I’ve been thinking a lot about the Russian influence operation against the American elections. I’ve read and reread the declassified report, and I’ve thought about it from the perspective of both an American observer in 2017 and the perspective of a former Cold War era intelligence officer. I’ve tried to digest all the inputs and come to some conclusions. This is my Sunday morning effort to articulate them.
What Putin Doesn’t Want
Putin is not a friend of the “American led liberal democratic world order.” He is not supportive of American interests as we have defined them since WWII. Fareed Zakaria traces Putin’s desire to disrupt this to the Arab spring, which seemed to presage a wave of democratic upheaval and caused him to feel threatened. I would trace it to at least the end of the Cold War and his perception that America took aggressive advantage by expanding NATO into the former Soviet sphere of influence, which he perceived a very threatening move. There are more reasons, but the bottom line is that Putin does not want a world order in which America and the Western democracies dominate and threaten to export and expand their “liberal democratic” world order. He is against that, and we should be aware of that as a starting point for interacting with him.
What Putin Does Want
In 2013 the chief of staff of the Russian Armed Forces, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, wrote about responding to the Arab Spring and other democratic revolutions which were threats because when these revolutions happen, “a perfectly thriving state can, in a matter of months and even days, be transformed into an arena of fierce armed conflict, become a victim of foreign intervention, and sink into a web of chaos, humanitarian catastrophe, and civil war.” His article put forward the argument that Russia must develop the full arsenal of tools to discourage “Arab Spring” type democratically inspired uprisings — tools that ranged from special operations to information operations. Putin agreed with this assessment and continues to see it to be in Russia’s interests to keep future “Arab Spring” type democratic uprisings from happening. He prefers populism, nationalism, rather than a unified US led liberal democratic front.
As Molly McKee writes, what Putin wants is ” what the Kremlin calls a “multi-vector” foreign policy, undermining the strength of Western institutions by coalescing alternate — ideally temporary and limited — centers of power. Rather than a stable world order undergirded by the U.S. and its allies, the goal is an unstable new world order of “all against all.” The Kremlin has tried to accelerate this process by both inflaming crises that overwhelm the Western response (for example, the migration crisis in Europe, and the war in eastern Ukraine) and by showing superiority in ‘solving’ crises the West could not (for example, bombing Syria into submission, regardless of the cost, to show Russia can impose stability in the Middle East when the West cannot).” The important thing here is to understand that Putin is not our friend–he is at a minimum a proponent of a revised world order that takes America down several notches and ends the era of domination the US and NATO. This doesn’t make him an implacable enemy …. but neither is he what Trump seems to see him as — a “bro” just waiting to be shown a little respect, and he’ll be our pal. It’s more complicated than that.
How Putin is Trying to Achieve His Goals
Putin sees the achievement of his objectives not as something that can be negotiated or bargained — he sees it at minimum as a stern contest between nations, and arguably he sees it as a multidimensional non-linear war in which the war machine includes everything — military is part of it, but also all the other tools are in play — technology, cyber attacks, overt information operation, , diplomatic efforts, economic efforts, cultural — all of this must be orchestrated toward the strategic objective. Perhaps it’s good to think of this as “political warfare” — meaning combat which stops short of armed conflict but uses everything else in the arsenal to try to achieve the desired outcomes for the Kremlin. As McKew writes, oftentimes the goal can be as simple as replacing “Western-style democratic regimes with illiberal, populist, or nationalist ones.”
Against this background, the US election was a golden opportunity to undermine the whole concept of western democracy and show it not as a shining example of the way things should be — but instead, to highlight it as not really democratic, as hypocritical, as a sham, etc. And so the Kremlin undertook a full range of “political warfare” operations in support of the first objective, undermining the whole liberal democracy paradigm. Given this first objective, it can be argued that it did not originate as a partisan effort against Hillary — it was designed to chip away at America’s standing as the leading liberal democracy; to cast doubt on the legitimacy of American democracy; to diminish America in the eyes of the world; and to undermine American citizen’s own confidence in their core institutions. Trump unwittingly helped this effort with his claims, when he was behind in the polls, that the election was “rigged”, and his open call, joking or not, for the Kremlin to steal more emails. All of this chipped away at American trust in our institutions, and so was consistent with Kremlin objectives.
Now …. keep in mind that part of the Kremlin policy is to pursue “illiberal, populist, or nationalist” outcomes in elections in the west, rather than the perpetuation of “Western-style democratic regimes.” Hillary was clearly the option in our election who would perpetuate western style democratic regimes and the “US led liberal democratic world order”. Putin didn’t want this. Trump was “illiberal, populist, nationalist.” Trump thus fit the mold of the kind of populist leader that the Kremlin wants to see come to power in as many places as possible. It is strategically consistent for the Kremlin to prefer Trump — and it took actions that supported that, not as some sort of wild-ass decision to take sides in the US election, but rather as an extension and a continuation of its strategic approach to the whole situation in the world.
So actions were taken that attacked our democracy in general, and which secondarily supported Trump vs Clinton.
Many of those actions fell within the acceptable spectrum of international give and take between nations. After all, a US election affects every nation on earth. Every nation, every citizen on earth, has reason and right to voice an opinion. So some of Russia’s efforts were “business as usual.” Russia’s development of its RT Network as a powerful internet mouthpiece is “within the rules” of acceptable international norms of behavior. So to are the use of all the overtly pro-Russian bloggers and talking heads, pushing a line that the Kremlin wants pushed.
But the effort included some actions that are perceived by most American leaders, including Republicans, as having “crossed the line” from acceptable international propaganda efforts to unacceptable hostile actions that reached deeply into internal US processes — a “hidden hand” seeking to achieve a partisan outcome in the US election. This category of actions that “crossed the line” of acceptability includes the publication by the Kremlin via its ally Wikileaks of the Podesta emails; the creation and promulgation of “fake news” using advanced social media techniques to cause the fake news to go viral; the use of an army of undeclared paid “trolls”, frequently posing as Americans, to amplify the impact of fake news and to further the strategic messaging objectives. All of these are similar to techniques used during the Cold War — but they are made infinitely more effective and powerful by the technology of social media, and so in 2017, the Russian efforts had a far greater impact than similar efforts in the Cold War did. And it is because the actions a) crossed a perceived line, and b) resulted in literally billions of individual “impressions” being made on the minds of voters, that it became such a big deal in the minds of so many. It was not only blatant “poltiical warfare” that break the norms of accepted behavior — it was damned effective in the the first election in US history where more news “impressions” were made via social media than via traditional media. And so you have, today, everyone from Obama to McCain and Lindsey Graham railing against this crossing of the line, while Trump either denies it happened, or simply accepts it as the new normal.
Is this state of “political warfare” where all of these actions are pursued the new normal? Should it be? Or should a sovereign nation like the US say no, this goes too far, and if you are going to do this, then we will retaliate? Many feel that it does go too far, that retaliation is appropriate and necessary. Some, and apparently Trump falls into this category, don’t see it as anything other than the new normal, to be accepted as part of the landscape.
What Does It Mean?
As a nation, we need to clearly understand the nature of the aggressive contest, if not a fullscale war, that is happening here. Does Trump fully understand it? Does Trump understand that Putin seeks a re-structuring of the world order that is very much against the world order that America and the western allies have been trying to develop since World War II. He is against the idea that western style democracy with America as the leading example of it, is “the answer” for nations across the globe.
Does Trump even favor the perpetuation of that “American led liberal democratic world order” that we have been working to build since WWII — or is he against it? His “America first” populism, his denigration of NATO and the UN, all of this suggests that he’s not really in favor it. But is this a truly carefully thought out position? Does he understand what will be lost if we let this slip away? Is it a position that Americans who voted for Trump truly want? Trump framed it as “America first” but what if that means abandoning the post WWII global structure in which America is first among a functioning coalition of western democracies? Is Trump ready to jettison that entire structure in favor if … what?
I worry that Trump has not thought deeply about any of this. I worry that he doesn’t fully understand the forces that are in play, or what the stakes are. At a minimum, I want Trump to grapple with and understand what Russia and Putin are actually trying to accomplish, and to arrive a true understanding of the competition, the contest, the “political war” that is happening. I don’t think he’s there yet.
Is that too much to ask?