Yes, believe me, I can really vindicate that headline.
Over the last year or so I’ve read a few think tank papers (I think from Rand, perhaps not) on Russia’s evolving defense doctrine (sometimes called Next Generation Warfare, Hybrid Warfare or the Gerasimov Doctrine, after the current chief of the Russian General Staff). The gist of it is a move away from traditional war-fighting with tanks and ICBMs and aircraft carriers to something more like the asymmetric warfare we associate with small states or non-state actors. This is not surprising. As I explained in my earlier post, Russia purports to be and in some ways remains a Great Power but must do so on the back of an economy that is at best middling in global terms. For point of comparison: Russia’s GDP by their official exchange rate is $1.325 Trillion. Compare that to South Korea ($1.77 Trillion), Brazil ($1.773 Trillion), Italy ($1.816 Trillion), United States ($17.95 Trillion). To live up to Russia’s Great Power or even regional power pretensions means a dramatic rethinking of the terrain of warfare and defense and a radical expansion of what is considered legitimate war-fighting and what is considered a legitimate target.
In an era of overwhelming US military superiority over basically everyone, all states, to some degree, are pursuing asymmetric options. The Chinese are too. But in their case the focus tends more toward more agile, cheaper weapons that disable or destroy gargantuan but difficult defend capital ships at the center of US carrier groups and so forth. Russia simply lacks the candle to mount even those efforts.
All of this is what brings us to Russia’s dramatically expanded reliance not only on cyber-warfare but also disruption campaigns and psy-ops style operations. All great powers have always done this to a degree. But they’ve become central for Russia, not just a playing at the margins with the intelligence agencies and covert operations but at the forefront of defense strategy. If you haven’t read it, you simply must this year old article by Adrian Chen on ‘The Agency.’ It is a truly fascinating, bewildering story of an agency in St Petersburg, Russia, part of the Russian military intelligence complex dedicated to spreading rumors, disinformation and trolling across the Internet, particularly in Europe and the United States. It ranges from planting random rumors in the US – an Ebola outbreak, a refinery natural disaster – to weird Twitter trolling you wouldn’t imagine a great power would have any focus on. Some of it sounds less threatening than simply bizarre. In a recent interview Chen noted that a list of Russian controlled twitter accounts responsible for spreading false rumors about Ebola outbreaks in the US have now transformed into “Trump supporter” accounts. Think about that.
Whether or not Donald Trump supports Vladimir Putin, there’s no question that Putin supports Donald Trump. What seems to be the nearly proven Russian role in hacking the DNC and then turning the cache of emails over to a pliant Wikileaks to mount a disruption operation on the eve of the Democratic convention is just one example. There are now numerous examples of Russia backing, either openly or covertly rightist nationalist political parties in Europe as well. But most of these operations lack such straightforward or direct goals. They are more like classic disinformation or disruption campaigns, operations not intended to generate a particular outcome so much as disruption, confusion, uncertainty and a pervasive lack of trust in targeted communities. They support hard right groups, except when they’re hard left groups. The underlying aim is neither right nor left but putting political establishments off balance.
Now you may be saying, let’s not be naive. The US has been destabilizing and overthrowing foreign governments forever. If it doesn’t engineer coups it supports dissident groups under the guise of promoting democracy. It has media outlets like Voice of America and its various spinoffs. And the Russians have definitely thought of this too. Max Fisher had an excellent piece on Russia’s hybrid warfare doctrine back in late July where he explored just these points. A few extended excerpts …
Throughout the 2000s, popular uprisings in Eastern Europe and Central Asia overturned their pro-Kremlin leaders, replacing them with democratically elected governments more inclined to the West.
In Moscow, these “color revolutions,” as well as the subsequent Arab Spring, were seen as a wave of hostile American operations, engineered to topple Russia’s allies and weaken Russia itself.
Sergei Shoigu, the Russian defense minister, said in a 2014 speech that such uprisings were “used as an excuse to replace nationally oriented governments with regimes controlled from abroad.”
The Kremlin felt encircled and threatened by what it took to be a vast American conspiracy whose ultimate goal, it concluded, was the subjugation or outright destruction of the Russian state.
Russia has long seen itself as the victim of these very tactics, accusing Western governments of using vague “Maidan technology,” named for the square where Ukraine’s 2014 protests began, to create “managed chaos” in targeted countries. Embarrassing stories, such as the Russian doping scandal and the Panama Papers, are seen as American information warfare meant to weaken Moscow.
In this view, Kremlin leaders could see releasing internal Democratic emails as a tit-for-tat retaliation in the information struggle. Such a thing would make little sense in the Western conception of geopolitics.
Now depending on your political persuasion you may see comparing what the US does and what Russia is now doing as an comical and fraudulent reach or as a sign of Western hypocrisy. For the moment, that’s beside the point. What is key is that the Russians do see them as fundamentally comparable and see their response as a vast defensive operation against an aggressive West and its unbridled information flows. And it’s not a totally crazy way to see it. The US has supported pro-democracy groups in various post-Soviet states. And undoubtedly there are other covert actions executed secretly. The Arab Spring was seen as at least in part driven by social media networks owned and run from the United States.
Russia is a weak, significantly impoverished declining state, with an autocratic but brittle state structure which has numerous friendly or aligned governments toppled by opposition groups either aided by the United States or empowered by the freewheeling information economy that emanates from the West. Unable to counter the West and particularly the United States as a conventional military power or with the economic clout that drives trade and aid politics, it has fallen back on creating a counter-information warfare to defend itself and what it perceives as a US goal of subjugating or destroying the rump Russian state.
Here’s where Fox News comes in – and really Fox News and the rest of the post-1980 ‘conservative media’.
As Eric Alterman has rightly argued, the existence of a ‘liberal media’ was always a myth. But not entirely so. Despite corporate ownership, the mid-late 20th century national media wasn’t so much liberal as part of a broadly centrist-to-liberal national consensus and generally cosmopolitan in its social values. Look at national television media in the 1960s and there’s little doubt what the assumption is about who’s on the right and wrong side in the Civil Rights Movement. National media coverage generally turned against the Vietnam War. National media coverage generally saw the expansion of rights under the Warren Court as part of a forward progression rather than an unfolding disaster, as it was and is seen on the right. Getting rid of the death penalty was a good thing, part of an obvious societal evolution, not a bad thing.
This can all be overstated of course. There are numerous ways that major national electronic media and major metro dailies were establishment, pro-business and broadly conservative in the old-fashioned, non-explicitly ideological way. Again, the national or elite media was never ‘liberal’. But it was imbued with elite and cosmopolitan assumptions about American society that Movement Conservatives felt tipped the playing field of the national debate against them. And to a limited degree, they were right.
Conservatives saw something similar when they looked at Washington. The dominant post-war ‘think tank’, really the ur-think tank, was The Brookings Institution. Brookings wasn’t liberal in a deep sense, certainly not left-wing. But it generally operated on assumptions more in line the post-war American consensus, one which had departing from many elements of New Dealism but had accepted many of them as essential parts of the American order. But it wasn’t run by Democrats or the sort of agit-prop outfit a lot of conservatives really imaged it was.
What happened next was what happened when conservatives in the 60s, 70s and 80s went about creating their own counter-establishment. Stood up against Brookings was the Heritage Foundation, a deeply ideological entity, funded by rightwing money and deeply wired into the conservative and Republican establishment. It was an ideological, party organization in a way Brookings simply never was.
If you look at 60s Minutes in its glory days you could definitely see where the ideas of its top correspondents were more identifiably ‘liberal’ than ‘conservative.’ But was CBS News of the 1950s and 1960s ‘liberal’? A bit but not really. To the degree it was it was in a pretty generic and loose way. In response, first came the Washington Times, a paper that had some good reporters but was much more like a party institution. And of course finally you had Fox News, the supposed antidote to the ‘liberal media’. Of course, Fox is ‘conservative’ in a way that the mid-century elite media simply never was. And with generations of ref-playing what had been a vaguely establishment liberal national press ceased almost entirely to be so. Fox functions as a political organization, with agitprop and propaganda tightly aligned with the interests of the Republican party, coexisting with some solid journalists doing good work notwithstanding existing in that milieu.
My point here isn’t to offer an item by item critique of conservative media. It is to paint a broad picture. From the perspective of 2016, the idea of a ‘liberal media’ may seem ridiculous. But it wasn’t entirely ridiculous half a century ago. From the perspective of the embryonic conservative movement, there was some truth to this view. But when they set about creating their own ‘counter-establishment,’ they built it not only with some measure of bad faith but much more on the basis of a cartoonish caricature of institutions whose values, modes of operations and essence they really never understood. Was Brookings liberal? A bit. But not remotely like Heritage of its successor organizations. Was 1960s CBS ‘liberal’? Sort of. But nothing like an agitprop organization like Fox News or the various sub-deities in the conservative media establishment.
No analogy is perfect, certainly not one that bestrides different national cultures and domestic ideological warfare versus national defense. But when the Russian military is funding vast apparatuses of alt-right Internet trolls, setting off rumors of refinery explosions on the US Gulf Coast or inveigling itself into the sectarian battles between establishment Democrats and dissident left wing groups, I believe we see some fundamental similarities. You have a threatened group (be it an ideological minority or a failing state) which stands up a counter to something that is in some ways genuinely threatens it. But because it doesn’t really understand the forces, institutions, change arrayed against the counter isn’t so much a mirror image as a sort of clownish caricature of it.
More on this and Russia’s expanding ‘media’ empire in the West in my next post.