Active Measures: The Tradecraft


    Active measures: A short Intro

    Active Measures (In Russian, “aktivnye meropriyatiya”) was coined in the 1920s. It is a broad concept generally referring to Russian offensive operations that are designed to spread disinformation, deceive, and sabotage foreign nations.

    In real terms, Active Measures refers to a multitude of covert tactics to spread false and subversive information to further Russian foreign policy. This includes but is not limited to:

    • Disinformation and Forgeries
    • Front Groups
    • Political Influence Operations
    • Media Manipulation
    • Clandestine Radio Stations

    Whilst Active Measures were largely used during the cold war, post-Soviet era Russia continues to employ such misinformation tactics to further the Kremlin’s political agenda.

    So What?

    Active Measures were central to USSR foreign policy. The KGB’s definition of intelligence was “a secret form of political struggle which makes use of clandestine means and methods for acquiring secret information of interest and for carrying out active measures to exert influence on the adversary and weaken his political, economic, scientific and technical and military positions.”

    However, Active Measures did not stop with the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. Therefore, it is vital to study Active Measures as tradecraft to further understand modern Russian Intelligence techniques.

    Active Measures: a History

    The Soviet Union first used Active Measures in the 1920s. However, the use of Active Measures became far more widespread from January 1959 onwards, due to the creation of Department D within the KGB. Department D was a branch of the KGB specifically designed to produce and disseminate disinformation. The department was upgraded in 1963 to Service A of the 1st Directorate of the KGB and then had hundreds of staff working on Active Measures.


    Active Measures can broadly be separated into the below:

    Disinformation & Forgeries

    Forgeries refer to fabricated or altered versions of original and legitimate documents. These are used to discredit third parties. Forgeries can include fake reports and letters that are either circulated publicly to undermine foreign parties or used for blackmail. In 1961, the CIA stated that there had been 32 known forgeries of US documents.

    Front Groups

    Front Groups are organisations that appear to be non-political and non-governmental, and on the surface, hide their links to Russia. Front Groups actually use their platform to support Russian propaganda and criticise the actions of other organisations or governments who criticise Russia. Examples of this include the World Peace Council and the International Organisation of Journalists.

    Modern examples of this include online journals and think tanks that act as anti-Western propaganda journals. The US Department of State has documented a wide network of organisations that act as proxy organisations to forward pro-Kremlin sentiments.

    Screenshot of misinformation article as a form of an Active Measure on Global Research; via US Department of State

    Political Influence Operations

    Political Influence operations refer to Russian agents hiding their connection to Russia whilst taking an active role in political, press, business, or academic activities. A key example of this is Pierre-Charles Pathé, who worked as a French journalist from 1959. He was found to have been acting as a Soviet agent. Political Influence Operations also include Soviet officials building close relationships with political figures in foreign countries to convey false information.

    Media Manipulation

    The KGB regularly fed disinformation to foreign media to influence reporting to convey pro-Soviet messaging. In addition, pro-Soviet media frequently published falsely attributed documents and information in print and broadcast as a form of disinformation and propaganda.

    Russian media manipulation as a form of an Active Measure; via NBC News

    Clandestine Radio Stations

    The USSR operated clandestine radio stations to disseminate pro-Soviet messaging whilst hiding the origin of the broadcast. The most notable cases are that of the radio stations Radio Ba Yi and The National Voice of Iran. These stations broadcast pro-Soviet messages to China and Iran respectively to further KGB policies.

    Active Measures: Modern Developments

    Russia continues to use Active Measures following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. More recently it is used as a term that now includes offensive Russian Cyber espionage and attack attempts. Reports show that Russia increasingly uses Social Media and cyberattacks to undermine US political stability and authority through fabricated information. Cyberattacks are complex and varied in nature, though regularly are used to spread misinformation, and undermine political adversaries.

    There is much evidence of Active Measures being used as recently as 2020: On 1st April 2020, Russia sent the world’s largest Cargo Plane of medical aid to the US, as part of a political influence operation of coronavirus propaganda. In September, Microsoft and Facebook have identified fraudulent Russian accounts spreading misinformation and attempting cyberattacks on US political discourse. Therefore, it can be concluded that Russia continues to use a variety of Active Measures to further its political agenda, though is adapting these methodologies to the Digital Age.

    Image: Steveb257 / Atlas Obscura (link)

    Abbi Clark
    Abbi Clark
    Abbi is a Grey Dynamics's Intel Manager and a graduate in Chinese Studies from the University of Nottingham with an MA in Intelligence & Security Studies at Brunel University London.

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