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The Russians Are Coming

Though leading experts agree that Russia and the West are locked in a new cold war that is both similar and distinct from the original, opinions differ when it comes to assigning blame and assessing the stakes. To answer those questions, one first must define the conflict accurately.

Is Russia engaged in a new type of war against the West? If so, what effect might it be having on Western politics? Such questions are roiling the United States after the publication of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, which states unequivocally that Russia launched a “sweeping and systematic” attack on US democratic institutions during the 2016 presidential election.

The same questions are also pertinent to Europe, where voters this week are casting their ballots in the European Parliament election. During the campaign, Italy’s interior minister and deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini of the right-wing League party, was reportedly offered financial assistance from Russia to advance the Euroskeptic cause. That came as no surprise. The single largest donation to the Brexit “Leave” campaign in 2016, after all, came from a man who had been offered a gold deal in Russia at a meeting set up by the Russian ambassador to the United Kingdom during the campaign. Likewise, in the 2017 French presidential election, Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front campaigned with funds furnished by a Russian bank.

And now Austria has been plunged into political turmoil, following the release of a video – recorded three months before the election in 2017 – that captures Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache offering infrastructure contracts to a woman claiming to be the niece of a Russian oligarch. In exchange, the woman agrees to support the election campaign of Strache’s far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) and invest €250 million ($279 million) in Austria.

The events in Austria and elsewhere in the past few years raise essential questions. Is Russia undermining Western democracy through information warfare and support for extremists? Has the West provoked such acts, and is there anything it can do to respond? Or, is this this all just a chimera – the latest iteration of a periodically recurring Red Scare?

For answers, we can turn to the rapidly expanding corpus of new books with the words “Russia” and “war” in their titles. In War with Russia?, Stephen F. Cohen, a professor emeritus at New York University, provides a skeptical look at the US approach to Russia, and criticizes the West’s hostile stance. In Russian Political War, Mark Galeotti of University College London offers an expert overview of Russia’s ongoing non-kinetic assault on Western institutions. And in Cyberwar, Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the University of Pennsylvania assesses whether Russian hackers and trolls really altered the outcome of the 2016 election. Taken together, these three books make clear that Russia and the West are involved in a new type of confrontation that has reshaped politics on both sides of the divide.

In one of the essays included in his book, Cohen ruefully notes that he has been called everything from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “useful idiot” and “apologist” to a “dupe” and a “toady.” The second label, at least, is indisputable. Cohen is by far the most famous and prolific Russia apologist in American academia. And he does not apologize for sharing the Kremlin’s view that Russia and the West are locked in a new cold war of the West’s own making.

According to Cohen, the US created the problem, because it failed, following the collapse of communism, to treat Russia as a “co-equal great power with comparable legitimate national interests in world affairs.” By this logic, it was the West’s denial of Russia’s place in the world that led to mounting crises such as Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia and subsequent incursions into Ukraine. In Cohen’s view, the latter was the result of the European Union’s “reckless provocation” in offering a comprehensive free-trade deal to Ukraine. When the US declared its support for the 2014 Euromaidan uprising that ousted Ukraine’s democratically elected president, Viktor Yanukovych, Russia, Cohen suggests, had no choice but to annex Crimea and send unmarked troops into Eastern Ukraine. Since then, the crisis has been fed by “unprofessional, unbalanced journalism” that routinely demonizes Putin and distorts Russia’s perspective.

Cohen believes the new cold war is even more dangerous than the original. He sees Russia and the West edging ever closer to nuclear conflict, and therefore longs for a tension-reducing détente. Not surprisingly, he thinks the US should grant Russia a recognized sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union. But he would also prefer that neither side interfere in the other’s politics – a norm that he says was mostly observed in the Cold War (although he changed his mind about that in a subsequent article). Under these conditions, Russia and the US could once again share responsibility for maintaining peace and stability in Europe.

Ultimately, Cohen’s analysis suffers from a number of blind spots, starting with the fact that he sees European security only through the lens of the US-Russia relationship. Everything else is an afterthought. The EU is portrayed as a mere lackey of imperial America. The legitimate national aspirations of Ukraine and other European countries are denied; the very existence of a Ukrainian people, Cohen asserts, is a “fallacy.”

Owing to this one-sidedness, Cohen completely misses (or simply ignores) one of the key sources of Russian insecurity: that many of its former Central and Eastern European colonies prefer the embrace of the EU and NATO to that of the Kremlin. Worse, he flatly denies that Russia has ever done anything to provoke the West, claiming, preposterously, that there is no evidence of official Russian intervention in Western elections. Nor does he believe the Kremlin had any motive to try to assassinate the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England, despite evidence gathered by British investigators showing that Russia was behind the nerve-agent attack on Skripal and his daughter.

From Cohen’s perspective, Russia’s illegal invasions of Georgia and Ukraine were natural reactions to US and NATO provocations, and Putin is an unappreciated peacemaker – a moderate in Russian terms. In his telling, Putin, the political heir of Mikhail Gorbachev, has openly implored the US to conclude new nuclear agreements. Never mind that he does so by developing new hypersonic weapons, violating existing arms treaties, and effectively re-establishing the doctrine of mutually assured destruction.

While Cohen’s book details the onset of a new cold war from the Russian perspective, Galeotti’s Russian Political War examines the new type of warfare Russia has unleashed in response to the West’s alleged provocations. A gifted security analyst with experience in academia and government in both the US and Europe, Galeotti brings a wider perspective than Cohen, placing more emphasis on the European theatre of competition between Russia and the West. A student of how the Russian state and mafia cooperate on security matters, he is also the author of the recent book The Vory: Russia’s Super Mafia.

In Russian Political War, Galeotti provides a clear and cogent analysis of the “political war” Russia has been waging against the West. The Kremlin’s onslaught has many facets, extending well beyond the social-media operations and hacking that feature so heavily in the Mueller report (an instant bestseller in the US). While Cohen obsesses over the possibility of nuclear war, Galeotti points out that the conflict is being fought by other means precisely to avoid a direct military confrontation with the potential for rapid escalation.

Galeotti’s description of the Russian arsenal for political war is both accurate and comprehensive. There are chapters on the “polite” people (“little green men”) who invaded Crimea, and on the “impolite” gangsters and paramilitaries whom Russia deploys abroad. At the same time, Russian political objectives are furthered by a “bewilderingly broad … array of … ostensibly civil players,” including “invisible” spies, state oil companies, think tanks, media organizations, and oligarchs bringing cases in Western courts. Though these operations are largely decentralized, Galeotti believes they are loosely coordinated by Russia’s presidential administration.

What makes Russia’s political-war machine effective is the strategic purpose for which it is deployed: to weaken opponents’ capacity to resist by exploiting their vulnerabilities, particularly by undermining their political and civic unity. The goal is to disable one’s enemy from within. “Like it or (probably) not,” Galeotti writes, “the West is at war, but not necessarily the kind of war it imagines or with which it is accustomed.” On the contrary, it is in a war that has been dictated by circumstances.

As conventional arms have become more expensive, public opinion less tolerant of battlefield casualties, and international law more restrictive, it is only logical that war would assume a new form. Galeotti thus concludes that the West should follow Russia’s lead, answering its political war with one of its own. “When war is so risky and expensive, better to try to win it as quickly and bloodlessly as possible.” The future is one of hybrid war, waged in the shadows but also right in front of us.

With Russia and the West locked in political war – that is, undermining one another while stopping short of military confrontation – Western democracies will have to consider the potential implications of perennial conflict for their politics. In my own new book on that topic, The Lands in Between: Russia vs. the West and the New Politics of Hybrid War, I find that the Russian-Western standoff has produced a series of paradoxes.

For example, in the vulnerable lands between Russia and the EU, politics has become sharply polarized between pro-EU and pro-Russia camps, with each election tantamount to a “civilizational choice” between East and West. And yet, in many of these countries, non-ideological oligarchs have risen to power on the promise of bridging the divide (while also plundering resources from both sides). Not by coincidence, this same political mix – polarization and power brokers – is also taking root in Western democracies. As foreign powers (Russia) support the political extremes, the middle shrinks, and corrupt leaders can step in to siphon resources from both Russia and the West, as Strache was caught trying to do.

While many analysts have explored the emergence of a “political” or “hybrid” conflict between Russia and the West, few have offered a clear assessment of how it has affected politics at home. In this sense, Jamieson’s Cyberwar fills a yawning gap. A leading political communications scholar, Jamieson has tackled the single most salient event of the war so far: Donald Trump’s election to the US presidency.

Jamieson has written a number of books about US presidential campaigns, and co-authored an excellent study of former President Barack Obama’s unique mobilization strategy in the 2008 election. But Cyberwar is her first deep dive into the issue of foreign influence. From the beginning, she sets out to answer a difficult and seemingly unknowable question: Did Russian hackers and trolls influence the outcome of the 2016 election? Spoiler alert: Yes, they did.

With careful documentation and an abundance of reproduced images from the 2016 campaign, Jamieson shows how Russian and Russian-sponsored social-media operatives designed and targeted their messages to reach key constituencies in swing states on a scale sufficient to swing the election. While elevating the salience of issues such as immigration among Republicans and other potential Trump voters, Russian trolls also sought to demobilize other groups, not least African Americans, who tend to vote Democratic.

All told, Jamieson’s book is a tour de force of political communications theory and its application by Russian trolls in support of Trump’s election. The Russians and their operatives conducted a creative and professional campaign, doing everything that communications scholars themselves would have proposed.

But Jamieson doesn’t stop there. In addition to following the Russian social-media campaign, she also investigates how the theft and release of Democratic National Committee emails by Russian hackers reshaped the media environment in the decisive final months of the campaign. Here, it is worth recalling that WikiLeaks released Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails on October 7. Earlier that day, the Obama administration had formally accused Russia of hacking the DNC’s emails, and the Access Hollywood tape of Trump bragging about committing sexual assault had just appeared.

On that fateful weekend, Jamieson explains, Russian trolls “worked hard to deflect attention from the Trump Access Hollywood scandal,” and toward Clinton. And because reporters tend to be heavily engaged with social media, they were influenced by a media environment in which the story was about dueling scandals, not just the shocking revelations about Trump.

Topping it all off, Jamieson suggests that one of the hacked DNC emails may have forced then-FBI Director James Comey to reopen the investigation into Clinton’s emails. According to one of Trump’s own senior advisers, it was Comey who “swung” the election Trump’s way.

Western democracies are waking up to the grim reality that politics now plays out in a new context in which foreign powers regularly and successfully intervene in their affairs. They are particularly vulnerable, because their political systems are largely open to new entrants and parties, not to mention the free flow of ideas – false or otherwise. Indeed, in the lead-up to this week’s European Parliament election, European security agencies reported that Russian trolls have again waged a broad campaign both to rally Euroskeptic voters and reduce turnout among supporters of mainstream parties.

If the authors of the books under review are right that the West and Russia are at “political” war with each other, it would seem sensible that Western democracies should protect themselves with the same vigilance that they bring to protecting freedom of speech. Useful measures could include cracking down on money laundering and “dark money,” increasing the transparency of campaign contributions, and forcing social-media companies to create and enforce standards against hate speech and disinformation, in recognition that they are, in fact, publishers.

Can democracy be preserved in the face of Russia’s offensive? The answer depends on whether Russia can sap its targets’ will to resist. In the days and months to come, we will learn whether that has already happened.

(Author Mitchell A. Orenstein is Professor of Russian and East European Studies and Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is the author of The Lands in Between: Russia vs. the West and the New Politics of Hybrid War.)

(Stephen F. Cohen, War with Russia? From Putin & Ukraine to Trump & Russiagate, Hot Books, New York, 2019.)

(Mark Galeotti, Russian Political War: Moving Beyond the Hybrid, Routledge, London, 2019.)

(Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President, Oxford University Press, New York, 2018.)

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