Influence and Escalation: Implications of Russian and Chinese Influence Operations for Crisis Management

As influence operations increasingly engage strategic-level interests, capabilities, and risks—U.S. infrastructure, institutions, elites, or those of our close allies—existing assumptions about their escalatory potential may not prove sound.

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Technology-enabled influence operations, including disinformation, will likely figure prominently in adversary efforts to impede U.S. crisis response and alliance management in high-risk, high-impact scenarios under a nuclear shadow. Both Russia and China recognize their conventional military disadvantage vis-à-vis conflict with the United States. As a result, both nations use sub-conventional tactics and operations to support their preferred strategies for achieving favorable outcomes while attempting to limit escalation risks. Such strategies include an array of activities loosely identified as influence operations, focused on using and manipulating information in covert, deniable, or obscure ways to shape the strategic environment.

This report presents eight scenarios—four focused on Russia and four focused on China—that invite potential escalation risks and demonstrate how the tools and tactics of influence operations could be employed to challenge detection, response, and crisis management. It explores a range of potential escalatory pathways and destabilizing consequences if adversary influence operations engage strategic interests and targets in high-risk scenarios and identifies key takeaways and recommendations for policymakers to better identify and defend against adversary influence operations.

This research was made possible through the support of the United States Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA).

This report is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

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