Cold War 2.0

Might As Well Call It What It Is

In 2009, a number of Central and Eastern European leaders, including Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel, wrote a letter expressing their concern for the United States’ lack of attention and concern for them in the post-Soviet world.

The letter was prompted by an occasion: the Russia-Georgia war in which Russian-backed separatists in Georgia started a civil war in the country. The separatists were a proxy for the Russians, and the result of the war, in spite of protests from the international community, was that Russia essentially annexed two Georgian provinces.

Although the national security community was well aware of the problems Russia presented to Central and Eastern Europe, neither the Bush or Obama Administrations really addressed their concerns. Both administrations were almost certainly distracted by the threat of terror and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Russia proceeded to invade Ukraine and Crimea while other countries in the region suffered the corrosive effects of Russian-sponsored political and economic effects of war by other means.

Unlike Russia’s military actions, which were reported in the media, though with little context or analysis, it’s non-military tactics have been largely unnoticed. Even as it was reported that Russia was taking an active role in tilting the presidential election to Donald Trump, there was little or no attempt to understand the manipulation as part of a larger Russian larger strategy. Known as the Gerasimov Doctrine, the Russians recognize

“a ‘blurring of the lines between war and peace,’ and that ‘nonmilitary means of achieving military and strategic goals has grown and, in many cases, exceeded the power of weapons in their effectiveness.’ Gerasimov argues for asymmetrical actions that combine the use of special forces and information warfare that create “a permanently operating front through the entire territory of the enemy state.”

Special forces need not be involved to follow the doctrine. There is plenty that can be accomplished with active measures, the whole of Russian political warfare that ranges from propaganda to assassination. It was active measures that the United States experienced during the 2016 Presidential election. Propaganda isn’t new, but the technology to spread it and delicacy of the information ecosystem have changed.

Russia used armies of Twitter bots to spread fake news using accounts that seem to be aimed at Midwestern swing-voters. In addition to bots, Russia also used “trolls,” hundreds of computer operatives who pretended to be Trump supporters and posted stories or comments on the internet complimentary to Trump and disparaging of Clinton. The United States was completely unprepared for the intensity and sophistication of these tactics.

The seeds of more concerning strategies, those that have been successful in smaller, more easily influenced countries, seemed to have been already been sown in the Trump Administration. The Kremlin Playbook (2009), a report issued by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, describes the process for infiltrating and influencing Central and Eastern European countries:

Russian-linked entities work to support select state actors who in turn work on their behalf. This support can include investing in rising politicians, cultivating relationships with prominent businessmen, or helping to ensure that its business affiliates become well positioned in government. From a position of authority and power, these local affiliates can work to expand a system of Russian patronage by ensuring that lucrative contracts and rewards are doled out to Russia’s preferred partners, who then are beholden to the Kremlin’s network and become instruments of its influence. Russia’s networks can be so extensive that they penetrate government institutions and investigative bodies, disabling a democracy’s ability to conduct oversight as well as ensure transparency and accountability, which erodes the rule of law and renders it vulnerable to exploitation and manipulation.

Capture of the American economy or political system would seem to be a long shot for the Russians, but Trump’s and his administration’s connections to Russia are concerning. If Trump were somehow able to lift or render ineffective sanctions on Russia, their efforts would be amply rewarded. From Rex Tillerson to Wilbur Ross to Paul Manafort to Michael Flynn to Trump himself, there are troubling connections to Russia, connections that make investigations imperative.

State capture is not the only Russian goal.

First and foremost, the Kremlin is interested in ensuring that it is able to maximize the economic benefits of its engagement with the region and further enrich members of its inner circle as they seek opportunities beyond the Russian economy. Another equally vital motivation is to weaken the European Union and the West’s desirability, credibility, and moral authority, particularly among EU aspirant countries such as Serbia, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, in order to reduce their enthusiasm to cooperate with and integrate into these structures. A final motivation is Russia’s desire to elevate itself and its model of governance as a more attractive alternative to the U.S.-dominated international order: an illiberal sovereign “democracy” that is economically controlled by a select inner circle.

Every country attempts to increase its economic advantage and present itself as desirable and moral, but like the Soviet Union before it, Russia’s goals are the antithesis of American ideals. The United States has a very mixed record when it comes to exerting its influence abroad, but Russia’s has always been worse because it has never cared about democracy. Its totalitarian days may be over, but Russia’s preference for authoritarianism has not changed. Colluding with the mafia and secret police, the Russian government has aided, abetted, and participated in stealing entire industries and capturing government from both the people of Russia and smaller Central and Eastern European countries. Not infrequently, the Russia government assassinates its citizens, particularly its reporters and critics. The United States may not live up to its democratic ideals, but we certainly have them.

The 2016 Presidential election was a disaster for the United States, but it has paid dividends to Russian in confusion and mistrust among our allies and the world. Populating the White House with a combination of relatives and incompetents (the two aren’t mutually exclusive) who lie to the American people as a matter of course, neglect to fill hundreds of government positions, our government is a disorganized mess. Entire government departments are being run by people opposed to their missions. Less than 100 days into the Trump Administration, American desirability, credibility, and moral authority have taken a major hit.

We have elected an international joke, a corrupt, narcissistic, incompetent demagogue, and Russia played a role in making it happen. Time will tell the extent of their role.

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