The Western world’s—especially of the US’— international outlook has become a bit of an enigma of late to the eastern hemisphere. This has amplified with Donald Trump becoming President of the US. The author presents a clear picture that helps in the understanding of the complexities.
~By Sean S. Costigan
No matter your political allegiance, it should be clear by now that Western institutions are suffering through a period of sustained uncertainty. Across the Western hemisphere, domestic political pressures have mounted as new discussions come to the fore to curb illegal immigration, roll back globalization, confront terrorism, reduce big government and deal with varieties of economic malaise.
Amidst this dynamic, Russian efforts to unsettle Western institutions and governments show no signs of abating. After successfully meddling in the U.S. elections process and sowing discord among Republicans and Democrats alike, Russian intelligence agencies and their proxies continue to press the advantage in a vulnerable Europe. Such efforts range from subtle plays to overt aggression. From Sweden come reports that agent provocateurs attempted to bribe youth to make mayhem on camera. In what many considered to be a dry run for Russian efforts against France and Germany, The Netherlands had seen such consistent Russian hacking efforts against their government systems that they decided to count election results by hand.
In France, media companies, supported by Google, have created a system to push back against fake news that could affect their presidential elections. In the Czech Republic, “state-like” actors hacked into dozens of foreign ministry accounts in an attack akin to the Russian hack of the DNC. In Romania people have taken to the streets in mass protest against weakening anti-corruption efforts, and Russia is using the protests as cover to shake Romania’s stance on the hosting of a missile shield. For their support of Western institutions, Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that Romania and Poland are in the “cross-hairs.”
Critics on the Left and more recently on the Right argue that Russia would not seek to engage in such activities. After all, doesn’t Russia subscribe to the principles of non-interventionism they articulated? What would they gain? Furthermore, isn’t it more the case that the West has no one else to blame for its political schisms, apparently weak institutions, poorly conceived foreign policies and backwards cybersecurity? Like so many gross characterizations, these critiques make sense up to a point.
Certainly, Russia under Putin does not appear to engage in many trivial external matters, but it does act when it counts. The Russian government thinks hybrid warfare; hacking and disinformation—known to experts as active measures—are simply fair game. After all, for years Russia has accused Western countries of social engineering against their government and its allies through what it considers to be front organizations like NGOs or wealthy foundations, chief among them the Soros Foundation.
Whatever the rationale, Russia actively maintains an aggressive program against near-abroad politicians, as well as other people in power and governments further afield that it considers of interest. Through a combination of criminal cutouts, intelligence agencies and military action, Russia is positioning itself to benefit in the near term from chaos in the West.
And why would it not? By and large such measures are inexpensive and, at least tactically, effective. When it comes to cybercrimes against political adversaries, denials are the norm. Hiding behind the veil of attribution and using the media to push stories that are purportedly in the public interest is all part of the game. Consider how inexpensive it is in this social media age to run disinformation campaigns, to turn accusations of fake news against the accusers with a deluge of yet more bogus information. Unhappy with a specific turn of events in the West? Simply alter the conversation through more fake news, for instance Russia Today reporting that the West was responsible for the Ebola virus epidemic.
Publicly, Western institutions can do little against Russia’s favorite media outlets except refute their veracity. Wikileaks, for instance, is a world-class public relations network whose work is expressed by striking out against the West without concern for damage to people, earning it criticism from its own high-profile supporters. Russia Today, while serving as a mouthpiece of Russia, is also a chief amplifier of Wikileaks. Edward Snowden is always available too when the opportunity arises to make Western institutions look poorly or help create divisions. This is all of a piece, and should be recognized as such. Creating confusion makes it difficult for democracies to act, particularly in concert with one another.
The West has also made consistent strategic missteps that have become the foreign policy equivalent of low hanging fruit. For instance, committing to “strategic patience” in Syria in 2015 might have seemed prudent or the least bad choice among only bad choices. But given Russia’s willingness to commit troops to support its own interests and declare it is fighting a global struggle for Christian values and civilization against terrorism, strategic patience might also be considered tacit out-sourcing of foreign policy. Likewise holding onto knowledge that Russia was actively hacking American democracy, only to wait until December 2016 to tell Putin to “cut it out” was too little, too late.
The takeaway lesson is that if the West will not engage where it counts, Russia is paying attention. Whereas the West may now be seen as feckless or persuaded only by its own interests, Putin’s Russia is seen as active and assertive global player. If anyone harbors doubts about the efficacy of Putin’s efforts on the world stage, consider that a WIN/Gallup poll found four NATO nations would rather pick Russia to defend them. Furthermore, right wing parties in Europe are lining up to curry favor with Putin. And in the U.S. a recent Gallup poll reveals that Putin has a favorable rating among 22% of Americans, up from 13% two years ago.
Clearly the West and Russia badly need a reset. Since the heady days of political transformation after the collapse of the Soviet Union, one could argue that Western institutions have done well by improving security and economic conditions in Europe as a whole. Along the way, the West worked tightly with Russian counterparts to mutual advantage on many security and economic concerns. Few would criticize having better, pragmatic and fair exchanges with Russia as anything other than necessary and positive. But that is unlikely to come about if Russia continues to sew discord in the West. For a time, Russia may tactically gain from a divided West, but it is no basis for mutual trust and—more pointedly—there is no predicting the future. At this juncture, along with efforts to pragmatically work together with Russia where possible, the West should readily call out Russia for meddling whenever and wherever it occurs.
—The article is published with permission from the Diplomatic Courier.
—The author is a professor at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies and Executive Editor of the quarterly journal Connections. He was a Visiting Fellow, Institute for Foreign Policy Studies, University of Calcutta. The views expressed here are his own.