In Russia’s Information War, a New Field of Study Gains Traction

As an authority in the new and obscure discipline of “acmeology,” which attempts to model how individuals and groups can achieve their highest possible professional potential, Aleksandr Starunskiy is at the forefront of disinformation

In Russia’s Information War, a New Field of Study Gains Traction
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Nov. 27, 2018 in Moscow, Russia / Photo by Mikhail Svetlov / Getty Images

Less than a year before Vladimir Putin unleashed the largest armed conflict on European soil since World War II, the Kremlin quietly expanded the Russian Security Council’s Science Council, an advisory body composed of nearly 150 prominent academics and government figures. Among the new members was a deputy commander of a nondescript military unit: one A.G. Starunskiy. Russian investigative journalists subsequently alleged that this Starunskiy was really Aleksandr Gennadiyevich Starunskiy, a high-ranking officer of the General Staff’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) who had been intimately involved in that agency’s disinformation and influence campaigns.

The Science Council is apparently engaged on the information warfare front. Last October, it advocated harsher criminal penalties for disseminating “fakes” via social media. Since then, it has met at least twice with Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev to address the West’s purported push for “controlled regime change” in Russia and its blame for the world’s woes — for which the Kremlin has long alleged the West leverages the power of the internet. While little is currently known about the military entity for which Starunskiy later came to be second-in-command (unit 55111, per the Kremlin announcement), some additional context about Starunskiy and his bona fides is available through open sources. Whether or not he remains engaged in waging Moscow’s information war against the West, his expertise poses intriguing questions about how Moscow conceptualizes the craft — particularly as his star continues to rise within the Russian security apparatus.

Over the past two decades, Starunskiy has apparently assessed both the U.S. and Chinese military practice of psychological operations, and he more recently served as a member of the editorial board of the Russian Defense Ministry’s monthly “Foreign Military Review.” However, he is perhaps most notable — and noted, among other Russian academics — as an authority in the obscure field of acmeology, which was the focus of his 1998 dissertation: “The Psychological Effect as an Object of Acmeological Research.” Therein, Starunskiy “consider[s] psychological effects in the context of a specific area of professional activity and the people involved in it,” which in his chosen case study includes Russian military service members and their susceptibility to adversary messaging. Starunskiy concludes that “based on an acmeological study of armed conflicts … the most acute problem of information and psychological security of a person manifests itself in a combat situation, when military personnel, in addition to other psycho-traumatic factors, are targeted by special structures of the armed forces of the warring parties.”

Bearing in mind that the Russian secondary education system during this period was notoriously rife with widespread plagiarism and fraudulent credentials, this snapshot of Starunskiy’s academic pedigree, assuming it is genuine, provides some insight about the Kremlin’s current approach to information warfare, particularly in historical context, as well as that of its ongoing war in Ukraine.

Gaining an even rudimentary grasp of acmeology as a subject is no easy task. Indeed, it is difficult to find references to the field outside niche Russian and Ukrainian academic writing. As it turns out, that is no accident; according to Ganna Grebennikova, now a researcher at the Ukrainian Catholic University, acmeology is one of several anti-intellectual “new sciences” — strains of thought that cropped up in the transformational post-Soviet period that left many educational and professional circles in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and elsewhere floundering and detached. From that void sprang a nebulous discipline. Acmeology — from the Greek “acme,” meaning peak — can best be described as a study of professionalization and personal mastery, the attempt to model how individuals and groups can achieve their highest possible potential in a given pursuit. With roots in the early Soviet period, when experimental pedagogy was in vogue, it later became formalized in the 1990s as a scientific and philosophical discipline primarily used in Russian and Ukrainian higher education, as demands to reinvigorate the profession increased.

Acmeology’s resurgence was a likely byproduct of an era when many citizens of the late (and then former) Soviet empire felt adrift, coping with an ideological vacuum while their leaders grappled with a profound sense of geopolitical humiliation before the West. When the Iron Curtain fell, this vast public abruptly inherited an unfamiliar degree of explanatory agency, coming to crave what anthropologist Serguei Oushakine calls “a plausible organizing plot in a situation where established patterns of interactions and traditional forms of rationality [had] lost their orienting function,” or, in other words, trying to make sense out of the chaos that ensued during that time.

Sergey Kapitza, then vice president of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences, in 1999 recounted: “In the last years of the ancien regime, pseudoscience emerged … the authorities themselves had not only lost control, but on many occasions the practitioners of pseudoscience found support in the decaying system. Some were supported by the military, in bogus and secret projects. These events were clearly symptoms of a deep crisis, and any conscientious observer saw them as a precursor of things to come.” This foreboding was likely the impetus for the Commission on Pseudoscience and Research Fraud, which had been established the previous year by Russian physicist and Nobel laureate Vitaliy Ginzburg to expose the more fantastical trends permeating scientific thought in Russia, all of which had led to a loss of credibility with the public of scholars, researchers and even doctors.

A common thread between such “new sciences” and acmeology, according to Grebennikova, is a misplaced confidence in their applicability to all aspects of human life, resulting in a “manipulative and mechanistic approach to social reality.” For example, some of the academic writing on acmeology probes the interrelationship between psychological, sociological and cultural factors in childhood that may maximize professional capability in adulthood. Such a tendency is not new: Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin systematized Karl Marx’s observations into a rigid ideological construct that cast all observable patterns as either controlled or controllable. To discover these dynamics was to find “truth;” to enforce compliance with them was the foremost role of the state. More recently, Patrushev has performed a similar service for the deeply conspiratorial worldview of President Vladimir Putin.

In this regard, acmeology finds natural resonance with contemporary Russian theorizing on information warfare. Both disciplines aim to address the insecurity prompted by complex psychosocial phenomena by overlaying it with an innovative, mechanistic sense of order and control — while the empirical grounding for either notion may be less solid than advertised.

Starunskiy, meanwhile, appears to have been at the vanguard of applying acmeology specifically to the military. His dissertation merged the explanatory power of a science with the demand to optimize Russian soldiers’ performance, particularly as they became exposed to enemy narratives amidst the psychological traumas of war. Little did he likely know that over two decades later, his assertions would be put to the ultimate test.

Starunskiy’s background and career trajectory suggest that Moscow continues to underscore the centrality of the psyche in its conception of information war. His dissertation’s emphasis on insulating the Russian military from enemy narratives finds echoes in the Kremlin’s later crusade to isolate the Russian public from objective truths about its long-running assault on Ukraine. In 2017, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu even touted the “counterpropaganda” prowess of Russia’s newly established Information Troops, claiming it surpassed the capabilities of its predecessor organizations.

By 2022, however, Starunskiy’s previous GRU endeavors had been exposed, de-platformed and sanctioned. Russian troop morale in Donbas reached a reportedly dismal level, calling into doubt their resiliency against enemy messaging — where Ukraine doubtlessly punched above its weight. Whether or not Starunskiy’s acmeological thinking has infused recruitment and training of Russian troops, there is reason to suspect that they are far from operating at peak performance.

Particularly since Russia’s initial incursion into Ukraine in 2014 and its election interference in the United States in 2016, Western commentators and academics have intensively studied the “science” behind the Russian information warfare, its historical underpinnings and contemporary tradecraft. Its nexus with Starunskiy’s “acmeology” raises an underexamined angle: the degree to which Moscow relies on such novel theories as an explanatory salve for a world so frequently unfriendly toward Kremlin ambitions — and the degree to which the West should assume there is much “science” to Russian information warfare at all.

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