian sentiments: “Russia acts in this way, trying to portray its rival as bad so that it can look better by comparison.”
According to Bilanishvili, as with any threat, fighting this problem requires a complex approach, and “the State Security Service, based on its scope, has a lot of work to do.”
In this article, we will discuss exactly what the State Security Service of Georgia does or does not / cannot do and should do against the Russian hybrid war.
This structure was established in 2015 and consists of 13 units: Administration, Counter-Terrorism Center, Counterintelligence, State Security, Information-Analytical, Operational-Technical, Operations Measures, Facilities Protection, Economic, Special Operations Departments, Anti-Corruption Agency, Main Personnel Division, and General Inspection.
The official Facebook page of SSS exists since 2015. The page has over 38,600 followers. Based on the content analysis for 2016-2021, the following topics are the most frequently published:
- 120 posts on crimes detected by anti-corruption agency crew;
- 7 posts on crimes detected by Counterintelligence Department crew;
- 56 posts on Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism (iprm) meetings in the villages of Ergneti and Gali;
- 92 posts about meetings with high-ranking officials and Georgian officials from different countries.
What the SSS reports say
What is a hybrid war? – in addition to military actions, it involves the use of political, informational, economic, and other non-military methods by an interested party. You can learn more about this topic from the video prepared by “iFact”.
If there is nothing much about their hybrid war, disinformation, and propaganda on their Facebook page, we hoped to find something in the annual reports of the SSS. We thought, maybe we can read there what the country’s state security service is doing to fight the Russian hybrid war, with some specific examples.
SSS has published six reports so far. The first one became public in 2015.
Although the dangers of hybrid warfare have been actively discussed since 2008, you will not find anything close to this in the 2015 report of SSS, saying nothing about the methods, strategies against it or outcomes.
In its 2015 report, SSS named the Russian occupation and the situation in the occupied territories as their main challenges. This issue remains a challenge in the reports of coming years and is unlikely to be neutralized in the near future.
The term “soft power” already appears in the 2016 report. The text says that the special services of different countries tried to obtain intelligence information using “soft power”, but the countries are not specified. It is also stated that legal measures were taken to identify the forces involved in the process and their sources of funding. However, there is no mention of exactly what has been done and what the results of these measures have been.
The words propaganda media campaign and disinformation appear in the 2017 report: “To accomplish their tasks, the intelligence services of different countries are still actively using hybrid warfare tactics, using propaganda media and disinformation components, cyber-operations and individual cyberattacks, destructive political groups and public-populist alliances thus trying to achieve the desired results… In order to influence public opinion and spread disinformation, foreign special services are trying to set up expert scientific research centers and agencies, where specific topics are developed and provided to the public in accordance with their own interests.
The 2017 report also states that legal measures were taken to identify the forces involved in the process and their sources of funding. However, there is no mention of exactly what has been done and what the results of these measures have been.
Notably, until 2020, the SSS had not named the identity of the implied foreign intelligence services. The 2018 report also mentions that foreign special services actively used disinformation to achieve the desired goals. Again it is not specified how SSS fought against it and prevented them from achieving these goals.
In the 2019 report, another type of record appears, where Russia is also mentioned: “Last year, the main threat to Georgia was the expansionist policy of the Russian Federation. “Russia continues to exert military pressure through the occupied territories to gain influence, as well as various covert and cyber-operations and media manipulations.”
This year’s report, compared to the previous period, more thoroughly tells us about the purpose of disinformation campaigns. For example, SSS sees the critique of democratic values and the Western world as such; dissemination of the desired worldview for individual countries; population polarization; spreading of fear and influencing public opinion.
Although this report widely covers the dangers of hybrid war and, in particular, disinformation-propaganda, it still does not say how and by what methods SSS fought against it, or what are the results of the legally accomplished operations.
The 2020 report already has a separate subsection on disinformation and hybrid war. However, Russia is still not openly and clearly named as the source of these threats. Nor it is thoroughly listed what measures have been taken for reducing and eliminating these threats.
However, unlike previous years, the document also states that foreign special services used various workshops or meetings provided through online platforms, the genuine aim of which was to disseminate their own views on geopolitical, military, economic, historical, and other issues. “Thereby, educational projects were still especially emphasized, including language courses for young people and exchange programs,” we read in the 2020 report.
One of the representatives of the Russian propaganda machine in Georgia, which offers language courses and various “educational programs” to the audience is E.M. Primakov Georgian-Russian Community Center. We have told you about this organization before.
We asked SSS in writing if they were investigating the activities of the Primakov Center. We did not even dream about the interview, though. They responded in writing that this information was confidential and therefore could not be answered.
For comparison, in 2015, the Security Service of Ukraine closed the Russian “Gorchakov Foundation” operating in Kyiv due to the disseminating of Russian propaganda among Ukrainian students. And here, in Georgia “E.M. Primakov Georgian-Russian Public Center ” was established in 2013 by the Gorchakov Foundation and the Georgian Institute of International Relations. As we can see, the Primakov Center is still freely operating, being engaged in Russian propaganda among pupils and students; besides, its director, Dimitri Lortkipanidze, ran in the elections and openly participates in the events important for the country.
The 2020 report also mentions nothing about the measures taken by SSS against disinformation and “soft power” actors, nor do they specify how effective these measures are.
We can not find anything about SSS activities against disinformation and propaganda even in the report created by the Inquiry Group on Disinformation and Propaganda of the Parliament. According to the study, efforts by government agencies to deal with propaganda are largely reactive and rarely involve preliminary, preventive steps. Regarding the SSS, the report says: “Despite SSS participation in the surveys, no written or audio evidence of this Agency was provided during the survey. Therefore, the position of SSS is not included in this document. ”
Thus, we can only judge the effectiveness of SSS actions based on the ongoing events:
1. The pro-Russian media, which iFact and other non-governmental organizations have been trying to expose for years, are still operating successfully in Georgia. For example, even Sputnik is enough to mention, which was closed in Britain, Finland, the Estonian government controls their activities, Latvia has abolished the domain, in Lithuania, they have few subscribers anyways and their number is being reduced. In 2018, they had 3,774 subscribers, and now that number has been reduced by 439. As for Georgia, if Sputnik’s Facebook page had 43,388 subscribers in 2018, today this number has increased to 64,060. You can understand how SUS did its homework.
2. The Facebook administration blocked “Alt-Info pages” several times for spreading misinformation and propaganda. iFact provided full information about this organization. After Facebook limitations, the government gave them a TV broadcasting license. Alt-Info is associated with pro-Russian forces, it spreads anti-Western and anti-humanitarian sentiments, and often copy-pastes the Russian messages.
Nodar Tangiashvili, the researcher of public policy and disinformation says that we need more transperancy from SSS.
“SSS works, but the problem is that there needs to be more public speaking, as the Baltic States – Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia – are saying. Also, in recent years, the heads of the NATO-EU intelligence services, have been publicly announcing the threats coming from Russia in this direction, specifically naming what operations they have carried out. When Russian spies blew up a weapons depot in the Czech Republic, they spoke openly about it. Such an open discussion on what Russia is doing, is important for raising the awareness of the political elite. I am not saying that all the details should be said, no, of course, it will hinder the operative activity, but such general announcements are also unacceptable, in my opinion,” Tangiashvili explained.
According to him, it is wrong, when they avoid to directly highlight the specific country in their reports.
“When the mention foreign intelligence services in general, it is detrimental in the sense that one may have doubts about the countries other than Russia, and this indirectly supports the narrative that Turkey poses the same threat; one might even think that America is doing something bad. “Therefore, we cannot vaguely mention a foreign country, it must be directly said that it is Russia and China because China is active all over the world.”
He thinks that the main reason for refraining from directly accusing Russia is the official position of the state not to irritate Russia.
Fake Facebook Accounts of SSS
One of the powerful components of hybrid war is information operations. In our reality, the field for these operations is mostly social media. The most common in Georgia is Facebook, where tens of thousands of fake accounts have been created and managed by various groups.
Do you remember how many times the Facebook administration organized the cleanup and how many times Georgia was included in this list? Among them was a network of fake accounts and fake pages run by government-related people.
If the Facebook administration sees that fake accounts can influence public opinion in Georgia and blocks their activities, why does SSS fails to notice it? Is it not because they are good at using the practice themselves? Below you will find out what we mean.
We have excel-listed the profiles praising the SSS.
For example, one of them is “uol anuka gogsadze striti”. There are two fake profiles with such names. One was created in 2017 and the other in 2019. It has been commenting on SSS posts since 2017. Mostly, the account was active during Gomelauri’s leadership. The comments at that time were as follows: “I appreciate it, Gomelauri’s office is brilliant”; “Mr. Gomelauri is a genius”; “Gomelauri is a genius.” The profile has been actively commenting on the SSS page lately. Finally, on March 17, it commented emphasizing the strength of the police: “Strong police is a strong state”; “Cooperate with the police, have confidence in the police”; “I love it, it’s genius, the state needs a good agency, good kgb… successes.”
One more account/profile, created also in 2017 is “nodar zaldastanishvili.” It commented for more than 90 times on SSS Facebook page. 10 of which were merely “successes”, 20 were “Bravos” and “Strengthen the Security Service” were written for 28 times.
Since the beginning of 2020, the profile has commented 14 times calling for the opening of the SSS National Security Academy in various forms, for training professional staff. On December 29, 2020, SSS Training Center was opened and nodar zaldastanashvil commented on the post: “I welcome the opening of this school to train professional staff. Bravo Mr. Liluashvili Mr. Gakharia. I wish you all the strength. Super”.
There is also a fake page created in 2018 “george george”. We have counted 21 comments written by this profile in the last 1 year. 9 of them simply were “Good luck”, and in other cases, he wrote large comments.
“maka berianidze” is a fake account and was created in November 2013. The comments made by the profile often coincide with the comments of another troll – “aleqsandre gamyrelidzes”. This profile was created in 2016 and commented on SSS posts 15 times in the last year.
Both of these profiles mainly wrote the following comments: “Such meetings are important for our country”; “no one can escape justice.”
In addition to troll-bots, public employees are also active on the SSS page. Davit Goguadze is a former public employee and currently a supporter of the Georgian Dream. In 2014-2018, he was the Deputy Head of the Economics Department at the Ministry of Education. He has written more than 70 comments over the past year under the posts on the SSS page. 7 of them are “Good luck”, “congratulations” 3 times, and there are only emoticons: “👍👍👍❤️❤️❤️” in more than 60 comments.
Another public servant, Gela Tsiklauri, mainly wishes success to SSS in his comments. He has written similar comments 22 times in the last year for SSS posts. He has been working in the State Audit Office since 2019.
What should SSS do against the hybrid war?
In 2019, Transparency International Georgia published a study “Fighting against disinformation in Georgia.”
According to the study, the Georgian government is not really ready to deal with hybrid threats. The actions of the Security Service are not sufficient to detect cases of dissemination of disinformation supported from outside the country.
There is also a recommendation that a special anti-disinformation department or agency be formed within the state security structure to coordinate the fight against disinformation supported by foreign countries.
Both Lasha Dzebisashvili and Giorgi Bilanishvili emphasize that any threat needs to be analyzed and evaluated in order to properly elaborate an action plan.
According to Dzebisashvili, if this is not accomplished at the state level, the fight against mass propaganda will have no effect.
“You cannot totally eradicate disinformation, it has an external origin -from Russia, this cannot be changed. We cannot neutralize this. In this case, we can increase our effectiveness; this means raising our professionalism, knowledge, and expertise in how to act against disinformation. So, it is true that we cannot eliminate the threat, but we will reduce the risk and this is the main task of national security policy planning, “- explained Bilanishvili.
The action plan offered by the researchers is as follows:
• First of all, type of targeted disinformation and propaganda should be verified and its sources should be revealed;
• The type of potential damage that this process can cause in different directions should be assessed. According to Bilanishvili, this is very important, because no one has the resources to oppose all types of disinformation and propaganda. Also, in some cases, the opposition can have a negative effect instead of a positive one, as we will make it more popular;
• After then, if a response is needed, counter messages should be spread, or it should be decided what action is needed in the particular case by exploring the activities of the sources;
• It is necessary to identify the target groups. “Who is the user of this information propaganda?” This should verify the most effective means of communication with these groups of society. “They have to work with everyone constantly in order to prevent stepping on the Russian information mine,” Dzebisashvili said. As he continues, when it comes to state, the approach can be even harsher.
“The state has very simple criteria and if propaganda violates these criteria, manifesting in anti-state information activities, the state should simply ban them. The state has a full right to do that,” – Dzebisashvili said.
According to Giorgi Bilanishvili, in terms of dealing with the threats of hybrid war, we show disintegration and do not have a unified policy.
“National security policy planning has always had very serious defects and problems here. We were good at assessing the threats, though developing an action plan and having a unified approach were always weak points for us. Planning a national security policy at the political level in an interagency working format is part of Western culture, Western politics. We have no experience here. State institutions do not have long-term memory and experience. We can hardly adapt to some things. “There is also a lack of political culture,” – Bilanishvili explained.
According to Lasha Dzebisashvili, “if the state perceives someone as a threat, it will take appropriate steps to prepare for that threat. But, there is a second option, if you do not perceive it as a threat, these steps will not be taken. I think Russia is a threat, maybe someone does not think so. Maybe something is happening, they are responding, they are revealing something, there is also monitoring, conclusions are being made, reports are being written and all of these are being sent somewhere, but after that nothing happens. The fact is that the state does not react logically to things, ” Dzebisashvili said.
SSS Budget and Head
The current head of SSS is Grigol Liluashvili. He took this position in October 2019 and replaced Vakhtang Gomelauri. He has been in the system since December 2017 and held the position of senior deputy to Gomelauri. Before being elected to office on October 16, 2019, Liluashvili spoke at a parliamentary hearing about the country’s main security challenge – occupation and hybrid warfare techniques:
“This is one of the main action instruments of the Russian Federation. It is mainly aimed at interfering in the internal processes of the country and feeding the civil strife on ethnic, religious or other grounds,” Grigol Liluashvili then said. After that, however, there has been no mention or writing about exactly how his agency has fought Russian hybrid warfare.
As for the State Security Service, its budget is increased every year. From 2015 to date, the budget of the Georgian State Security Service (SSS) has been quadrupled.
It would be nice if their efficiency increased in proportion to this amount.