It is no secret that Russia has engaged in attempts to subvert Western democracy and elections. Yesterday U.S. Senator Ben Cardin released the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Democratic Staff Report. The Report details Russia’s activities in subverting and undermining democracy and elections over the past 30 years both at home and abroad. It is revealing in what it tells us about Russian activities and at the same time the document details how these activities fit a broader historical trend in terms of Putin sharing similar fears with past Russian leaders. I will summarize it below and offer some analysis.
Putin operates from a position of weakness not strength. As much as he would like to portray the latter to the world, the reality is quite the opposite. The Russian economy is in a precarious state, the military isn’t as modernized as he’d like it to be, and power struggles continue. We’ve known those battles occur in the upper echelons of power between nationalists and those wanting greater ties with the West and in the streets with various groups vying for the support of the people from the well known Alexi Navalny to the communists. In spite of the attention Navalny has gained in the West, the communists pose a serious challenge to Putin’s regime as the ideology has the support of older Russians wanting a return to the “good old days” and a youth just discovering it. Putin was very careful to offer no state celebrations for the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution not wanting to boost public support for it.
Putin practiced subverting elections and democracy at home with the war in Chechnya. That war began following a rash of apartment bombings and in spite of no clear link to the attacks, Russia began bombing in Chechnya. Putin took note that the war boosted his popularity, it is something he has become personally obsessed with, i.e. maintaining a high approval rating. To counter dissent at home and ensure he has support Putin relies heavily on his domestic security services which he personally oversees, the FSB. The FSB also controls the country’s Investigative Committee, which is akin to its version of the FBI. There is thus no oversight between the prosecutor’s office and the Committee or the courts which often default to it when making decisions. It is political policing at its finest. The techniques mastered at home included disinformation campaigns to sow confusion, support divisive political groups to ensure Putin appears as the ‘voice of reason,’ and degrade support for democracy. These tactics were exported to Russia’s surrounding areas, areas that Putin believed Russia had a historic right to control, before spreading abroad. Russia’s security services also have no oversight of their activities, and are well funded. The aim of all this is to secure Putin’s position at home but also to destabilize the international order in place since the Second World War. The Report reinforces what we know of Putin’s aims for Russia broadly speaking. For Putin, the international order has not benefited Russia and it is one that Putin believes has increasingly encroached on Russia’s ‘sphere of influence.’ It is an order that seeks to control Russia not work with it. A return to a pre-war order, one where nations controlled ‘spheres’ is one that Putin believes would benefit Russia irregardless of the international strife and war it is likely to cause (as it did then).
To maintain what is really a fragile grip on power, Putin has enriched those loyal to him (and himself) by raiding state coffers and ensuring state institutions remain hollowed out as well as opposition parties. They must still exist because the semblance of a system is important to maintaining a semblance of legitimacy. In addition 28 journalists have been killed since 1999. Physical attacks on opposing forces in Russia are common and go unpunished. Putin projects himself as a defender of religious and cultural values against an “illiberal free world” where “multiculturalism and gay rights” spread with globalization.
Propaganda and disinformation tactics predate Putin and go back to the Soviet era but Putin has regularly relied on these tactics to consolidate and preserve his power at home. Media editors are regularly fed Moscow’s line and state media in Moscow regularly blur the line between news and entertainment boosting support for the Kremlin’s message. These tactics were used abroad as well. For example, during the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, controlling the media was one of the first priorities in the invasion.
Disinformation attacks are not new as mentioned. During the Cold War, the report indicates that roughly 10,000 such attacks were orchestrated by the Soviets. Technology and a ramped up offensive effort by Russia has made them more frequent. Russia believes that such campaigns, which seek to discredit democratic institutions and agencies and have people lose faith in the process, are possible in the West because of its support for free expression and speech. In other words, Russia believes it cannot suffer the same fate because it strictly controls its media and what its citizens can express. Since 2004, the Russians have engaged in attacks against 27 other countries including cyber-attacks and disinformation attempts. The operations cost little but can have a large payoff if a country’s divisions can be successfully exploited. At the heart of Russia’s goals is to blur any attempts at achieving an “objective truth.” As the Report states, “If everything is a lie, then the biggest liar wins.” Whatever information helps Putin is considered truth.
To spread its version of “truth” Russia has invested and financially supported a wide range of far-right groups in Europe, and even NGOs and think tanks. Figures in Russia’s government often control these investments. In addition it has supported organized crime with Russian organized crime controlling 1/3 of Europe’s heroin supplies. In the U.S. far-right groups have idolized Putin as being a defender of the white race and conservative values. Russia has actively sought to boost its influence and support from these groups including the National Rifle Association (NRA). Government officials close to Putin worked to strengthen ties with the group and even welcomed an NRA delegation to Moscow in 2015. The Russian Orthodox Church has also acted as a foreign proxy for the Kremlin’s message and the Russian state’s dominance in oil and gas has also served as a means of exerting pressure over European countries dependent on their reserves.
Ukraine has bore the brunt of Russia’s attempts to control its state with a wide variety of tactics being employed, from trying to install puppet leaders, to conventional military attacks, cyber warfare, controlling oil resources and disinformation. Georgia faced an outright invasion along with simultaneous cyber attacks. A coup was planned for Montenegro that included storming its Parliament and killing the Prime Minister. Russia has boosted its control of NGOs and influence in the press in Serbia, and in Hungary, Russia has sought closer ties with its leadership and Hungary has expressed support for Putin’s leadership. In Spain the country has battled against Russian supported organized crime. The recent Catalonia referendum gave the Kremlin an opportunity to exploit divisions. 30 per cent of social media messages from Sept 29 to Oct 5 were found to have Russian connections. Germany, Latvia and the Netherlands have all faced Russian disinformation campaigns too. Countries in Europe have tried to recently counter Russian tactics which include a NATO presence in Latvia as well as working to support Russian media independent of the Kremlin and operating abroad. Countries have boosted their cyber capabilities as well as worked with media to expose Russian disinformation and tactics. Recommendations of the Report include a stronger stance from US leadership against Russia, freezing assets of Russians involved, more sanctions and coalitions to combat Russian tactics and boosting democratic values abroad and strengthening institutions among others.
The Report reveals that Russian tactics and motivations have similarities to the past in that all this offense, all these attempts at disinformation and spreading the Kremlin message, is to shore up and protect a regime on shaky ground at home. At the heart of these attacks is Russian insecurity, fed by a leader that wants to maintain control at home at all costs. The offense in this case functions as defense. Even the attempts to control surrounding areas, Russia’s so-called ‘sphere of influence,’ are to boost Putin’s power and image at home as he tries to restore a kind of Soviet-era greatness again to appeal to those voices that claim Russia has declined since the days of the Soviet. The fear of the government being toppled, whether from outside forces or internal ones, dates back to the nineteenth century. Aside from moments of insurrection the idea of a ‘strongman’ leader have also existed for decades in Russia. Even Lenin believed in a vanguard for his revolution. Putin thus continues these historical trends and is certainly aware of the capability of the government falling to the people or to challengers in government. Putin’s desires to protect and maintain his power were evident from his earliest days in the Kremlin. In a precursor of what was to come, Boris Yeltsin recalled that when Putin was to become Prime Minister, Putin had “turned to me and requested absolute power…”
The question that remains is what specifically will the US leadership do to combat Russian attempts at destabilizing an international order that has benefited the US and the West for decades. What will US leadership do to combat election interference? With mid-term elections on the horizon and nothing concrete coming out of the White House, the time for actions and answers is quickly running out.
A link to the full report is below: