The explanation for this dramatic reversal lies in a transformation of the power structure in the Kremlin. Put simply, the foreign policy elites are out and the spies are in.
The Russian foreign policy elite has long been a refuge for some of the most liberal, cosmopolitan and educated elements of society. Foreign policy experts and diplomats, the so-called mezhdunarodniki (internationalists), made up the backbone of the liberal wing of the Communist Party. These cadres were trained in the many elite institutes and research centers that sprang up as the Cold War turned into a battle of diplomacy and living standards rather than military force. By the late-1960s, Soviet foreign policymakers had studied not only Marxist-Leninist dogma, but also what would be recognized by their Western contemporaries as cutting-edge social sciences, economics, anthropology and history.
These young men (and, very rarely, women) flocked to the Foreign Ministry and the various “International Departments” of the Communist Party’s Central Committee. The most talented and ambitious of these elites gathered around the Central Committee Department for Relations with Socialist States and Parties, which managed the Soviet Eastern European Empire and Western Communist parties. Yuri Andropov, a powerful functionary who cut his teeth under Stalin, led this department. Hailing from the Party’s old guard, Andropov was committed to protecting and strengthening the Soviet state and its traditions, while also realizing that it was in dire need of modernization.
Andropov became a patron of the leading mezhdunarodniki and of young, better-educated regional leaders who wished to shake up the ossifying, geriatric leaders in Moscow. However, there was always a crucial difference between Andropov and his proteges: While he was extremely suspicious of “imperialist” machinations, his young subordinates viewed improved relations with the West and more openness to the outside world as key to enhancing Soviet power at home.
The most prominent Andropov protege was a regional party secretary named Mikhail Gorbachev. When he became the Soviet leader in 1985, he surrounded himself with the mezhdunarodniki. They moved to end the Cold War and open the Soviet Union to Western money, technology and ideas. To their horror and dismay, the Soviet system proved unable to survive the shock these reforms caused, and the Soviet state collapsed less than six years after the beginning of their experiment.
Ironically, in his next position as the chief of the KGB, the powerful agency that referred to itself as the “sword and shield” of the Communist Party, Andropov shaped an elite cohort that had a totally different view of the international system. Assuming control with the KGB’s reputation in tatters because of its role in Stalin’s terror, Andropov moved to reinvigorate the agency by recruiting young, patriotic university graduates (including a recently minted lawyer named Vladimir Putin).
While Andropov aimed to professionalize Soviet intelligence gathering and secret policing, he also created a cultlike image of the intelligence operative as the ideal Soviet citizen who waged an aggressive struggle against dissent and corruption. With a deep sense of mission, his new, university-educated cadres viewed their job as protecting the party and state against foreign foes: namely the Americans and their allies, who attempted to undermine Soviet society by means of “ideological subversion.”
This self-perception informed how Soviet intelligence operatives read the world. In contrast to the cosmopolitan mezhdunarodniki, this wing of the Soviet foreign policy establishment grew increasingly paranoid and nationalist. Struggling to make sense of why Soviet society was not flourishing as party dogma predicted, KGB operatives surmised that vast conspiracies led by shadowy forces (most prominently the CIA, but also bankers, arms manufacturers and Zionists) were behind everything the Soviet regime found alarming at home — from Ukrainian nationalism to Soviet youth’s embrace of rock, disco and punk. This perception made KGB cadres quick to embrace Russian nationalism and profoundly suspicious of attempts to increase interaction between the Soviet Union and the West.
The clash of visions between the foreign policy elite and the secret services irrevocably fragmented Soviet foreign policy. The institutions controlled by the mezhdunarodniki, especially the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, would deal with the West. A preference for stability, and often a great amount of respect and even envy for the technological, economic and political achievements of the “other side,” guided these dealings.
The intelligence apparatus, by contrast, including both the KGB and the military’s GRU, began directing more of the Soviet Union’s relationship with developing countries, helping to trigger clashes in Africa and Asia that culminated with the disastrous KGB-instigated invasion of Afghanistan. The KGB and GRU also provided strategic intelligence assessments and, after Reagan’s election, started feeding the Soviet leadership alarming false reports about Western intentions that, we now know, drove the world to the brink of a nuclear war in the early 1980s.
Both the division of labor and ideological cleavage between the intelligence and diplomatic communities continued into the post-Soviet era with some important differences. “The near abroad,” or the former Soviet republics, replaced the developing world as the arena of responsibility for Moscow’s intelligence agencies. These institutions, previously known as the least corrupt element of the Soviet state, became active participants in overlapping, quasi-criminal, extremely well-financed international networks that served to enrich current and former members of the Soviet intelligence community and bankrolled and empowered pro-Russian factions in the “near abroad” — most notoriously the governing party of Ukraine before the 2014 Maidan Revolution.
Furthermore, large elements of the Russian intelligence community took the fall of the Soviet Union as confirmation of the KGB’s conspiratorial view of the world. Most prominently, they blamed the fall of the Soviet Union on a CIA conspiracy which employed, as the last KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov and others argued, the mezhdunarodniki as agents of influence who, wittingly or unwittingly, destroyed the power of the Soviet/Russian state.
Yet despite the growth of this powerful reactionary narrative, relations with the West were, until recently, handled by experienced, professional diplomats. No man exemplified this group better than former prime minister Yevgeni Primakov. Primakov, an academic, diplomat and sometimes intelligence operative, was an early supporter of Gorbachev’s reforms. As Russian foreign minister and prime minister under Boris Yeltsin, he balanced toughness in the defense of Russian interests with a realistic perception of the limits of Russian power.
While Primakov lost power shortly after Putin assumed the presidency, Russia’s foreign policy toward the West maintained Primakovian features until 2012, as Putin carefully balanced public complaints against perceived Western aggression in Iraq, the “near abroad” and Libya with a cautious, realpolitik-based foreign policy.
This delicate balance collapsed after Putin reentered office for his third term in 2012. Perhaps scarred from street protests against irregularities in parliamentary elections by Moscow’s westernized “creative classes,” a cloud of paranoia slipped over the Kremlin. Putin’s foreign policy speeches lapsed into the conspiracy theories popular with the old intelligence agency hard-liners.
The Russian handling of the Maidan Revolution, which aimed to overthrow the Ukrainian government aligned with Russia, signaled a decisive break with the past. Seeking a response to what he viewed as an all-out assault on the Russian state by a Western cabal bent on world domination, Putin sidelined the diplomats and unleashed the spies.
As soon as Russia decided to occupy Crimea, Russian operatives mobilized the pro-Russian and, more importantly, semi-criminal business groupings that they had cultivated in Ukraine, and used them to seize key political institutions as a cover for Russian troop movements. The same sequence of events followed as the war expanded into southeast Ukraine, laying the foundation for the “people’s republics” that are still fighting the Ukrainian government three years later.
Furthermore, the Ukrainian crisis shattered the decades-old division that left relations with the West to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its professional staff. The spies had become so dominant that they could now operate on all fronts without any approval from the diplomats and, as we now know, began conducting operations against the U.S. political system itself, employing some of the techniques that served them so well in Ukraine.
The newly dominant intelligence apparatus views chaos and disruption as a strategic response to Russia’s structural weaknesses. As work by political scientist Yuval Weber shows, many intellectuals associated with the intelligence community believe that Russia has only a limited potential for economic growth, and that the risks of globalization outweigh its possible economic benefits. These intellectuals also inherited much of the old KGB’s conspiratorial culture, mainly the belief that an ongoing “globalist” offensive aims to dissolve the Russian Federation, just as it did the USSR.
They believe that if Russia is doomed to be a poor country with powerful enemies, it must turn the tables on the West and make hard power, rather than wealth, the yardstick through which international success is measured. From this vantage point, chaos best serves Russia’s interests and Russia is willing to lend a helping hand to any agent promising to weaken the forces arrayed against it. A think tank associated with these intellectuals reportedly was a key supporter of attacking the Clinton campaign.
While the challenges represented by the new Russian state are something new and frightening, the West can draw on its old tool kit to effectively respond to them. In the short term, despite the Trump administration’s dreams of a grand bargain, a relaxation of tensions is the most both sides can expect. Most likely, the administration will pursue containment of Russia in Eastern Europe. However, this is not enough.
Russia’s self-perception as a weak power means that it will inherently limit direct military meddling to places that it believes the West considers peripheral or where the West has left openings to exploit (see Syria). But Russia’s strategy also involves undermining Western domestic structures themselves, which will undermine its rivals’ ability to mobilize their superior resources and coordinate their actions and, ideally, drive them to conclude that the current world order is not viable or worth defending.
To adequately confront the challenge from Russia and other rising anti-liberal states, Europe and the United States will need to find ways to harden their systems against anti-liberal assaults. On the most basic level, we must critically examine the systems that failed in 2016: from cybersecurity to the role Facebook, Twitter and Google played in propagation of fake news — and why so many Americans believed it.
In the longer term, the best way to rescue the liberal order is to focus on the discontents that Russia and its ad hoc allies so skillfully exploited. Policymakers must wield the playbook employed by Cold War liberals who argued that having strong unions for American workers, a robust welfare state and well-protected civil rights were as important a foreign policy priority as a strong military. This vision of a freer, more equal world bound by a rules-based system of international relations can safeguard democracy at home and abroad, and prevent Russia’s desire for disorder from spreading chaos in the United States.