Russia had a plan, and they told us in 1998
On September 9, 1998, Igor Panarin rose to speak at a conference on Information Warfare in Linz, Austria. Panarin presented his theory that, in 2010, the United States would erupt into civil war, and fall into foreign hands after being broken up into different countries. He continued to push this theory every few years, but the first time I heard of it was in 2008. I remember hearing the news segment and joking with my, then boyfriend, now husband about it.
In 2008, I was in my last year of college at the University of Virginia, and taking a Russian foreign affairs and Russian history class. The Russian foreign affairs professor had a Russian journalist come to class to tell us about her work. I remember marveling at the danger she faced, the control Russia had over its media, and the propaganda machines the Kremlin employed. I’m sure we laughed about the civil war theory in class. It’s not funny anymore.
My position is not that we are on the edge of an all-out civil war. I believe we left the door to our minds and our country’s soul unlocked, and now we have to somehow regain control. I do not believe that Russia wants the U.S. to have a civil war, or the U.S. to separate into different countries. I think that, as even Panarin points out, a collapsed U.S. would not be economically advantageous for anyone worldwide. Instead, I believe that the Kremlin sourced Panarin’s intelligence and theories for vulnerabilities in the U.S. system, and then pushed those buttons hoping to weaken our standing in the world for Russia’s own gain. With a weakened U.S. on the international stage, Russia (and China) may exert additional control over politics and global finance. The goal is to weaken our standing, and weaken our influence. Internal turmoil in the U.S. is just a bonus.
I feel obligated to note that the U.S. has engaged in “information warfare” the U.S. regularly. Pushing on the vulnerabilities of different countries, hoping to edge their politics in a way that seemed advantageous to our position in the world or our interests, and sometimes even helping spur coups. I am not excusing this behavior, or even supporting it. That being said, I am certainly not going to sit back and watch it happen here.
So, who is Igor Panarin? Panarin is a former KGB agent, foreign policy advisor, and a professor in Russia. His theory on the “balkanization of the U.S.” a.k.a the “U.S. breakup theory,” sounds unbelievable and outlandish, yet he remained a credible figure in Russia. As the Wall Street Journal stated in 2008, Russian leadership did not see him as a “fringe figure.” He was actually well-regarded by the Kremlin, and regularly appeared on the Russian propaganda news network RT as an expert.
Now, obviously Panarin’s theory is not 100% correct because the U.S. did not collapse in 2010. We’re still very much in tact even if it does not feel that way sometimes. It is still worth exploring Panarin’s theory through an information warfare lens. Panrain outlines three main causes for the U.S. collapse: mass immigration, economic decline, and moral degradation. I believe the Kremlin took this information, combined it with other intelligence, and spent the last years engaging in information warfare on U.S. soil. The most prominent examples appeared during the 2016 election because Russia either became sloppy or simply did not care to hide their efforts.
In April, Pew Research reported that mass immigration of unauthorized persons was actually lower in 2015 than it was in 2009. The same article showed that unauthorized entry of immigrants peaked around 2007, but there was a slight upward bump between 2015 and 2016. Panarin correctly predicted an influx in immigration, and unauthorized individuals did enter the U.S. at higher rates in the 2000s than they did in the 1990s. According to U.S. News and the Southern Poverty Law Center (“SPLC”), anti-immigrant groups boomed in the U.S. in 2010, then went through a lull in about 2014. Unfortunately, that was not to last because in 2015 the number of Klu Klux Klan (“KKK”) groups alone went up to more than double the previous year.
On the doorstep of the election Americans were feeling comfortable enough with racism couched in “nationalist” rhetoric, that they began to join or rejoin organizations like the KKK. To be a country who supposedly welcomes immigrants, we are historically unwelcoming. Hate groups, like the KKK, prey upon the fear and resentment of Americans in the so-called “silent majority,” by spewing anti-immigrant rhetoric. Panarin realized this, and by way of his theory recommended that Russia push our racist buttons.
As The Daily Beast reported, Russia created Facebook pages and rallies dedicated to pushing anti-immigrant propaganda. One specific example, was a rally in August of 2016 in Idaho that was both anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim. Russia is also connected to a defunct Facebook group stirring up anti-immigrant fervor in Texas. I am sure more examples will emerge because the stack of evidence is growing every day that Russian actors used social media to influence Americans with anti-immigrant propaganda.
We also cannot forget that Trump’s campaign was full of individuals tied to Russia (Manafort, Flynn, Stone, etc.). We also know that the Trump campaign pushed anti-immigrant narratives from day one when Trump gave his famous “Mexicans are rapists” speech. After about two years of “build the wall,” chants Trump won the election. As Vanity Fair noted, Republicans statistically see diversity as bad, “Russian operatives didn’t create those divisions; they just exploited them.” Russia helped push the anti-immigrant fervor along to try to destabilize the social and political fabric of the U.S. The Republicans found it advantageous, and they ran with it.
Back in 2008, The Wall Street Journal delivered the following Panarin quote, “Americans hope President-elect Barack Obama ‘can work miracles,’ he wrote. ‘But when spring comes, it will be clear that there are no miracles.’” In a way, he was right. Obama inherited a crashing economy with many, many unhappy folks in bad situations. When PBS interviewed four different economists back in January of 2017 about the Obama presidency, they all seemed to agree that he stabilized the economy. Still, two out of four of the economists also stated that Obama had shortcomings, and he did not produce the growth the American people needed or wanted. By 2016, a lot of folks were still unhappy with our economy and for good reason.
Many folks still face inequitable situations in the U.S. because of a shrinking middle class, slow growth, and disappearing jobs. We have more rich people, and fewer people “in the middle.” And what about all the New York Times articles profiling the sad, white Trump voters who lost their jobs that Trump promised to bring back? These folks were particularly vulnerable to demagoguery. They made their decisions, and they’re responsible for their choices, but we must understand why they were vulnerable in order to win next time.
When people feel stuck, they are more likely to buy from the snake oil salesman that promises them a quick fix. New jobs, more money, stronger economy! The problem was not their community, or their job skills, or their life choices, it was immigrants! Trump never said how he would fix the economy, but he said it’d be great, and that he was the only one who could fix it. He said it, almost half the country bought it, and now we’re stuck with him.
We know that Russia bought Facebook ads that were pro-Trump or anti-Hillary about gun control and race relations. We also know that Russia used an extensive bot network to spread propaganda during the election cycle. In one Wikileaks hit, the Trump admin managed to gain talking points about immigration AND the economy at one time. Lest we not forget Roger Stone, Trump campaign surrogate, touted his relationship with Wikileaks. Trump tied Clinton incessantly to Wall Street and to the “swamp.”
The economic door was wide open, and I am not saying it was not fair criticism or a wrong campaign tactic. The interesting aspect to me is that Panarin predicted the economic downturn, Russia pushed false narratives, and then the Trump campaign naturally followed suit.
This is the weakest element of panarin’s theory. By “moral degradation” he explains he meant that, “Americans are in moral decline, saying their great psychological stress is evident from school shootings, the size of the prison population and the number of gay men.” While I agree our mass shootings are disgusting and our prison population growth is also reprehensible, the homophobic angle is just sad. It is sad, and it is typical of Russia. I do think we saw a sort of moral degradation, just not the kind Panarin expected.
Politics in the U.S. have always been, at least to some degree, rife with incivility. However, 2011-present feels like the all-star games of incivility in politics. From Trump demanding our very American President provide his birth certificate, to Trump calling to “lock up” his opponent, it has been non-stop and it has been ugly. Our tribalism and othering runs so deep that we barely see each other as human anymore. In this case, Russia added to the vitriol by using their bot network on social media to spread fake news. By November 9, 2016, some of us could barely talk to friends and relatives because we were so angry and hurt. Russia wanted this, Russia reveled in this. Why? As Panarin predicted, “economic, financial and demographic trends will provoke a political and social crisis in the U.S.”
We are living in a crisis now, just not one caused by “gay men.” For example, race-based issues are boiling to the surface of U.S. politics once again. Of course, racism is not new. White folks who say this is not the America they grew up in are both right and wrong. I believe that social media, and easy access to propaganda has made the spread of racist narratives easier. I also believe that extremists feel emboldened and white supremacists feel safer in Trump’s America. Compound this with the reality that this country has never functioned the way it was promised, so yes, this is the America you grew up in. The difference is that now it is harder to look away from white supremacy and racism because they are on full display in a daily parade of bigotry. Russia banked on social unrest, and helped push it along where they could (hint: it was on social media).
It isn’t over
Panarin predicted that we would be fighting amongst ourselves in some of the darkest times modern Americans have experienced (well, he predicted worse). The Russian government used information warfare, possibly hacking, possibly U.S. conspirators, and God knows what else to edge the process along. They found our vulnerabilities, and they laser-targeted them to try to produce the outcome that they wanted in our election. I am not saying Hillary lost because of Russia. Elections are way too complex to make a statement that simple. What I am saying, is that a portion of the electorate fell prey to large propaganda campaigns, so it is important that we realize what tools were used to manipulate our people, to manipulate our country.
If we learn from 2016, then we can adapt to combat information warfare in future elections because this is not going away. We now live in an era where we are inundated with foreign-created propaganda that masquerades as garden-variety “fake news” right alongside domestic propaganda. We are not just fighting domestic far-right conspiracy theorists. When we see an outlandish claim, we must learn how to put our skeptic’s hat back on (even if it is coming from a source we trust). Taking back the narrative requires commitments from the American public, from our leaders, and from our media. We cannot continue to fall prey to manipulation. We must think for ourselves. We must resist. I believe we can and I believe we will succeed because we are Americans, and Americans do not surrender.