Russia’s Reflexive Control Theory and the Military


Journal of Slavic Military Studies 17: 237–256, 2004

Copyright © 2004 Taylor & Francis



Russia’s Reflexive Control Theory and the Military


Reflexive control is a subject that has been studied in the Soviet Union and Russia for nearly 40 years. The theory has both military and civilian uses. This article describes both the theory and practice of reflexive control, focusing on recent developments. The concept is close in meaning to the US concept of perception management.


One of the prime goals for a commander in warfare is to interfere with the decision-making process of an enemy commander. This goal is often accomplished by the use of disinformation, camouflage, or some other stratagem. For Russia, one of the primary methods is through the use of the theory of reflexive control (RC). This principle can be used against either human-mental or computer-based decision-making processors. The theory is similar to the idea of perception management, except that it attempts to control more than manage a subject.

Reflexive control is defined as 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. Even though the theory was developed long ago in Russia, it is still undergoing further refinement. Recent proof of this is the development in February 2001, of a new Russian journal known as Reflexive Processes and Control. The journal is not simply the product of a group of scientists but, as the editorial council suggests, the product of some of Russia’s leading national security institutes, and boasts a few foreign members as well. The editorial council (which is different than the editorial board) includes a member of the Federal Agency for Government Communications and Information (FAPSI), a diplomat, a Canadian, and two Americans, and the deputy head of the Information Security Committee of the Russian Security Council, among others.

There are many examples, from a Russian perspective, of the use of reflexive control theory during conflicts. One of the most recent and memorable was the bombing of the market square in Sarejevo in 1995. Within minutes of the bombing, CNN and other news outlets were reporting that a Serbian mortar attack had killed many innocent people in the square. Later, crater analysis of the shells that impacted in the square, along with other supporting evidence, indicated that the inci- dent did not happen as originally reported. This evidence also threw into doubt the identities of the perpetrators of the attack. One indivi- dual close to the investigation, Russian Colonel Andrei Demurenko, Chief of Staff of Sector Sarejevo at the time, stated, “I am not saying the Serbs didn’t commit this atrocity. I am saying that it didn’t happen the way it was originally reported.” A US and Canadian officer soon backed this position. Demurenko believed that the incident was an excellent example of reflexive control, in that the incident was made to look like it had happened in a certain way to confuse decision-makers. This article will discuss the military aspect of Russia’s concept
of reflexive control in some detail, and its role as an information warfare weapon. It will also briefly examine how US writers inter- pret RC theory.


The concept of reflexive control (RC) has existed much longer than the concepts of information warfare and information opera- tions; in fact, it appeared in Soviet military literature 30 years ago. At that time, V. A. Lefebvre, who was working within the context and logic of a reflexive game, defined reflexive control as “a process by which one enemy transmits the reasons or bases for making deci- sions to another.”The development of reflexive control theory encompasses four distinct periods:

· research (from the early 1960s to the late 1970s);
· practical-orientation (from the late 1970s to the early 1990s);
· psychological-pedagogical (from the early to the mid 1990s); and
· psycho-social (from the late 1990s).
The concept of reflexive control is still somewhat alien to US audiences. However, the Russians employ it not only on the strategic


and tactical levels in war but also on the strategic level in association with internal and external politics. Equally significant, the concept has not always benefited the Soviet Union and Russia. For example, some Russians consider that the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) is a clas- sic example of US use of reflexive control. In this case, the US “com- pelled the enemy to act according to a plan favorable to the US.” By doing so, it forced the Soviet Union to try to keep pace with America’s achievements in the SDI arena (or at least what we said were our achievements) and ultimately exhausted the Soviet Union economic- ally as it spent money to develop corresponding equipment. As a result, some Russians are now asking themselves whether the concept of information warfare is yet another US attempt to control them “reflexively” and to force them to invest vast sums of money in a realm that is simply beyond their technological reach in the near future.

The Soviet and Russian Armed Forces have long studied the use of reflexive control theory, particularly at the tactical and opera- tional levels, both for maskirovka (deception) and disinformation purposes and, potentially, to control the enemy’s decision-making processes.For example, the Russian Army had a military maskirovka school as early as 1904 that was later disbanded in 1929. This school, the Higher School of Maskirovka, provided the bases for maskirovka concepts and created manuals for future generations.3

Since the early 1960s, there have been many Russian intellectual “giants” who have emerged in the field of reflexive theory. In the civilian sector, these include G. P. Schedrovitsky, V. E. Lepsky, V. A. Lefebvre (who now lives in the West), D. A. Pospelov, V. N. Burkov, and many others. The foremost theorists in the mili- tary sector include V. V. Druzhinin, M. D. Ionov, D. S. Kontorov, S. Leonenko, and several others. One of the civilian theorists, Lepsky, who also is the editor of the new RC journal, hopes that the current US-Russian cooperation in the realm of reflexive control will move Russo-American relations from the paradigm of IW/IO (confrontation, struggle) to a paradigm of partnership (the control of confrontation). His is a noble cause and one that must be taken seriously.

There is a growing realization on both sides that Lepsky’s two paradigms will evolve in parallel. US and Russian theorists are engaged in joint work regarding conflict prevention theory and are working together in Bosnia and Kosovo. At the same time, both countries are carrying out reflexive control work independently in the military sector.

RC is also considered as an information warfare means. For example, Major General N. I. Turko, an instructor at the Russian Federation’s General Staff Academy, has established a direct con- nection between IW/IO and reflexive control. He noted:

The most dangerous manifestation in the tendency to rely on military power relates more to the possible impact of the use of reflexive control by the opposing side through developments in the theory and practice of information war rather than to the direct use of the means of armed combat.4

In Turko’s judgment, RC is an information weapon that is more important in achieving military objectives than traditional firepower. In this regard, Turko’s understanding is most likely influenced by his belief that American use of information weapons during the Cold War did more to defeat the Soviet Union and cause its demise than any other weapon. An excellent example was the Strategic Defense Initia- tive. Finally, Turko has mentioned reflexive control as a method for achieving geopolitical superiority and as a means for arms control negotiations. The latter area should be one of heightened awareness for countries entering such negotiations with the Russians.

Reflexive Control theory does indeed have geopolitical significance, according to Turko. For example, he and a colleague described a new containment theory under development that portrayed new means for coping with confrontation between new large-scale geo- political groupings.This theory involves information warfare means; specifically, the threat of inflicting unacceptable levels of damage against a state or group of states by attacking their information resources.

One of the most complex ways to influence a state’s information resources is by use of reflexive control measures against the state’s decision-making processes. This aim is best accomplished by for- mulating certain information or disinformation designed to affect a specific information resource best. In this context an information resource is defined as:

· information and transmitters of information, to include the method or technology of obtaining, conveying, gathering, accumulating, processing, storing, and exploiting that information;
· infrastructure, including information centers, means for automating information processes, switchboard communications, and data transfer networks;· programming and mathematical means for managing information; and
· administrative and organizational bodies that manage information processes, scientific personnel, creators of data bases and knowledge, as well as personnel who service the means of inform- atizatsiya [informatization].6

Russia’s political elite also employs RC in analytical method- ologies used to assess contemporary situations. For example, during a recent conference in Moscow, a representative from President Yeltsin’s administration noted that, when making decisions, the Kremlin pays attention to reflexive processes. Thus, Turko’s revelation about the central role of Reflexive Control in Russian conceptions of information warfare, and RC’s potential use against information resources to destabilize the geopolitical balance. These are two important points to consider when analyzing intent.
By definition, reflexive control occurs when the controlling organ conveys (to the objective system) motives and reasons that cause it to reach the desired decision,the nature of which is maintained in strict secrecy. The decision itself must be made independently. A “reflex” itself involves the specific process of imitating the enemy’s reasoning or imitating the enemy’s possible behavior and causes him to make a decision unfavorable to himself.

In fact, the enemy comes up with a decision based on the idea of the situation which he has formed, to include the disposition of our troops and installations and the command element’s intentions known to him. Such an idea is shaped above all by intelligence and other factors, which rest on a stable set of concepts, knowledge, ideas and, finally, experience. This set usually is called the “filter,” which helps a com- mander separate necessary from useless information, true data from false and so on.8

The chief task of reflexive control is to locate the weak link of the filter, and exploit it.

According to the concept of reflexive control, during a serious conflict, the two opposing actors (countries) analyze their own and per- ceived enemy ideas and then attempt to influence one another by means of reflexive control. A reflex refers to the creation of certain model behavioral in the system it seeks to control (the objective system). It takes into account the fact that the objective system has a model of the situation and assumes that it will also attempt to influ- ence the controlling organ or system. Reflexive control exploits moral, psychological, and other factors, as well as the personal characteris- tics of commanders. In the latter case, biographical data, habits, and psychological deficiencies could be used in deception operations.9
In a war in which reflexive control is being employed, the side with the highest degree of reflex (the side best able to imitate the other side’s thoughts or predict its behavior) will have the best chances of winning. The degree of reflex depends on many factors, the most important of which are analytical capability, general erudition and experience, and the scope of knowledge about the enemy. Military author Colonel S. Leonenko added that, in the past, stratagems were the principal tool of reflexive control, but today camouflage and deception (maskirovka) have replaced strategems, a conclusion dis- puted by many. For example, the Chinese have demonstrated that electrons can be used as stratagems and operate as effectively as camouflage and deception in the traditional sense.

Although no formal or official reflexive control terminology existed in the past, opposing sides actually employed it intuitively as they attempted to identify and interfere with each other’s thoughts and plans and alter impressions of one, thereby prompting an erron- eous decision.10 Leonenko’s theories about varying degrees of reflexive control can be explained as follows. If two sides in a serious conflict—A and B—have opposing goals, one will seek to destroy the other’s goals. Accordingly, if side A acts independently of the behavior of side B, then his degree of reflex relative to side B is equal to zero (0). On the other hand, if side A makes assumptions about side B’s behavior (that is, he models side B) based on the thesis that side B is not taking side A’s behavior into account, then side A’s degree of reflex is one (1). If side B also has a first degree reflex, and side A takes this fact into account, then side A’s reflex is two (2), and so on.

If successfully achieved, reflexive control over the enemy makes it possible to influence his combat plans, his view of the situation, and how he fights. In other words, one side can impose its will on the enemy and cause him to make a decision inappropriate to a given situation. Reflexive control methods are varied and include camouflage (at all levels), disinformation, encouragement, black- mail by force, and the compromising of various officials and officers. Thus, the central focus of reflexive control is on the less tangible element of “military art” rather than more objective “military science.” Achieving successful reflexive control requires in-depth study of the enemy’s inner nature, his ideas, and concepts, which Leonenko referred to as the filter through which passes all data about the external world. Successful RC represents the culmination point of an information operation.
So defined, a filter is a collective image (termed “set”) of the enemy’s favorite combat techniques and methods for organizing combat actions, plus a psychological portrait of the enemy. Thus, reflex requires study of someone else’s filter and the exploitation of it for one’s own ends. In the information age, this filter is represented by human and machine (computer) data processors. The most import- ant question then becomes, How does one side achieve this higher degree of reflex and, hence, more effective reflexive control over the enemy? It does so primarily by employing a broader range of means for achieving surprise. In turn, it achieves surprise by means of stealth, disinformation, and avoidance of stereotypes [shablon].11


Major General (ret.) M. D. Ionov, one of the military specialists mentioned earlier, wrote several articles on the subject of reflexive control in Voennia mysl’ (Military thought). He was one of the first military theorists to appreciate the value of reflexive control, although, at first, no one was inclined to listen to him. The term reflexive control was simply not listed in any Soviet military encyclo- pedia when he began writing in the 1970s and, thus, could not exist! Therefore, in many of his initial articles, Ionov simply spoke about control of the enemy rather than reflexive control. At the same time, Ionov also realized the close link between advertising and reflexive control (“sell the holes, not the drill” and “temptation by benefit” were two of the techniques he recognized) and the combined use of various reflexive methods for waging different types of conflicts (low-intensity, etc.).12
Given his advanced thinking about reflexive control, it is instructive to analyze one of his articles from 1995. In it Ionov noted that the objective of reflexive control is to force an enemy into making objective decisions that lead to his defeat by influencing or controlling his decision-making process. Ionov considers this a form of high art founded of necessity on an intimate knowledge of human thinking and psychology, military history, the roots of the particular conflict, and the capabilities of competing combat assets. In this instance, control over the enemy is realized by undertaking a series of measures, related by time, aim, and place, which force enemy decision-makers to abandon their original plan, make disadvantageous decisions, or react incorrectly to their ultimate disadvantage (for example, when facing a counter-offensive). The successful use of reflexive control becomes all the more likely if the enemy’s original plan is known. This makes it easier for the “controlling side” to force the enemy into making wrong decisions by employing reflex- ive control techniques such as intimidation, enticement, disinformation, deception, and concealment and other measures designed to shorten his decision-making time by surprising his decision-making algorithms.13

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