The Art of the Lie

Putin needn’t deceive the world to achieve his goals; he needs only to muddy the waters.

Russia is currently engaged in an invisible war aimed at undermining the Western international order, and his greatest advantage is that that we lack the vocabulary to address and describe it. There were two developments the other week that revealed the Kremlin’s efforts to sow chaos and mistrust within and among the United States and its partners — however few in the media even thought to link those stories in their coverage and tie them to the greater Russia campaign.

On Monday, June 5, The Intercept that the NSA concluded in March that Russia successfully hacked one firm that made software used in the presidential election, and attempted to hack dozens of others. While there exists no evidence that these hacks changed the outcome of the vote, they add to the mountain of evidence that Russia was interested in either changing the outcome of our election, planting seeds of doubt about the legitimacy of our election, or both.

That following Wednesday, CNN that the FBI has concluded that Russian hackers were behind a fake Qatari news story that has led to one of the biggest diplomatic upsets to hit the region in years. The story included false quotes from Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani which were written so as to confirm Saudi suspicions that Al Thani views Iran and Israel favorably, and Saudi Arabia poorly. Qatar has long been at odds with its neighbors over its support for the Muslim Brotherhood and its more nuanced relations with Iran, and the fake quotes provided Saudi Arabia, and the Arab states in its orbit, with an excuse to break off relations.

Qatar is an important American partner and hosts the largest American airbase in the Middle East, so American leaders have long sought to reduce tensions between Qatar and other U.S. Arab partners, like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The Russian hack, then, seems to have been aimed at pitting American allies against each other, and with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, and even the beleaguered and dispossessed government of Yemen breaking off relations, it was wildly successful.

Putin, of course, denies any involvement, but these denials have increasingly come with a bit of a wink and a grin. His most recent denial that, “[Artists] may act on behalf of their country, they wake up in good mood and paint things. Same with hackers, they woke up today, read something about the state-to-state relations. If they are patriotic, they contribute in a way they think is right, to fight against those who say bad things about Russia.”

This farcical explanation is built upon the kernel of truth that the Russian intelligence apparatus does outsource a lot of its hacking to semi-autonomous groups, many of them part of Russia’s vast organized crime underworld. But the boldness and the implausibility of the “patriotic artist-hacker” explanation is itself instructive on Russia’s campaign to disrupt the liberal international order.

Under Putin, the Kremlin has mastered the reality of the new media environment, realizing that in the modern era the purpose of a lie is not to convince people of an untruth, but rather to provide a rhetorical fig leaf to those who will already defend you under any circumstances.

For instance, after the Syrian chemical attack in April, Assad and Putin alone alleged that really the rebels, and not Assad himself, had perpetrated it. This lie was roundly dismissed by experts, journalists, and other international observers — but they were not its intended audience. from of the continue to repeat their lie online despite its obvious untruth, mostly because they are ideologically primed to take Russia’s side in any international debate, or are eager to believe the worst about America, the Syrian rebels, or the “mainstream media” generally.

Today, state lies are not intended to win debates, but rather to make debatable that which should not be. Remember that for months Russia that its soldiers were fighting in Ukraine, even as the world watched their “little green men” annex the Crimean Peninsula.

Putin has learned the chief rule of information warfare (as we should rightly call the present state of affairs): namely, that the impact of a at a time of crisis is far greater than the impact of the when it is revealed weeks or months later. In the age of the internet and cable news, the clock is always restarting, and few are held to account for past untruths, despite our unprecedented access to them.

The aggressive promotion of disinformation is a central pillar of present Russian strategic doctrine. As a revisionist power, Russia sees value in any action that weakens the liberal internationalist consensus. Undermining trust in liberal institutions, especially elections and the press, is part and parcel of Russian foreign policy today. In the past year, they have more quickly than in the preceding five.

In the case of the Qatar scheme, Russia has led America’s own partners to isolate the nation from which American operations in Syria are based. They may have even tricked President Trump himself into the Qataris, an act of foreign policy malpractice for which he nonetheless eagerly . Whether Trump knew at the time that 10,000 U.S. troops are based in Qatar (second only in the region to Kuwait) .

If the president cannot be relied upon to recognize an obvious disinformation scheme targeting American strategic partnerships, how can the electorate? There is no easy answer. The Kremlin has realized that as long as other threats maintain a higher profile in voters’ minds than Russian covert operations, they will be mostly free to influence the outcomes of Western elections, as they have done in the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, so far. Meanwhile, they work to amplify the ideological fissures within the Western electorates that have produced so many Kremlin sympathizers in the West.

After all, could anyone have imagined 25, 10, or even five years ago? By ethnic-nationalists and up to left-wing NATO-skeptics and anti-globalists, Putin is a cadre of activists and commentators in every Western country ready to defend and perpetuate his lies, no matter how ridiculous they get.

The result is that instead of debating how to respond to Assad gassing his own people, we must first litigate the facts of the situation. Instead of debating how to prevent Russian military adventurism in post-Soviet states, we must debate whether it exists. Instead of recognizing the vulnerabilities in our electoral system and working to harden it, we must first convince our own citizens that Vladimir Putin is not their friend.

Nathan Kohlenberg is a Fellow with Truman National Security Project and a graduate of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Views expressed are his own.

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We unite veteran, frontline civilian, political, & policy leaders to develop & advance strong, smart & principled solutions to global challenges Americans face.