I’m glad that Donald Trump will finally get a briefing on the unanimous conclusion of America’s intelligence agencies that the Russian government was behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman. But he should also request and receive a political briefing on Russia that can shed light on the backdrop to Russia’s actions. We need to understand why Russia behaved the way it has.
It all started with the Arab Spring. The sudden mass demonstrations and demands for democracy took most of the world by surprise. In particular, they rattled Moscow at a precarious moment. The Kremlin was in the midst of managing the country’s political future and worried about opposition at home. Parliamentary elections were scheduled in less than a year, to be followed by a presidential election. Vladimir Putin was not then president, having stepped aside in keeping with the Russian constitution, allowing Dmitry Medvedev to ascend to the office.
Roland Dannreuther of the University of Westminster in London points out that the “crises in both Libya and Syria coincided with the rise of opposition to the re-election of Putin, with unprecedented large opposition rallies in Moscow and other cities in Russia during 2011-12.” He argues that the Kremlin watched these countries as street protests morphed into broader opposition, created instability, and then attracted the attention and intervention of Western powers. Moscow was determined that no such scenario would play out in Russia or in any of its close neighbors, such as Ukraine.
In fact, there was a rare disagreement between Putin and Medvedev on how to respond to Libya. Putin bitterly attacked his own president for not vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution sanctioning an intervention in Libya and lambasted the West for launching a “crusade” against a Muslim country. Medvedev, who was technically in charge of foreign policy, flatly contradicted him, calling his rhetoric “inexcusable.” Some Russia hands believe that this disagreement might have sealed Medvedev’s fate, ensuring that he served just one term and then made way for Putin’s return to the presidency. In any event, as Dannreuther writes, “for conservative Russian elites, the evidence of the Arab Spring confirms that such factional divisions in the guise of democracy promotion only lead to internal disorder, societal conflict and the loss of the sovereign integrity of the state.” (The fact that Clinton encouraged Russian democracy protesters at this sensitive moment branded her an archenemy in the eyes of the Kremlin elite.)
About a year later, in 2013, the chief of staff of the Russian Armed Forces, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, wrote an article suggesting that Russia’s key challenge was responding to the underlying dynamics of the Arab Spring and North Africa’s “color revolutions.” He urged that these not be viewed as non-military events because “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.” He advocated that Russia better understand and develop the non-military and asymmetrical methods, including special operations, information warfare and the use of internal opposition to cripple a society.
Since then, Moscow has made information and asymmetrical warfare central to its foreign and military policy. When asserting itself in Georgia and Ukraine, Russia has used a hybrid strategy that involves the funding of local politicians and militias, fake news and cyberattacks. Leading German and Polish politicians assert that Russia has engaged in some such activities in their countries as well. And now there is the apparent involvement in America’s election.
The idea of information warfare is not new. The Soviet Union developed and practiced a strategy of “disinformation” throughout the Cold War, complete with fake news and the penetration of Western political parties and media organizations. But the revival of this approach and the aggressive and sophisticated manner in which it is now being used in a social media landscape mark a new and dangerous trend in geopolitics.
This is the political backdrop behind the technical evidence that Russia interfered in November’s election. It needs to be moved out of a partisan framework and viewed in a much broader context. Since the end of the Cold War, no major country has challenged the emerging international system. But now, a great-power strategy, designed to work insidiously, could well succeed in sowing doubt, division, discord — and ultimately destruction — within the West.
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