On Morning Joe a few days ago, a journalist who has covered the Russia story commented that it was hard to take Steele’s Russia dossier seriously early on. “He was saying, the Russians are coming, the Russians are coming, and, contrary to the conspiracy theories, no one listened…it was so hard to believe there was a Russian conspiracy or that this story could be true…”
Skepticism around the notion of a “Russian conspiracy,” and the idea that the Russians might be coming, influenced how Steele’s material was received by much of the media. A Russian conspiracy? The very idea of it is so 1950s. We imagine that the Cold War years are deep in our past, and we are way beyond that now.
Despite the conviction of U.S. intelligence agencies that Vladimir Putin personally directed the information operation against the U.S. election, Putin denied everything in a recent interview with Megan Kelly on NBC. He insisted he knew nothing about it and was dismissive of the significance of allegations by Robert Mueller that Russian citizens were involved. “So what if they’re Russians?” Putin protested. “There are 146 million Russians. So what?… Maybe they’re not even Russians. Maybe they’re Ukrainians, Tatars, Jews, just with Russian citizenship.”
The remarkable thing is not that he denied it, but that anyone would give any weight to Putin’s answer. It is an oddity of our media culture that we presume that people have an obligation to tell the truth. Putin is the head of the Russian state, and whether you like him or not, there is simply no reason to believe that he has some kind of moral obligation to divulge his nation’s intelligence strategies on U.S. television. Yet, somehow, we do, and, by the manner of her questioning, Megan Kelly did too.
Russia’s history with “information warfare” is long and deep. In 1954, my grandfather, a conservative intellectual, wrote a book called The Fifth Weapon. It opened with a quote from Stalin’s Premier Vyacheslav Molotov, who asserted that the Soviet Union would never fight America militarily, but instead would weaken America internally through other means, ultimately allowing the Soviet Union to “settle our accounts with America” on its own terms. The “fifth weapon” referred to the collection of non-military Soviet tactics designed to disrupt American democracy through the manipulation of language and dissemination of fake news, with the objective of steering public opinion and weakening America and other western societies from within.
Those tactics had a long history in Russia. Perhaps the most effective information warfare campaign in history — the publication of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion — had been launched a half-century earlier, just after the turn of the century. Attributed to the Okrana — the secret police of Tsar Nicholas II and forerunner to the KGB — The Protocols were disseminated during a period rife with anti-Jewish massacres across Russia. The Protocols were subsequently embraced and promoted by individuals ranging from Adolph Hitler to Henry Ford, and its central premise of a Jewish cabal that runs the world continues to reverberate in radical rhetoric on the right and the left across the globe.
When Barack Obama told Vadimir Putin to “cut it out,” he seemed to be suggesting that the information warfare tactics launched by Putin surrounding the 2016 election was a prank of some kind, rather than central to Russian strategic doctrine. Just three years earlier, in an article in 2013, General Valery Gerasimov, the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia — Putin’s top general — described the critical role of information warfare: “The very ‘rules of war’ have changed,” Gerasimov observed. “The role of nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness.”
The “Gerasimov Doctrine” mirrored Molotov’s view that non-military tactics constitute an essential path to achieving victory. In the opening comments of is 2013 article, Gerasimov suggested that “In the 21st century, there is a tendency to erase the differences between the state of war and peace. Wars are no longer declared, and when they begin, they do not follow the pattern that we are accustomed to… A completely prosperous state in a matter of months or even days can turn into an arena of fierce armed struggle, fall prey to foreign intervention, plunge into the abyss of chaos, humanitarian catastrophe and civil war.” Given this new frame of reference, Gerasimov continued, “The emphasis of the methods of confrontation used is shifting towards broad application of political, economic, information, humanitarian and other non-military measures implemented with the use of the protest potential of the population.”
As much as we view Russia today as distinct from its Soviet forebears, Gerasimov’s doctrine reflects a Russian view of its relationship with the world that dates back to the Tsars: fear of encirclement, vulnerability to invasion, a desire to build a perimeter of friendly or neutral regimes around its periphery, a resistance to political and cultural pressures from the West, and an awareness that it is militarily overmatched. Gerasimov’s perspective mirrors Soviet doctrine, where anything from fifth columns to agitprop to proxy wars were tools, preferred to actual engagement of Russian soldiers on the ground.
A more challenging question than whether Vladimir Putin directed Russian efforts to meddle in our democracy is: Why wouldn’t is. Most Americans fell asleep after we declared victory in the Cold War. Separated by oceans and our belief in the inevitable triumph of liberal democracy, we laughed when Mitt Romney suggested that Russia remained our greatest geo-political adversary. We had moved on.
Russia, on the other hand, never moved on. Putin has made no secret of his ambition to resist the influence of the West and roll back the decline of Russian global power and regional hegemony. We should not view the notion that Russia might harness the power of social media and use it as a tool against us as a conspiracy — or surprising. Military confrontation is not — and has never been — an option upon which Russia could rely. In contrast, the rise of information technology and social networking offered Russia with a new theatre for information warfare that has been central to its strategic world view for more than a century.
A woman who worked in one of the St. Petersburg ‘troll factories’ referenced in Mueller’s indictment, “that turned lying, telling untruths, into an industrial assembly line,” observed that Russia’s tactics could never work against Russians. “Who really reads the comments under news articles, anyway? Especially when they were so obviously fake… But for Americans, it appears it did work. They aren’t used to this kind of trickery. They live in a society in which it’s accepted to answer for your words.”
The burden is not on Vladimir Putin to cut it out. This is our problem. Putin is simply doing what he views as in his and his country’s best interest, using tools and strategies that they have refined over the generations. Whatever response people might have in mind — expelling diplomats or adding some new sanctions — will not fix things. We have made ourselves vulnerable to Russia’s efforts by our own behavior; our penchant for conspiracy theories, our increasing insistence on assuming the worst of those on the other side in our political wars, and, as the woman from St. Petersburg suggested, our guilelessness.
That was the Russian objective all along: deepening the political rifts that divide us and exacerbating our dysfunction; anything more than that was just an added bonus. We have become so obsessed with partisan games that it has become difficult for us to see simple truths and dangers that are right in front of us, and to grasp how much we have at stake if we continue down the path we are on.
Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of “FedExit: Why Federalism is Not Just For Racists Anymore.”
Artwork by Jay Duret and Alex Dworetzky. Check out Jay’s political cartooning at www.jayduret.com. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.