I spent a week this past July in Boston. The weather was hot, and the city seemed to have slowed to a crawl. People moved slowly in the heat. The Red Line trains were delayed, and those that were running stopped intermittently. The streets from the Fenway through Jamaica Plain to Dorchester were sagging around aging trolley lines. It was the picture of a great American city in decline.
As I contemplated the political turmoil that swirls around us on a daily basis, and the deep divisions and simmering rage on the left and the right, I thought about how, seemingly in the blink of an eye, the hopefulness that so many once felt just a few short years ago has given way to a deep pessimism. The crumbling infrastructure and slow weariness of the pedestrians seemed an apt metaphor for a nation whose promise is fading before our eyes.
It all seems so happenstance, the random confluence of events that have left a nation’s once common purpose and common decency pushed to the breaking point. Then, as I was driving through Franklin Park and Arnold Arboretum, where the lush green scenery pulsated in the shimmering heat, it struck me that it might not be so random after all.
I recalled a conversation with a friend from almost a decade ago, who spoke to me in urgent, hushed tones about something he called the “Suslov Hypothesis”. My friend was a Republican fixer, an inside player from the Bush years. He was an excitable and conspiratorial type, who loved to pass gossip along, with his eyes bright with the secrecy of closely held intel. He spent all day, every day, on the phone, which had led me to wonder how anything he told me could actually be a secret. Information was his currency, and secrets not shared were wasted assets.
I had gotten to know him at an international conference in Russia in 1989, where Soviet and American specialists in law, finance, politics, and other fields discussed what the future of Russia’s opening to the West might bring. Those were the high Gorbachev years. The Russians were excited about Glasnost and Perestroika, their moment of Hope and Change and the possibilities that the future held. To outsiders, it was evident that Communism was on its deathbed, and little but turmoil lay ahead. But they would have none of it; the market was coming, and it was going to save them.
Over a breakfast of blini and caviar one morning at the National Hotel — a venue for the rich and the powerful since it was built around the turn of the century by Tsar Nicholas II — one of our colleagues leaned over and whispered to me knowingly, “See that guy at the corner table, with the heavy eyes? He is on the general staff, and he will sell you a Backfire Bomber.” The Backfire Bomber, the supersonic, swing-wing Tu-25 was the gold standard in the Soviet arsenal.
As my friend later described it to me, while others were out selling Soviet assets for dollars wired into overseas accounts, Vladimir Putin was focused on the long-term. A senior KGB officer in the dying days of the Soviet empire, Putin was not one to let the financial opportunities in the chaos of a collapsing empire pass him by. Over the years, he found myriad ways to wet his beak and is reputed to have become among the richest men in the world.
But unlike the rest of them — the reformist Communist Gorbachev, the drunk Boris Yeltsin or the privatization architect Anatoly Chubais — Vladimir Putin was a true believer in the Soviet state, or, to be more accurate, in Soviet power. He reviled Gorbachev for retiring to his dacha and passing the keys to the kingdom to Yeltsin, and leaving the rotting corpse of the Soviet empire to be picked apart by the enemy west. Early on — if my friend was to be believed — as Putin saw the collapse coming, he laid the groundwork to do something about it. Perhaps the west would win that round, perhaps the Soviet Union was lost, but he was determined that he would live to see the day when the corpse of the west joined that of the Soviet state, and the world paid the price for the victory that America in its arrogance believed that it had won.
As my friend would lay it out years later, the Suslov Hypothesis was the subject of an exclusive symposium that Putin convened at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, believed to have taken place in late 1990. Dating back to the Stalinist era, the Institute of International Relations has been the academic and intellectual heart of the Russian intelligence and diplomatic communities.
The charge presented to the handpicked group of Institute faculty and senior KGB officers was to identify the vulnerabilities of western liberal democracies, with a particular focus on the United States, that could be exploited over the ensuing decades and ultimately lead to its destruction. These were not the usual questions addressed by KGB strategists, who might typically consider what institutions could be penetrated by “illegals” operating under deep cover in the west, or what politicians could be suborned through money or sex, or what industrial secrets could be stolen or purchased that might advance the Soviet military complex. Putin was focused on the longer-term. Don’t think about this year or next year or ten years from now, he emphasized, think about generations; think about the world we want to create fifty years from now.
They all understood. The Soviet state might be crashing and burning; but Russia had been at war with the west for a thousand years, and that war would not end with the collapse of the Communist order. The war dated back to the Great Schism in 1054, when the Eastern Orthodox Church split with Rome, and has burned ever since across battlegrounds in the Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Greece and the Balkans. The Russian homeland itself had been invaded at least once each century for the past five hundred years. Sweden, Poland, Germany, France, Japan, Turkey; they had all taken their shots. But in the 20th century it was America that orchestrated the defeat of the Soviet state. America was the enemy that must be defeated in the 21st century.
Whatever the price; however long it might take. The charge given to those attending the symposium: think outside the box like a capitalist; think long-term like the Chinese; think about historical contradictions like a good Marxist-Leninist; and think about historical patterns, vulnerabilities and tendencies like a good historian. The mission, Putin concluded, was to develop theories from which strategies could be developed to undermine western liberal democracy, and in particular to humiliate America in the eyes of the world. George H. W. Bush had just proclaimed his vision of a New World Order, with Russia reduced to just one more vassal state of the American global hegemon. Putin was determined to make sure that order was short-lived.
My friend would drop hints over the years that some kind of Russian effort was at play to undermine the west. It was just your normal right-wing conspiracy stuff — Bill Clinton pipelines and the rest — that I assumed he would bring up just trying to goad me. He never put a name to it; he would just refer to it in oblique terms to see if he could get a rise out of me. Then, one morning in 2011, he called me and put a name to it. It was twenty years after the meeting supposedly took place, and he was giddy with excitement. It was the Suslov Hypothesis, the master strategy that grew out of that meeting. He said it explained everything. We are at war; we just didn’t know it.
I chuckled as he rolled out the details of the story, insisting that either he was deliberately pulling my leg, or he was being duped. But he only doubled down, dropping the names of Bush national security types who had vouched for it. He said that he had a copy of the intelligence brief in front of him. After swearing me to secrecy, as he was wont to do, he began reading from what he claimed were actual transcribed notes from the meeting in 1990.
Sure, I thought, thinking both about conspiracy theories that had emerged from the intelligence community over the years, and thinking in particular about my friend’s notion of a secret. Sure.
The deeply destructive impacts of Russian active measures laid out in the Mueller Report brought this memory back to me. When I got back from Boston, I searched my hard drive where I had backed things up to from time to time, to see if I could find the notes I might have taken during our call. I hadn’t given the whole thing more than a passing thought since that morning, as my friend died tragically of a massive heart attack just a few weeks later. I found the file, and have included my reconstruction of the notes that my friend read to me that morning at the end of this post. The theory articulated in those notes can be summarized as follows:
America is different from its European counterparts. The population of the United States is not bound together by a shared common history, culture or geography, but rather by myths claiming common values, historic traditions and commitments. The American pledge of allegiance encapsulates these contradictions, claiming that America is “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Each element of those words is a lie, as American liberal democracy is a system rife with internal contradictions. The Suslov Hypothesis is that the essential vulnerability of the American state is the internal contradictions of its founding myths. If effectively aggravated, those contradictions can become the sources of internal discord that may ultimately debilitate, if not destroy, that system. If followed to its logical conclusion, effective intelligence operations can undermine western democracies in a manner that offers the prospect of transforming the playing field of international relations.
The Suslov Hypothesis is that the destruction of America lies not in military conflict, but in exposing the false premises of the myths that bind American democracy together. Lacking the normal glue of nationhood, common geography, culture, history and religion, America is an illusion. Expose the hypocrisy of the myths, exacerbate confrontations between groups with conflicting interests in and understandings of those myths, undermine the institutional structures that support the mythology, and the entire colossus will fragment. Shatter the mythology of American democracy at home, and a balkanized America will decline in esteem around the world. In turn, the alliance of liberal democracies will swiftly crumble.
The detailed notes provided at the end of this post focus on targets of opportunity and strategies for sowing discord in the areas of politics, finance and law. There was little foreshadowing of the opportunities created by the emergence of the Internet and social media for what have become central to Russia’s cyber efforts, though the notes did mention the emergence of the ARPANET and the possibilities for electronic warfare that could emerge as a more sophisticated force for undermining western democracies than radio and Voice of America were in destabilizing the Soviet state. They focused on elevating conflicts and exacerbating existing political divisions around taxes, guns, race, voting rights, abortion, religion, and other issues, with a peculiar fixation on gay rights. There was a brief discussion about whether targeted assassinations of whites and blacks could be a viable tactic to instigate a “race war,” but the risks of exposing KGB complicity was felt to be too risky.
These days, conspiracy theories are everywhere. My father was always easy prey for conspiracy theories. He wanted to believe there were hidden forces at work that could explain the mayhem of seemingly random events in the world. He would have believed that the meeting surrounding the Suslov Hypothesis is real, and that it illustrates the historical roots of Putin’s war. I don’t; I never did. I assumed from the outset that while a meeting in Moscow could have taken place, and the Suslov Hypothesis might have been a product of that meeting, as my friend insisted, more likely the whole thing was a story made up out of whole cloth.
In the end, however, I am not sure whether it matters. From the moment when Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev handed the keys to the Kremlin to Boris Yeltsin and turned out the lights on the Soviet empire, Americans moved on from the Cold War. But Russia didn’t move on; its war against the west just entered a new phase. Whether or not that meeting took place at the Institute of International Relations in Moscow in 1990, a similar meeting probably took place somewhere else. Putin is nothing if not a strategic thinker, and as the walls were crumbling down around the Soviet state that year, he surely wasted no time in charting a new path forward.
Whatever the origins of Russia’s efforts to sow political and social discord, they are working. The vulnerabilities laid out in the Suslov Hypothesis are real, and the beliefs and institutions that underpin our democracy are crumbling before our eyes, just as the aging Leninist Mikhail Suslov might have suggested was possible. To make matters worse, in Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin has found the perfect partner for his ambitions. This is not a comment about whether or not the Trump campaign conspired with Putin, but rather the observation that Trump’s narcissism leads him blindly in his political impulse to seek out ways to divide Americans against each other, and this is so perfectly aligned with the ambitions encapsulated in the Suslov Hypothesis.
And the results are evident. The schism dividing our political parties is only getting more intractable. Our alliances are in a shambles, and the New World Order of George H. W. Bush has crashed and burned. The liberal democratic order that once united the west is teetering on the precipice, and, consumed by our parochial self-interest, we seem incapable of doing anything about it.
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The Suslov Hypothesis:
The Emerging Landscape of the Russian-American Conflict
What is to be done?
The program of radical economic reform begun by General Secretary Gorbachev will not be sufficient to reverse the decline in the Soviet economy, and the program of Perestroika has already done much to undermine Soviet power. The demise of the Soviet state is now an historical certainty, it is only a matter of time before the final collapse comes. Our enemies will have won a great victory, and the American President Bush gloats on the world stage while the Russian people are suffering. Instigating a parallel demise on the western powers people is imperative. It is justice. History will not abide inaction at this time.
American liberal democracy is a system rife with internal contradictions. If aggravated effectively, those contradictions can become the sources of internal discord that can ultimately debilitate, if not destroy, that system. The Suslov hypothesis is that through a combination of strategies, whose outcomes may be uncertain as they are implemented, western democracies can be undermined in a manner that will transform the playing field of international relations.
American democracy is a particular variant of liberal democracy. It is at once stronger and more vulnerable than its European counterparts. European democracies are homogeneous, with less ethnic and racial differences among the populations. The central challenges come from religious differences, as well as racialism rooted in each country’s colonial history. In contrast, the United States has a stronger economic system, which arises from its size and wealth of natural resources, but is deeply challenged by its history of racial exploitation, African slavery and the annihilation of its indigenous peoples.
The Vulnerability of the American State
The essential vulnerability of the American state is the internal contradictions of its founding myths. America is different from its European counterparts. The population of the United States is not bound together by a shared common history, culture or geography, but rather by myths claiming common values, historic traditions and commitments. The American pledge of allegiance encapsulates these contradictions claiming that America is “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
The academician of history emphasized that America is not one nation, it is a polyglot gathering of peoples who either abandoned their home countries, or were brought there on slave ships. Its people lack a common history, a common culture or coherent faith in god. The events it celebrates as “holidays” and the “universal” values it claims to stand for are at best half-truths. Its thanksgiving celebrates the destruction of indigenous peoples, its revolution was a victory for ruling white elites and a tragedy for negros, its civil war evolved into in a century-long war of attrition, and the second world war forced blacks to fight and die around the world for freedoms denied to them at home, and saw the imprisonment of Japanese Americans. The liberty and justice that Americans claim to be unique to their country only exists for those who are white and rich. White Americans ignore the suffering over the centuries of negro Americans brought to the country on slave ships, the appropriation of the historical lands and destruction of the cultures of indigenous Indians, and the continuing efforts by whites to deny liberty and justice to non-white Americans.
The Suslov hypothesis is that the destruction of America lies not in military conflict, but in exposing the false premises of the myths that bind American democracy together. Lacking the normal glue of nationhood, common geography, culture, history and religion, America is an illusion. The academician summed it up, “As Mikhail Andreyevich [Suslov] liked to say, ‘kill the myths and the illusion that is America will crumble.’” Expose the hypocrisy of the myths, exacerbate confrontations between groups with conflicting interests in and understandings of those myths, undermine the institutional structures that support the mythology, and the entire colossus will fragment. Shatter the mythology of American democracy at home, and a balkanized America will decline in esteem around the world. The alliance of liberal democracies will swiftly crumble.
Targets of Opportunity
The vulnerabilities and weaknesses of American liberal democracy were discussed in four general categories: Finance, politics, law, and greed. The preferred strategies will be those that attack multiple vulnerabilities concurrently, that are low cost, and that are easily concealed. Areas of strategic focus to be discussed in detailed memoranda to follow include the following:
Political. Racialism remains the greatest political vulnerability of the American democracy. Since the founding of the country, majority whites have held power over minority blacks. First, absolute power during the slavery period, and following that in the form of majoritarian political power. The brief rise of black political power that took place after the country’s civil war in the middle of the 19th century was brutally suppressed. Over the course of the 20th century, blacks successfully won increasing political power. School integration, the civil rights movement and affirmative action each elevated the economic and juridical standing of blacks, and at the same time heightened the fears and anxieties of the majority whites, who saw their power steadily diminished. White anger came to a boiling point in the 1968 presidential election, when George Wallace, the governor of a small, southern state, won a significant share of the national vote, demonstrating that the fears of white voters could be turned into electoral power by politicians running on an explicit anti-civil rights platform.
From the founding of the country, white voters outside of the ruling elite class generally supported the Democratic Party, but a number of events alienated these voters during the last half of the 20th century. These events included the integration of the United States Army by Democratic President Truman, the expansion of black voting rights and political power in the 1960s by Democratic President Johnson, race riots in American cities and the rise of the counter-culture movement in the 1960s, and Vietnam War protests in the 1970s. As the Democratic Party focus shifted to the political left and toward black voters, and seeing the shift of white votes in the 1968 election, the Republican Party worked to attract those white voters.
The shift in the Republican Party has created an internal contradiction that will grow over time and can be exploited. Historically, the Republican Party has been the party of the capitalist ruling elites, with little appeal to lower class and religious voters who historically voted Democratic. In 1980, Ronald Reagan built his presidential campaign by appealing directly to those voters. While the Republican Party history representing capitalist ruling elites was in conflict with those new voters, the white working class and religious voters were attracted by Reagan’s religious and racial rhetoric.
A participating academician of political economy suggested that in time those voters will demand increasing power within the Republican Party. This may either result in a breaking up of the Republican Party or more likely lead to a new schism in the national politics where the political parties are divided increasingly along issues of race. Capitalist ruling elites will comply with the demands of its lower class and religious white voters, while the Democratic Party becomes the party of white liberals, blacks, feminists and a declining share of lower class white voters.
With race as a battle line, a dominant question will become “liberty and justice for who?” The political battle for power between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party will become a second civil war. Racial conflict and resentment will be the cause of this war, but the casualty will be widespread belief in the founding myths of liberty and justice for all.
Finance. One internal contradiction of advance capitalist democracies is the role of money influencing politics. Writers like the anti-communist Russian Jew American Ayn Rand (a Russian Jew born in St. Petersburg) have argued that liberty and democracy are only possible with capitalism, but the capitalism that Rand described was the capitalism of Scottish economist Adam Smith, a romantic notion of free markets and free choice that does not exist. Capitalism in America has from the very beginning been intertwined with democracy as capitalist ruling elites use money to buy votes and secure political power.
Far from being a revolution of the people, the American revolution created a system of capitalist control over politics. This was evident from the beginning with the protection of slavery in the American Constitution at the insistence of southern aristocratic slavers. In America today, politicians pay for their election campaigns with money they raise from business elites, in return for contracts with the government and laws that protect businesses from competition. Because of the boom and bust nature of capitalism, capitalists will always want to pay money to politicians during the boom periods in order to have the government protect them when the bust comes. Nowhere are the interests of the people represented, except in political speeches during election campaigns. Populist politicians have proven time and time again that American voters resent the power and the corruption, and at some point this will reach a boiling point.
Another internal contradiction that offers great possibilities for exploitation is the mix of public finances and electoral politics. While politicians raise money for their election from capitalists ruling elites, they need to provide things to voters to win their votes. Typically, to pay for those things, politicians raise taxes, which complicates the relationship. However, the election of Ronald Reagan has changed this dynamic in ways that may transform American politics in the future. The election of Reagan demonstrated that cutting taxes can be as important for winning votes as providing things for voters. In the future, voters will still want things, and politicians will want to provide those things, but politicians will not want to raise taxes to pay for those things, and, given the choice, voters will not want to pay those taxes.
One participant, the academician of political economy, noted that the American President Bush had just raised taxes, in violation of his election pledge. Should voters punish him for that action and deny him reelection, as the academician expects they will, no Republican president, regardless of juridical and economic imperatives, will ever again dare to raise taxes. Instead, the American government will find itself trapped in a cycle of external debt financing. If not controlled, the growing dynamic of spending and debt financing could create a fiscal crisis of substantial proportions, and force a political explosion characterized by blame and the incapacity to act.
Law. Americans talk about their constitution and declaration of independence as documents with almost divine power. Yet American democracy is as messy and hypocritical as any other nation. The Soviet Constitution offers the same rights and liberties as the American Constitution, with the explicit exception that those rights are necessarily subordinated to the interests of the state. The history of America makes a mockery of the claim of “liberty and justice for all.” As in any country, the American legal system is not an institution for the protection of rights and delivery of justice for everyman, it is an institution for the protection of the rights of the ruling elites, and the delivery of justice for majority whites. This wide gap between the myth and reality of the role of law in America is a particular vulnerability of American democracy.
Greed. The ultimate vulnerability of democracy combined with capitalism is greed. As one looks at each side of the economy and democracy, people look out for their own self-interest. The recent Hollywood movie Wall Street demonstrates that the western capitalist slogan that “greed is good” is itself a lie, and that the forces of capitalism, democracy and self-interest are not compatible. Capitalists and bankers regularly ask for political favors and use their power in ways that are destructive of the interests of the people. Politicians, looking out for their own self-interest, will never stand up to the power of ruling elites. Self-interest is a key vulnerability of the capitalist, democratic west that can be exploited.
Americans are deeply credulous as a people, as shown by the myths that they believe in. Conspiracy theories regarding the assassination of American President Kennedy and the moon landing continue to be widely believed. Expanding communication technology, such as the ARPANET and cellular phones have expanded the opportunities for eavesdropping, while cable television has expanded the ability to target populations for disinformation strategies that can instigate conspiracy theories, racial hatreds and social conflict. These technologies will expand the possibilities and opportunities for cross-boarder information operations, as radio did for the west in enabling Voice of America.
The KGB should support the growing anti-tax movement in America with the explicit goal of fomenting a financial crisis down the road. It is inherent in liberal democracies for politicians and voters alike to want to increase spending, but the sentiment that has supported the election of Ronald Reagan is likely to grow, and the financial imbalances are likely to increase. We discussed the additional opportunity to accelerate this trend by instigating wars that would put pressure on the American treasury, but that is a highly risky strategy, which as we have seen could backfire on the Russian government.
The KGB should support the growing gun-rights movement in America with the goal of creating social instability and hostility among the political parties when gun violence necessarily rises as the number of guns increases. The presence of guns may offer new possibilities for aggravating social instability over time, once the predicate of increased resentment and hostility among competing groups is instigated.
The KGB should support organizations in America that will over time exacerbate what are being called social “wedge issues.” These are now being used by political campaigns, but we believe that exploiting these sensitive social issues can create far more powerful divisions, particularly with the emerging schism between the two political parties. Issues include gun rights in America, religious differences and abortion in particular, and homosexuality and other sexual deviance.
The KGB has a global cadre now exceeding one million people, who we can expect will be lacking a purpose and demoralized in the wake of what we expect will be the ultimate collapse of the Soviet state. This provides us with available resources to create an net of unimagined resources to identify and capture individuals who may not be important now, or serve any immediate purpose, but may create opportunities down the road that we can not anticipate at this time.
In this context, the KGB should expand is role in providing sexual liaison opportunities for young, rising Americans in the worlds of politics, religion and industry who may become political leaders in the future. Such a strategy may grow in several directions, building relationships with possible agents of influence in the future, or to secure compromising information on individuals who may not be useful now, but may become useful in the future.
These issues can be woven together into a broad strategy to deepen the divides between the Republican and Democratic Parties. There is a possibility that the divisions can be made deeper over time, to a point where the divisions become irreparable, and undermine the national liberal democratic commitments…
Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of “FedExit! To Save Our Democracy, It’s Time to Let Alabama Be Alabama and Set California Free.”
Artwork by Joe Dworetzky. Check out Joe’s political cartooning at www.jayduret.com. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.