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I was working all day on a response laying out my reasons for believing what I wrote in this post. I was taking the assignment very seriously. So much so that I didn’t check the news all day. I just checked. Trump has just said that he believes Vladimir Putin when Putin tells him he didn’t interfere in the elections.
The CIA “stands by and has always stood by the January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment entitled: Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections. The intelligence assessment with regard to Russian election meddling has not changed,” according to General Michael Hayden.
We’ve entered the world of the utterly surreal.
I’m going to post what I wrote today anyway.
Let’s revisit the claims I made. I’ve separated them a bit for analytic clarity, and indicated my confidence in them:
1) Russia interfered with the 2016 election, and continues energetically to interfere with our political life, with the aim of destroying the United States and the ideals it represents, alienating us from our allies, and alienating our allies from each other. ABSOLUTE CERTAINTY
2) Russia interfered with the 2016 election with the intention of aiding Trump and harming Clinton. HIGH CONFIDENCE.
3) Russia has the ability to do us enormous harm, and may even succeed in the goals stated in Point 1. MEDIUM CONFIDENCE.
4) Russia is much more dangerous than Americans generally appreciate. ABSOLUTE CERTAINTY
5) Donald Trump wittingly and illegally colluded with Russia’s efforts to swing the election in his favor. MEDIUM-TO-HIGH CONFIDENCE.
6) Russian interference made the difference between “President Clinton” and “President Trump.” PLAUSIBLE, BUT INHERENTLY UNPROVABLE.
Note that I am making none of the following claims, and believe all the following claims to be prima facie absurd:
1) No voter had any valid reason to prefer Trump to Clinton.
2) All voters for Trump (or even many voters for Trump) behaved as they did as a result of Russia’s actions. (This is obviously categorically absurd, and the only reason I put it on the list is because some of the comments on my post seemed to suggest some of you believe I think this. I do not.)
3) Everything Trump has done in office has been bad.
4) Hillary Clinton is innocent of any wrongdoing or crime, including wrongdoing related to Russia.
Let’s start with 1).
I’m going to suggest some background reading, because I honestly cannot do this all in one post: This isn’t because “the evidence isn’t there,” but because “there’s too much evidence.”
Let’s start with Molly McKew’s Putin’s Real Long Game. It will only take you ten minutes. I wish I had written it, because it’s pretty much exactly my assessment of the nature of the conflict between the United States and Russia. Feel free to take her arguments as my arguments and challenge them as if I had written them.
McKew has lately been pilloried as “not a real Russia expert” by the professional Russia experts who are enraged that she’s taken charge of this debate. They whine that she “simplifies” things — as if anyone could write an article-length piece about the mystery-within-an-enigma-wrapped-in-a-riddle that is Russia without “simplifying” things. I think she deserves every bit of her success. First, she does know what she’s talking about. Second, she’s good at explaining it, which professional Russia experts tend not to be. So please start by reading that article to get a sense of where I’m starting—in fact, consider that article the formal introduction to my argument. What she is saying is entirely consistent with everything I’ve seen—some of it more personally than I care to detail.
Note that she wrote that when Obama was still in office and that it is a scathing criticism of the Obama Administration’s blindness, one with which I fully agree. Note also that she was (initially) hopeful that Trump might still be able to spot the danger and react to it with some agility. She was not a partisan critic of Trump, or at least, she didn’t begin as one. As the evidence has come in, she’s become less hopeful, to say the least.
Every paragraph of that essay is worth reading, but here are a few critical ones:
From Moscow, Vladimir Putin has seized the momentum of this unraveling, exacting critical damage to the underpinnings of the liberal world order in a shockingly short time. As he builds a new system to replace the one we know, attempts by America and its allies to repair the damage have been limited and slow. Even this week, as Barack Obama tries to confront Russia’s open and unprecedented interference in our political process, the outgoing White House is so far responding to 21st century hybrid information warfare with last century’s diplomatic toolkit: the expulsion of spies, targeted sanctions, potential asset seizure. The incoming administration, while promising a new approach, has betrayed a similar lack of vision. Their promised attempt at another “reset” with Russia is a rehash of a policy that has utterly failed the past two American administrations.
What both administrations fail to realize is that the West is already at war, whether it wants to be or not. It may not be a war we recognize, but it is a war. This war seeks, at home and abroad, to erode our values, our democracy, and our institutional strength; to dilute our ability to sort fact from fiction, or moral right from wrong; and to convince us to make decisions against our own best interests. …
Her capsule summary of Russia’s post 1989 history is exactly correct:
To understand the shift underway in the world, and to stop being outmaneuvered, we first need to see the Russian state for what it really is. Twenty-five years ago, the Soviet Union collapsed. This freed the Russian security state from its last constraints. In 1991, there were around 800,000 official KGB agents in Russia. They spent a decade reorganizing themselves into the newly-minted FSB, expanding and absorbing other instruments of power, including criminal networks, other security services, economic interests, and parts of the political elite. They rejected the liberal, democratic Russia that President Boris Yeltsin was trying to build. …
…. Today, as a result, Russia is little more than a ghastly hybrid of an overblown police state and a criminal network with an economy the size of Italy — and the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. …
This is, of course, a complex history. Book after book has been written about it. If you’re looking for a good place to start reading about it, I recommend Edward Lucas’s The New Cold War: Putin’s Russia and the Threat to the West, written in 2008 and painfully prescient.
The key point: We did not win the Cold War. Lucas, you may remember, was a dedicated Cold Warrior who had spent his life as an anti-Soviet campaigner. He lays out the whole painful case in that book.
The same cadre of KGB officers are still in power, “a powerful, feral, multi-headed, and obedient hydra,” as Mark Galleotti puts it in this useful analysis of Russia’s intelligence services. They are “locked in a Cold-War mindset where ‘If the West loses, we gain.’” The threat, he observes,
is not likely to materialise in military form. Rather, it comes from covert, indirect, and political operations, typically conducted, controlled, or facilitated by the numerous Russian intelligence and security agencies, which strike from every side but are driven by a single intent. …
many of the people closest to Putin hail from the ranks of the Chekists (veterans of the security agencies, after the first Bolshevik political police, the Cheka) or siloviki (“men of force” from the military, security, and intelligence services). This is especially important given that many of the formal institutions of Russian foreign and security policy making – the Foreign and Defence Ministries, the Security Council (SB), the cabinet – have become nothing more than executive agencies where policies are announced and applied, not discussed and decided. Instead, decisions are made informally by Putin and his confidants and cronies. The Soviet KGB security service was powerful and willing to use espionage, destabilisation, and subversion, but was tightly controlled by a political leadership ultimately committed to the status quo. Under Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, the state was weak, but the intelligence agencies doubly so. The agencies began renewing their powers during Putin’s first terms as president, but his policy was one of pragmatic accommodation with the West. Since Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012, though, the regime has unleashed increasingly powerful intelligence agencies in campaigns of domestic repression and external destabilisation, appearing to genuinely want to revise the structures of the international order.
.. The emphasis on coercive methods, active operations, taking chances, and risking international opprobrium reflects a wartime mindset across the agencies. (My emphasis.)
Galleotti, by the way, is a very serious and knowledgeable specialist in Russian security issues. This is no lightweight speaking.
Russia did not become “a normal country.” This is the same Russia we grew up fearing, but it is in many ways more dangerous, for the reasons above–and for many more reasons.
A point I argue in my book that Russia has pioneered a very particular kind of 21st century authoritarianism. It’s distinct from the totalitarian movements of the 20th century. This doesn’t look like an old-fashioned dictatorship, which is one reason we’ve been so slow to realize what’s going on. It rests on different structures—above all, its chief tool of control is not the gulag but saturation propaganda. That there is less terror is a very significant moral difference. Thank God for the Russian people that this regime is less cannibalistic than its predecessors. But this doesn’t indicate that Russia’s any less of an enemy, or a danger, to us.
I argue that Russia is, unfortunately, now the vanguard. Other countries are studying the Putin model for acquiring and keeping power, learning from it, emulating it. There is a real ideology behind it. This ideology, like the ideology that animated their communist forebears, is critical. Ideas matter, and Russia has again harnessed its formidable state security apparatus to spread this ideology. I say much more about this in the book.
I recommend all of Lucas’s books, including (especially including) his more recent ones. I also highly recommend David Stater’s The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep: Russia’s Road to Dictatorship Under Yeltsin and Putin.
Those of you who have asked me to lay out the evidence for my beliefs should start with the first chapter of that book, at least: The significance of the Moscow apartment bombings can’t be understated. His is the most compelling marshaling of the evidence about this in print. Peter Pomeranzov’s Nothing is True and Everything is Possible has also been helpful to me in shaping my understanding of Russia. It’s less important as “evidence,” but the book will give you a good feeling for what I mean by “saturation propaganda” and its integral relationship to the regime.
Pomeransov’s description of the way the regime speaks of information is critical: “not in the familiar terms of ‘persuasion,’ ‘public diplomacy,’ or even ‘propaganda,’ but in weaponized terms, as a tool to confuse, blackmail, demoralize, subvert, and paralyze.” Understanding how critical the weaponization of information is to Putin is really key–as is understanding the particular way Russia has learned to control the Internet.
Here, I’ll have to digress a bit, but bear with me. As the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has put it–and it is a profound observation–the Internet has created a world in which information is abundant but attention scarce. The large majority of the world now receives all of its information through a handful of technology monopolies: Google and Facebook, primarily. Facebook has become the world’s de facto public square. Facebook is designed—this is its business model, not a bug—to seize your attention and hold it as long as possible. The longer you’re on the site, the more likely it is that you will click on the ads. All of their exceptionally sophisticated algorithms serve this end, and this is why they collect an enormous amount of political and social information about you. They are collecting it so better to figure out what will make you click on the ads.
Putin’s insight—and it is pretty obvious, really, so perhaps we should not call it an insight of genius, but it was certainly an insight of significance—was that this technology, which everyone loves, and to which everyone is addicted, could be used to conduct surveillance on a hitherto unimaginable scale and transform the electorate’s view of reality. He realized he didn’t need gulags to ensure that no opposition party ever won an election, no protest movement ever got off the ground. All he needs to do is target his citizens’ attention by controlling key information networks—search engines, hosting sites, social media—and keeping them so distracted that they pay no attention to opposition and protest movements. In an attention-scarce world, you don’t need to kill a dissenter to suppress his voice. You just need to flood the Internet with something more entertaining—real or fake, it doesn’t matter, so long as it’s more interesting than a dissenting opinion. Atrocity stories are particularly good for this purpose.
He practiced the techniques on Russia for a long time before he started testing them abroad—but then he did start testing them abroad, and I’ll get back to this point in a minute. Key point: in the early 2000s, Russia established the “web brigade” (Веб-бригады)—the infamous troll army. The army churns out pro-government views around the clock. It simply drowns out voices the regime doesn’t want people to hear, usually with floods of pure distraction. The Internet Research Agency, in St. Peterburg, produces content for every popular social media network in Russia, as well as the comments sections of all its newspapers:
Every day at the Internet Research Agency was essentially the same, Savchuk told me. The first thing employees did upon arriving at their desks was to switch on an Internet proxy service, which hid their I.P. addresses from the places they posted; those digital addresses can sometimes be used to reveal the real identity of the poster. Savchuk would be given a list of the opinions she was responsible for promulgating that day. Workers received a constant stream of “technical tasks” — point-by-point exegeses of the themes they were to address, all pegged to the latest news. Ukraine was always a major topic, because of the civil war there between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian Army; Savchuk and her co-workers would post comments that disparaged the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, and highlighted Ukrainian Army atrocities. Russian domestic affairs were also a major topic. Last year, after a financial crisis hit Russia and the ruble collapsed, the professional trolls left optimistic posts about the pace of recovery. Savchuk also says that in March, after the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was murdered, she and her entire team were moved to the department that left comments on the websites of Russian news outlets and ordered to suggest that the opposition itself had set up the murder.
“There are three hallmarks of the Russian approach,” writes Tim Wu of the Knight First Amendment Institute:
The first is obscuring the government’s influence. The hand of the Kremlin is not explicit; funding comes from “pro-Kremlin” groups or nonprofits, and those involved usually disclaim any formal association with the Russian state. In addition, individuals sympathetic to the cause often join as de facto volunteers. The second is the use of vicious, swarm-like attacks over email, telephone, or social media to harass and humiliate critics of Russian policies or President Putin. While the online hate mob is certainly not a Russian invention, its deployment for such political objectives seems to be a novel development. The third hallmark is its international scope. Although these techniques have mainly been used domestically in Russia, they have also been employed against political opponents elsewhere in the world, including in the Ukraine and in countries like Finland, where trolls savagely attacked journalists who favored joining NATO (or questioned Russian efforts to influence that decision). Likewise, these tactics have been deployed in the United States, where paid Russian trolls targeted the 2016 presidential campaign.
So we’ve got a regime that views this kind of information control as the key to its political survival and its central tool of war. Putin’s Russia sees conventionally military conflict with the West as stupid (though not out of the question), an obvious waste of life. They don’t think they need it. They believe they’ve mastered information warfare. They see themselves as a superpower without peer in this domain. They believe this will be sufficient to achieve their geopolitical ends.
They are absolutely clear that they see themselves as engaged in all-out, full-scale information warfare against the West. Every strategy document shows this. You don’t need 17 intelligence agencies to come to this conclusion, because Russia’s not remotely interested in concealing it. Read their December 2014 Military Doctrine, for example. I can’t vouch for the quality of the translation, but notice especially, on page 2, who they think the main enemy is — see (a)? — and by comparison where terrorists rank (See (i)? So if we have a president who seriously thinks we’re going to be teaming up with this country to “knock the hell out of ISIS”–well, I’ll be charitable: Maybe there is some entirely innocent explanation of this.
Then scroll down to page 4 and their list of the “characteristics of modern conflict.” What’s the first item? Where does information war rank, for Russians, vis-à-vis, say, “hypersonic weapons, their means electronic warfare, weapons based on new physical principles, comparable in efficiency with nuclear weapons, management information systems, and unmanned aircraft and autonomous marine vehicles controlled robotic weapons and military equipment?”
You see my point. If you pay any attention to Russia at all, you see that it views itself as in a war, already, with the West. They’re not obsessed with China, they’re obsessed with us. And they believe we’re losing. The “erosion of the global economic and political dominance of the traditional western powers’ is now a reality.” They see the West as being in a state of chaos (which they’ve helped along nicely), and they expect to use this window of opportunity to emerge as the architects of a new world order.
They believe, as General Gerasimov put it, that, “frontal engagements of large formations of forces at the strategic and operational level are gradually becoming a thing of the past.” They’re winning and will win by means of “long-distance, contactless actions against the adversary.”
They get it that their conventional military power lags and always will in size, spending, technology and personnel behind NATO. But they think — and have so far been proven right — that they can win with the tools they used in Crimea and Donbas. They used their military, yes, but it was secondary to the cyber-attacks, the political and economic pressure, and an astonishingly audacious disinformation campaign.
Gerasimov is perfectly clear: “non-military means to achieve political and strategic goals has [in recent years] significantly surpassed the force of arms.” He lists the stages: “political, economic, information, humanitarian and other non-military measures,” then “military measures of a covert nature—focusing on information warfare—and only then overt force, “under the form of peacemaking (mirotvortcheskaya deyatelnost) or crisis management, in order to achieve the final success in the conflict.”
So if you’re being Gerasimov-doctrined, please understand: It does end in force. But by that point they’ve already screwed you up so much that you welcome them as peacemakers.
Back to Molly McKew:
Even Russian policy hands, raised on the Western understanding of traditional power dynamics, find the implications of this hard to understand. This Russia does not aspire to be like us, or to make itself stronger than we are. Rather, its leaders want the West—and specifically NATO and America — to become weaker and more fractured until we are as broken as they perceive themselves to be. No reset can be successful, regardless the personality driving it, because Putin’s Russia requires the United States of America as its enemy.
We can only confront this by fully understanding how the Kremlin sees the world. Its worldview and objectives are made abundantly clear in speeches, op-eds, official policy and national strategy documents, journal articles, interviews, and, in some cases, fiction writing of Russian officials and ideologues. We should understand several things from this material.
First, it is a war. A thing to be won, decisively — not a thing to be negotiated or bargained.
She explains why she says this in the article. Above all, believe her about this: To grasp how hostile and determined Russia is, and to understand the strategy they’re pursuing, you only have to read the speeches, op-eds, official policy and national strategy documents, journal articles, and interviews of Russian officials and ideologues. If you do, you will, like me, like anyone else who has done this, find the things Donald Trump has said and done unfathomable.
I don’t read Russian, sadly, but we live in an age of miracles: The new Google Translate is a stratospheric improvement on any previous effort at machine-language translation. It’s more than good enough for anyone here to make quite good sense of the documents she’s talking about. They are part of the evidence you’ve been asking to see. It is grim. I don’t have space to reproduce these documents here, but a bit of time with Google Translate and the links I’ve given you here will tell you the story.
Russia wants — and is open about wanting — to re-enslave the nations on its periphery, corrupt and dominate the rest of Europe, and render the United States irrelevant. They believe they can achieve this, as was said of Reagan’s victory over the Soviet Union “without firing a shot”–or at least, not firing anywhere near as many as you’d think it would take.
They are not stupid to think this. They are not amateurs. They have been practicing and experimenting with this now for quite a long time. The Internet has allowed them to take all of the Soviet Union’s skills in this domain and increase their impact by orders of magnitude at a fraction of the cost. What they’ve already achieved, in quite a short time, is utterly extraordinary:
Borders cannot be redrawn at the barrel of a gun. Barack Obama, 3 September 201449
We cannot of course forget the events of Crimea. I wish once again to thank our Armed Forces. Vladimir Putin, 19 December 2014
If I were a Russian autocrat superintending over a country with Italy’s GDP and no other talents to speak of, of course I too would say, “Wow, it works. Let’s play to our strengths. There is one thing we’re really good at, and that’s infowar. (By the way, did you see that InfoWars has literally been recycling Russian propaganda, verbatim, for three years? So has Drudge. You just can’t look at that and say, “Heck, what do the Russians know about information warfare.” Give them some credit. They couldn’t build the technology they’re using against us to save their lives, but yes, they sure do know how to use it against us.)
One reason I say they’re more of a threat than the Soviet Union (I said this in a comment on my original post, but some of you may not have seen it) is that the USSR’s ideology was more constrictive. The Soviets had to limit themselves, for ideological reasons, to corrupting and co-opting the American left, while trying to move the center toward the left. Their ultimate goal was to foster a communist revolution — and while a “communist revolution” wasn’t an utter impossibility in the US, it was unlikely for many structural and cultural reasons.
New Russia? No such constraints. It targets the right and the left with equal zeal. The goal isn’t “a communist revolution in the United States.” The goal is “chaos in the US sufficient to turn us into a house divided, an ungovernable basket case, unable to form any kind of consensus on foreign policy.” Why? Because that would make our military strength irrelevant. However powerful our military, we can’t use it to defend our interests if there’s no domestic consensus about what those interests are and who’s legitimately in charge of it. Their other goal is to significantly diminish the prestige of the United States and the ideals it represents, negating our huge advantage over Russia in soft power. “Communist revolution in the United States” wasn’t a realistic goal. “Chaos in the United States so great that the US is almost incapable of acting in its interests on the world stage, coupled with the destruction of American soft power” is a much more realistic goal.
So let’s look a bit at the pattern of the way they do this. I’m again going to suggest some reading (you wanted the arguments and the evidence.) Start with this Chatham House report: Russia’s ‘New’ Tools for Confronting the West Continuity and Innovation in Moscow’s Exercise of Power:
… the techniques and methods displayed by Russia in Ukraine have roots in traditional Soviet approaches. Since the end of the Cold War, Russia’s military academics have displayed an unbroken and consistently developing train of thought on the changing nature of conflict and how to prevail in it, including – but certainly not limited to – the successful application of military power. As a result, despite modern technological enablers, Russia’s intentions and actions throughout the Ukraine conflict have been recognizable from previous decades of study of the threat to the West from the Soviet Union. Today, as in the past, Western planners and policy-makers must consider and plan not only for the potential threat of military attack by Russia, but also for the actual threat of Moscow’s ongoing subversion, destabilization and ‘active measures’. •
Two specific tools for exercising Russian power demand close study: the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation; and the state’s capacity for information warfare. In both of these fields, Russia’s capabilities have developed rapidly in recent years to match its persistent intentions. The most visible demonstration of this has been the unprecedented near-total transformation of Russia’s armed forces since 2008. This transformation and the accompanying rearmament programme are continuing, and the Russian military is benefiting from ongoing ‘training’ under real operational conditions in Ukraine and Syria
Let’s now look at the ways they’ve applied these techniques in Europe to see why they’re so confident. This is from Galeotti’s report, above.
As far back as 2010, the British Security Service (MI5) warned that “the threat from Russian espionage continues to be significant and is similar to the Cold War […] the number of Russian intelligence officers in London is at the same level as in Soviet times.” Since then, security services across Europe have been registering a continued uptick in the scale and aggressiveness of Russian operations. For example, the head of the Norwegian Police Security Service warned that “Russian intelligence has the largest potential to damage Norwegian interests”, while Sweden’s security service, SÄPO, has characterised Russian espionage as its greatest challenge and warned of “preparation for military operations against Sweden”. The Russians are engaging in massive and voracious intelligence-gathering campaigns, fuelled by still-substantial budgets and a Kremlin culture that sees deceit and secret agendas even where none exists. …
Perhaps the most striking of the agencies’ external operations are their “active measures”: everything from assassination to political subversion. While many countries’ intelligence agencies sometimes conduct such operations, the Russians have put this at the centre of their concept of intelligence work. They also more readily integrate other institutions and individuals — from banks and charities to journalists and truck drivers — into their activities. …
… Georgia before the 2008 war and Ukraine since 2014 have seen killings and terrorist attacks aimed less at specific individuals than at creating a climate of fear and insecurity. This is meant to undermine public and political will and to support a Russian narrative that these countries are falling into anarchy. Where guns or bombs are not called for, sometimes a computer virus or directed denial of-service (DDOS) attack will work. As noted above, the FSB is especially involved with launching cyber attacks or commissioning them from Russian hackers. …
… Far more common is the use of the intelligence agencies to support political and other movements sympathetic to or simply useful for Moscow. This has long been practised in countries Russia regards as within its sphere of influence — for example, the FSB’s interference in Moldovan politics by backing populist candidate Renato Usatii in 2014. However, the Foreign Intelligence Service and FSB are now especially active in Europe, and the organisations they support include anti-fracking environmental movements (which, however genuine in their concerns, usefully maintain Moscow’s gas markets), nationalist and anti-federal political groups, Russian diaspora movements in the Baltics, and separatists from Spain to Scotland.
… Every external operation is first and foremost a domestic one: the single most important role of the agencies is to secure the regime. So it was under the tsars, then the Bolsheviks, and now the new Russians: defending not a constitutional order but a particular incumbent. This means carrying out operations to prevent foreign “interference” as the Kremlin sees it, as well as dividing strategic rivals such as the EU.
… As Putin loses his old basis for legitimacy – his capacity to guarantee steadily improving standards of living – he is seeking to shore up his position with a narrative of foreign threats and external triumphs. The agencies play a crucial role not just in supporting the narrative but also in conducting operations against enemies of the state, both real and constructed.
Now, Galeotti is optimistic:
The agencies are now engaged in a campaign of active measures in the West that, again, may often seem tactically effective but is strategically disastrous. Russia has not created the tectonic pressures currently opening fissures within Europe, from nationalism to the refugee crisis, but it is gleefully taking advantage of them. However, in the long term, it is vanishingly unlikely that Europe will become so divided that it can be dictated to by Russia. Indeed, whether or not some sanctions are lifted, Russia is declining and destabilising at an even faster rate. Furthermore, Russia’s heavy-handed tactics have galvanised NATO, alienated nations such as Germany, and dissipated what minimal soft power Moscow ever had.
I am not so optimistic. In part, I am not so optimistic precisely because I read Galeotti’s work carefully and do not see that his own work supports that conclusion; in part I am not so optimistic because we have a president who says he trusts Putin over our intelligence agencies as well as over those of all of our allies and over all the evidence marshalled by pretty much everyone who’s been studying Russia or even looking at it or even glancing at it for the past century.
Have a look at this report, for example: Controlling Chaos: How Russia Manages its Political War in Europe. What are the patterns he observes?
There is of course the deep cynicism which often sees Moscow cultivating rival extremes, all in the name of spreading chaos and division. In Greece and Italy, for example, it eggs on parties on both the left and right (the Five Star Movement and the Lega Nord, Syriza and Golden Dawn, respectively). In its broader narrative it is happy to encourage anti-capitalist and liberal protest movements such as Occupy, as well as to play to social conservatives. One Russian journalist expressed amazement that “the methods, even much of the language is the same: left or right, radical or conservative, you can use the same approaches with both sides, just change some of the language.” More broadly, though, the evidence suggests different ambitions and expectations for Kremlin operations in different European countries. This has very significant implications not just for understanding Russian policy but also in shaping European responses. …
Often, Russian ‘soft power’ is confined to national leaders, to whom Putin’s image as the model of the decisive modern autocrat appeals. In south-east Europe, it can draw on shared religious faith in Bulgaria, Serbia, and the like, but also play up its historical role as defender, not least against the Ottoman Empire. Elsewhere, Russia has a certain cachet, even if often for mythologised and misunderstood reasons, as an obstacle to supposed American hegemony or as a bastion of traditional values. Organisations including Rossotrudnichestvo, notionally independent charities, and other structures, work specifically with Russian émigré communities. …
…. A crucial instrument of Russia’s active measures is its media, and its capacity to influence media narratives in target countries. That said, its role is often misunderstood and over-stated, perhaps precisely because it is by definition public, and also because it is easy to assume causation where it might not exist. It is not, after all, as though every Eurosceptic or even NATO-sceptic individual was made that way by Russian propaganda. Nonetheless, disinformation – the spread of often false or distorted news – and a deluge of alternative opinions meant to drown out the realities are undoubtedly central elements of the current political war.
Read the whole thing—it’s very useful, but note a few passages in particular:
Moscow is especially willing to make use of malign non-state actors such as insurgents, terrorists, extremist paramilitaries and, increasingly, organised crime groups. These last may not even know for whom they are working, but are typically Russian-based groups (who can thus be pressurised by the Kremlin) which, like ‘upperworld’ businesses, can occasionally be ‘asked’ to carry out missions large or small, from smuggling someone across a border to an outright murder, to avert Moscow’s ire and perhaps gain some advantage in the future. These assets also include computer hackers. Increasingly, the security agencies are building their own in-house cyber espionage capabilities, but for some time to come Russia will continue to outsource some activities to a motley array of individuals and groups: mercenary computer criminals and individuals working for money or under duress, and ‘patriotic hackers’ inspired by a sense of national pride and duty. They are generally used to provide ‘surge capacity’ in times of major cyber attacks (such as those experienced by Ukraine, Estonia, and Georgia), and also smaller-scale sabotage such as the defacing of websites perceived as ‘Russophobic’ or the persecution of individuals likewise considered hostile. Putin’s disingenuous claim that the US electoral hack could have been carried out by “patriotically minded” individuals fighting for a cause “which is right, from their point of view” only swelled the ranks of patriotic hackers in Russia.
(Keep that passage in mind when I get, eventually, to the motley crew surrounding Trump and to Manafort in particular.) He continues:
There are common themes to Russian propaganda, largely relating to the alleged iniquity of the US, the need for cooperation with Russia against terrorism, and the moral equivalence of Moscow and the West. There is also an overarching hope of kicking up a sufficient dust cloud of rumour, speculation, half-truth, conspiracy, and outright lie, to obscure the realities of Russian activities in Ukraine, Syria, and at home, and leave people feeling that it is impossible to know the objective truth. The next best thing to being able to convince people of your argument, after all, is to make them disbelieve all arguments.
Then he explores the ways these techniques are adapted from country to country—with goals ranging from “state capture” to “disruption.” But there is a consistent pattern:
the Kremlin has adopted an innovative and parsimonious approach that, in effect, mobilises the ambitions and imaginations of sundry actors and agencies. It sets broad objectives and aspirations: to assert Russia’s claim to ‘great power’ status; to consolidate dominance over its self-proclaimed sphere of influence; to weaken and distract the West such that it cannot offer any meaningful counters to Russian actions; to undermine hostile governments; and to shatter inconvenient structures such as NATO and the EU. The detail is left deliberately open, so individuals and agencies scramble to identify how they can use the instruments and opportunities at their disposal in ways they hope will further these ends and please the Kremlin.
And note his recommendation, with which I agree:
European responses to Russian active measures have in the main been strikingly limited, typically restricted to direct sanctions against those identified as directly involved, whether expelling spies or revoking press credentials. The only truly negative outcomes have been through unwanted effects, such as alienating Macron or Angela Merkel. In Moscow, the lack of clear and strong responses is considered a sign of extreme weakness and an inducement to continue: “we really have no reason not to carry on as we are”, mused one recently retired General Staff officer.84 Without being needlessly provocative, European countries and the EU as a whole should develop a strategy for consistent and meaningful retaliation. A key point is that they need not be defined by the form of interference: a disinformation campaign can be punished through targeted sanctions of political leaders, supporting opposition groups, or by expelling diplomats. This is, after all, a campaign driven by the Russian state, and so any arm of the state is fair game for retaliation.
But that’s a digression; what I want to point out is how much practice they’ve had, how successful they’ve actually been throughout Europe, and very simply how well-known this is. Here’s another report that I highly recommend, from Chatham House: Agents of the Russian World Proxy Groups in the Contested Neighbourhood.
Read the whole thing through, and you’ll sense the way the themes of Trump’s campaign fit in well with the narrative Moscow has energetically been trying to promote and the European goals it seeks to achieve. This is not proof of collusion, but it does suggest why Moscow might have been highly motivated to support his campaign. Be honest with yourself: Have you not seen those themes represented, increasingly, in the American right-leaning media in recent years? Kremlin talking points appear with uncanny similarity in almost every “alternative” political movements in the West, from the hard left to the hard right.
Again, we see the same observation about Russia’s use of information warfare and its goals.
Russia is attempting to dominate the information space by injecting alternative messages that are often based on manipulated information. The main aim is to obstruct decision-making in the West, especially in organizations where decisions are based on consensus. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs promotes proxy groups that spread the Kremlin’s message more widely in multilateral forums such as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the UN, the European Parliament and the Council of Europe, and makes efforts to discredit states by means of false human rights allegations. During the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation meetings in 2014 and 2015 Kremlin proxies – in this instance World Without Nazism and the Foundation for the Development of Civil Society ‘People Diplomacy’ – accused Ukraine’s government of ‘mass killings of dissidents’, and claimed that half of the Russian-speaking Ukrainians have no opportunity to learn Russian in state-run schools.96 They also accused OSCE member states of turning a blind eye to violations of human rights in Ukraine.
And we see how well these tools worked in Ukraine:
… Many of these groups also spread Russian state propaganda to radicalize the local population, using social media and Russian state television. Western journalists following the development of military operations in Donetsk and Luhansk reported a noticeable change of mood among the local populations; a more antagonistic attitude towards Kyiv developed in the space of a few weeks.Russian television and websites demonized the Ukrainian army and portrayed Kyiv as a threat to local identity. Once again, there was apparent evidence of the manipulation of information. For instance, media-watching organizations such as StopFake have identified the same witness appearing in multiple clips, posing as different Ukrainians at various protests around the region.133 A multitude of digital information projects have been set up to sustain the Russian narrative about the uprising in eastern Ukraine. Many use the .su domain, a known haven for cyber criminals. …
… While Russia’s gambit in Ukraine may have failed on the grand scale, it none the less succeeded in producing a new conflict in the east that is being used as a lever of Russian influence. Using state controlled media, Russia has apparently been able to marshal public opinion to the extent that 70 per cent of people in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine polled in 2014 considered that the events of Euromaidan were an armed coup organized by the West; 45 per cent expressed the view that Russia defends the rights of Russian-speakers in Ukraine. Such people waved Russian flags, participated in illegal referendums and provided the false legitimacy for the various efforts of Kremlin-backed spin doctors, mercenaries and volunteer fighters to take control of parts of Donbas, intended to serve as a barrier to the future integration of Ukraine into Western institutions and to destabilize the post-Euromaidan government. The popularity of Russian media in the post-Soviet information space has clearly shaped public opinion in the wider region in line with the Kremlin’s narrative about the role of Russia in its conflict with Ukraine. In Armenia, Belarus and Kazakhstan the majority of citizens supported the Russian position in the conflict with Ukraine; 60 per cent of Belarusians and 80 per cent of Armenians agreed that the annexation of Crimea was a historically just restoration. Even in Moldova, where many have access to news from Romania, the majority of citizens blamed the EU, the United States and Russia equally for instigating the protests in Kyiv.
As Roman Skaskiw put it in a (good) article about Russian propaganda in in Small Wars Journal,
No matter how ridiculous their propaganda, no matter how many times it is proven to be false, it succeeds in shifting the conversation. Western journalists were consumed with determined if Russia was invading Ukraine, that they had little space left to examine how Russia was invading.
He also wrote, by the way, an excellent case study documenting the way Russia is particularly skillful at infiltrating and promoting its narratives among any “alternative” political grouping in the West: Putin’s Libertarians.
Right. If you’ve read this far, I hope you’ll see why I’m — speechless? no, obviously not, but distressed, surely, that Trump just announced he takes Putin at his word when he says Russia didn’t interfere with the 2016 election. (Even though Putin boasts of it.) Not only did Russia interfere, it continues energetically to interfere with our political life, with the aim of destroying the United States and the ideals it represents, alienating us from our allies, and alienating our allies from each other. So I find the President’s remarks–what’s that phrase they keep using these days? Problematic.
I’m going to rush through the rest of this a bit, because no one will read this far, but consider now the number of dark connections the Russians have had with Trump’s campaign and Administration. It is stunning. It is absolutely aberrant. Manafort worked for Russia’s man in Ukraine and is connected to the Russian mob. He was in hock to Russia to the tune of 17 million dollars when he joined the campaign.
Trump Jr.. was promised damaging information about Clinton by a “Kremlin-connected lawyer” — a Russian spy, in other words — and cheerfully replied, “If it’s what you say, I love it.” Not in doubt: documented in e-mail records.
Kushner has had to amend his foreign disclosure forms over and over. He met with head of a sanctioned Russian bank. He discussed creating a secret back channel to Moscow. He sat in on a meeting with Russian spies offering dirt on Clinton. Kremlin-connected interests invested in Facebook and Twitter through one of Kushner’s business associates.
Stone released his own DMs of his exchanges with Guccifer–who is Russia. He boasted of his connections to Wikileaks–which is Russia.
Caputo lived in Moscow for years, actually claims he worked for the Kremlin.
We know that Russian spies targeted Carter Page: Page himself now says so.
Michael Flynn–you know all about that.
Papadopoulos: You’ve seen the plea agreement.
On or about April 26, 2016, defendant PAPADOPOULOS met the Professor for breakfast at a London hotel. During this meeting, the Professor told defendant PAPADOPOULOS that he had just returned from a trip to Moscow where he had met with high-level Russian government officials,” the Justice Department document reads. “The Professor told defendant PAPADOPOULOS that on that trip he (the Professor) learned that the Russians had obtained ‘dirt’ on then-candidate Clinton. The Professor told defendant PAPADOPOULOS, as defendant PAPADOPOULOS later described to the FBI, that ‘They [the Russians] have dirt on her’; ‘the Russians had emails of Clinton’; ‘they have thousands of emails.’
Tillerson was given Russia’s Order of Friendship–the highest state honor possible for a foreigner.
What’s especially notable is that everyone involved has exhibited a remarkable, repeated lack of candor about these connections. There has been constant deception and lying from this administration whenever anything Russian is involved. “I have nothing to do with Russia,” the president has said. “To the best of my knowledge no person that I deal with does.” That is obviously–well, you be the judge.
The leaking of the so-called Paradise Papers has revealed even more of these connections:
Among the Trump administration officials implicated in the leaks is Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who according to the documents concealed his ties to a Russian energy company that is partly owned by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s judo partner Gennady Timchenko and Putin’s son-in-law, Kirill Shamalov. Through offshore investments, Ross held a stake in Navigator Holdings, which had a close business relationship with the Russian firm. Ross did not disclose that connection during his confirmation process on Capitol Hill.
I just don’t know how anyone could doubt, at this point, that Russia wanted to help the Trump campaign and some campaign officials were open to this.
Then we have the sheer weirdness of the President’s behavior. He has never once (to my recollection) criticized Putin. The “We’ve got a lot of killers… you think our country’s so innocent?” line — that is unreal, unprecedented, unheard of. He harshly criticizes NATO. He’s cast doubt on our commitment to NATO allies.
The platform. It was the only thing the Trump campaign seemed to care about–making sure the Republican platform dropped the call to give weapons to Ukraine. It put Trump at odds with every other Republican foreign policy leader. And according to report after report, it is the only thing they really cared about. The rest of the platform? Whatever, they were apparently indifferent. But they were determined to strip language about supporting Ukraine from the manifesto. Remember: Thousands of hacked DNC emails were meanwhile published by WikiLeaks (Russia) on the eve of that convention.
Trump’s insisted he had no contact with Russia even though he hosted the Miss Universe pageant there — he was pursuing a deal for a Trump Tower in Russia during the campaign, even as he was saying “I have nothing to do with Russia. Haven’t made a phone call to Russia in years.” He’s traveled extensively to Russia, everyone knows this, so why is he saying this? He’s done a lot of business there: It’s all amply documented.
He tried to stop Comey from investigating Flynn and then fired Comey, who was investigating the Russia connection.
He’s revealed highly classified information to the Russian ambassador and foreign minister.
He refuses to acknowledge that Russia meddled in the campaign at all.
I’m done for the day. I could go on and on. I could write a book about this. I have. But I’ve only got enough energy left in me today to leave you with these words:
“Every time he sees me he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’ and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it,” Mr. Trump said on the flight from Da Nang to Hanoi. “I think he is very insulted by it, which is not a good thing for our country.”
Edited: I took out the reference to the Alfa Bank story because I don’t have the technical expertise to make sense of it. I don’t want to muddle things up with an argument I don’t really understand and thus can’t really defend.Published in