Cognitive Warfare: a review

Ivan Vozmitel
School of Governance and Politics, MGIMO University;

Elena Skuratova
School of Governance and Politics, MGIMO University.


In recent years there has been an increased interest in the model of cognitive warfare and its influence on society via non-military methods.  The article aims to study cognitive warfare concept, to present and compare its actual and historic impact on society showing distinctive features and characteristics of this influence through the example of the Crimean war (1853-1856) and armed conflict in South Ossetia (2008).  Both cases studied in the article demonstrate not only the fact that cognitive warfare is not a new phenomenon, but also that continuous work with public opinion and its formation contributes to the victory of a conflicting party. The article concludes that society is now living in a time of constant change and that in future influence on people's minds will be the main target of a cognitive warfare.

Key words: cognitive warfare, Georgia, social media, South Ossetia, Crimean War.


The increasingly widespread use of social media, social networking, social messaging and mobile device technologies is now enabling a new domain: cognitive warfare[1]. Cognitive warfare can be defined as the exploitation of public opinion by external entities with the intention of influencing public and governmental policies and destabilizing public institutions. Its essence lies in the art of deceiving the mind or instilling doubt in what it perceives as knowledge. In today's world, cognitive warfare combines cyber, informational, psychological, and social engineering techniques to achieve its goals. Leveraging the internet and social media platforms, it strategically targets influential individuals, specific groups, and large sections of society. It's worth noting that cognitive warfare does not necessarily rely on false information or fake news to achieve its objectives.

For instance, a social messaging campaign that stirs up strong emotions among online influencers can quickly trigger viral controversies. This may lead social media groups to organize demonstrations and actions of protests. Ambiguous public responses or official denials in such situations can further contribute to confusion, doubt, and the entrenchment of conflicting narratives among different segments of the population. The realm of virtual reality environments provides even greater opportunities for cognitive attacks based on emotional manipulation, surpassing the capabilities of current social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook[2]. Ultimately, cognitive warfare aims to impair the cognitive abilities of the adversary, and a crucial component of maintaining cognitive superiority in this context is an effective cognitive defense. Since emotions are integral to cognitive capabilities, one significant attack vector against cognitive ability involves emotional manipulation.

Main part

Cognitive warfare is simply a new word to describe a set of techniques developed and used, in particular, against Russia for quite a long time. The Crimean War (1853-1856) is one of the vivid examples of the informational component of the military operations success influence. A feature of this strategy was its total character: propaganda and agitation were conducted in all strata of both European and Russian society in the most diverse and sophisticated ways. For instance, caricatures in newspapers comparing Russian soldiers to bears were very popular, which gave rise to the image of Russian savages in the minds of the Europeans. Along the media involvement and widespread distribution of relevant literature, diplomatic correspondence and oral agitation was also involved. Parties, circles and societies of interest were created which played a significant role in the success of the European army in the Crimea. The main idea underlying the narrative of the information war was the struggle of European civilization against Russian barbarism and freedom over despotism.

The result of these widespread activities was the creation of an information vacuum around the hostilities in Russia, as well as the formation of a negative image of Russia not only in Europe, but also within the Russian society. The information aspect of the war played an important role in the victory of the European army over the Russian empire. Russian economy could not sustain a war with The United Kingdom and France on its distant flank. Russia failed to maintain proper logistics, mobilize industry, create numerical and qualitative advantage over the enemy.  However, it was the work on the consciousness of the people or cognitive warfare that mainly contributed to Russia's military defeat.

The South Ossetia (2008) conflict is a prime example of cognitive warfare in the 21st century, which information component requires thorough analysis. The media environment was extremely tense prior to the conflict.

The aspiration for independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia was assessed differently: the Russian side saw it as a response to Georgian nationalism, while the Western press accused it of separatism.

In today's information warfare, the timeliness of information delivery is especially important. Thus, a media center for Georgian and foreign journalists was opened not far from the scene of the events in Gori, where new video materials from the war zone were broadcasted. The focus was on forming a negative public opinion of Russia's actions.

This narrative became dominant at the start of the hostilities. In turn, the actions of Russian foreign policy, security and information structures during the first stage of the conflict were not prompt. Initially, there were no professional journalists or specialists in political technologies at the site of the conflict. All of this led to the loss of the information initiative.

But soon the situation changed dramatically. Due to the active actions of representatives of the blogosphere in the Western and Russian information spaces and the use of the powerful potential of the leading Russian media, it was possible to reverse the course of the information war.

As a result of the confrontation in the information sphere, both sides in the conflict succeeded in presenting two different pictures in their respective media fields. Russia showed South Ossetia as the victim of an attack backed by Western forces, Georgia had radically opposite opinion. However, at the international level, the Russian Federation received support: in September 2009, Georgia's responsibility for unleashing military action was acknowledged.


With the growing information environment, target audiences are living in an over-saturated world. This requires a truly cognitive, psychological centered approach to persuade, change, and influence (Cognitive Warfare Symposium, 2022). As the inability to trust information resources continues to grow, the need to understand the mental drivers that lead to the methods of providing the information that has the trust of a target audience becomes more important. The history of global competition and conflict is not far off base from the hostilities in the international arena. Changing cognitive processes provides the basis for real action, facilitated by the power of digital technology (Cognitive Warfare Symposium, 2022).

The recent explosion of information and communication technologies and options for influencing different groups has totally changed the philosophy of combat. Nowadays it is safe to say that the main target will become the human mind[3].


  1. Cognitive Warfare Symposium - ENSC - March 2022
  2. The Cognitive Warfare Concept (Bernard Claverie, François du Cluzel)
  3. Figes, Orlando: The Crimean War: A History, London 2011. URL: [2021-12-13]
  4. Nolan, Edward H.: History of the War Against Russia, London 1857, vol. 1–2. URL: (Vol. 1) / URL: (Vol. 2) [2021-12-13]
  5. Keller, Ulrich: The Ultimate Spectacle: A Visual History of the Crimean War, Amsterdam 2001. URL: [2021-12-13]
  6. Blank, S. (2008): Russia ́s War On Georgia: The Domestic Context. In: Perspective, 18(4). Cornell, S.E., Starr, F.S. (2006): Caucasus: A challenge for Europe, CACI & SRSP Silk Road Paper.

[1]  Johns Hopkins University & Imperial College London. URL: (accessed on: 15.04.2023)

[2] Twitter and Facebook are social media platforms prohibited in the Russian Federation.

[3] Rand Waltzman. URL: (accessed on: 20.04.2023)