Many Americans do not understand what drives Vladimir Putin. Why is it that the president of Russia is attacking democracy itself? Let’s be clear. This is not just limited to the United States and the 2016 elections. This aggression, is part of what is called hybrid warfare. Before any of you say it, this is not just about US- Russian relations, and Putin’s heavy dislike of Secretary Hillary Clinton. When looking at this, many analysts have tried to just portray it in American terms.
What Putin has ordered the Russian state to do is engage in a new cold war against the west, and her core institutions. It is in some ways a war against modernity, science, freedom and democracy itself. It is a war against the enlightenment and the rational world that emerged from it. It is, in essence, existential.
So who was Vladimir Putin?
Putin was a Colonel in the KGB when the USSR collapsed. He was the head of station in Dresden, where he faced angry people outside his headquarters. According to the BBC when Putin asked for protection from a Red Army armor unit, he was told this:
We cannot do anything without orders from Moscow,” the voice at the other end replied. “And Moscow is silent.”
This young colonel saw fragility in this. He saw people literally plundering the Stasi headquarters across the road. He saw panic, and anarchy.
He returned home to a life away from what he knew. He entered politics, And as they say, the rest is history. But that event in Germany is critical to understand how Putin sees the West, how he sees Democracy and how he sees the world. In effect, that was the moment that the Colonel knew things had to change.
He became the essential man. He was the one to establish stability, and to restore greatness to the world. He considers democracy dangerous. There are reasons for this.
Unfettered democracy also pointed the way to chaos, and so he developed something his advisers called “managed democracy,” providing only the semblance of popular will. Opposition parties were neutered, and Russians lost the ability to vote in direct elections for local or regional governments. “The Russian people are backward,” Putin once told a group of foreign journalists. “They cannot adapt to democracy as they have done in your countries. They need time.”
This is also a man who understands Russian history, and destiny. In a way, it is a form of manifest destiny, and can be just as toxic as the American version. He also believes that the collapse of the USSR was a disaster, not just for mother Russia, but also for the world.
“First and foremost it is worth acknowledging that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” Putin said. “As for the Russian people, it became a genuine tragedy. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory.
The goal of this former KGB agent has been to restore Russia’s greatness. He deeply believes that Russia has a right to the territories, not just to the East, but also to the West. This is why he engaged in first the invasion of South Ossetia in the Republic of Georgia, and then the Crimea. This is why Russian assets were deployed to Ukraine. This is a good summary of how Russia perceives the world.
Russia perceives itself as a country surrounded by enemies. This has been a persistent theme throughout its history. It was an important driver of its westward territorial expansion into Central Europe, south across the Black Sea and into the Caucasus, and east all the way to the Pacific, in search of strategic depth. It began under the tsars, took a pause during the early days in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution, but continued in 1945 under the rule of Stalin. With the fall of the Soviet Union, significant portions of that depth were lost, most significantly in Europe.
Russians also ascribe cultural and military significance to territory; it is difficult for outsiders to understand how important it is to Russians’ sense of national identity. In this sense, no territory is more significant than Ukraine, in which is located much of the original Russian heartland known as the Rus, and Crimea which, when transferred to Ukraine by Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, occasioned considerable resentment even at the time. Equally, it seems that many Russians are unable to appreciate how seminal personal and political freedom, democracy, and the rule of law are to the self-identity of people living in Western Europe and North America, and to the peoples of Central Europe that retain a clear recollection of Soviet oppression.
Incidentally, there are other places you can find that material. But this from the Heritage foundation is a good introduction if you are not familiar, even if they are cold war warriors. This is critical to understand, and it seems the President of the United States did not understand, appreciate, or care for any of this. Donald Trump does not read, and that alone is getting all of us into trouble.
There is another aspect to how the Russians view this cold war with the West. This is though hybrid warfare. This is why General Directorate (GRU) personnel were indicted, because the war is run though them, and other intel agencies in the Russian Federation.
Russia weaponized the internet a while ago. You could argue this started in the early 2000s. They see the web as another front of a war, and they have been extremely effective in using it. This is a new form of war, and in a report to allied countries, this is how it works.
The Baseline Assessment concluded that hybrid warfare is asymmetric and uses multiple instruments of power along a horizontal and vertical axis, and to varying degrees shares an increased emphasis on creativity, ambiguity, and the cognitive elements of war. This sets hybrid warfare apart from an attrition-based approach to warfare where one matches the strength of the other, either qualitatively or quantitatively, to degrade the opponent’s capabilities.
In open societies this is harder to confront, since there are internal forces that will assist with the goals of the aggressor. In essence, freedom of speech can be used as a shield and avoid detection. The goal of the Russian Federation is to sow dissent, division and distrust. In short, their goal is to discredit democracy itself. This is one way to restore the glory of mother Russia.
President Trump is playing along. Whether he is doing this because the Russians have something on him, or not, is immaterial. He is also serving other interests, which are very much American that were on the fringe of any establishment until recently. These interests seek to restore a society where property reigns king, and the right to use that property as you see fit. This is why there is a war against all regulations.
What we have seen is that this thinking is popular in some not so dark corners of the American polity. They involve the far right of the American system, and include people like the Koch Brothers and the Mercers. They also include a few others who want to limit the ability of the people to actually engage their government and make that government responsible to the needs of the people. They want to limit democratic government, in short, and return to older systems of social control. It is confluence of interests between Putin and these people. And some of this starts with Brown v Board of Education and the resistance to it in Virginia. Nancy McClean writes in Democracy in Chains.
For what becomes clear as the story moves forward decade by decade is that a quest that began as a quiet attempt to prevent the state of Virginia from having to meet national democratic standards of fair treatment and equal protection under the law would, some sixty years later, become the veritable opposite of itself: a stealth bid to reverse-engineer all of America, at both the state and the national levels, back to the political economy and oligarchic governance of midcentury Virginia, minus the segregation.
We are in some ways at that end game. Some of these shadowy groups seek to return the United States to an old social order. That is what “make America great again” stands for. This is a country that is both isolated, and provincial. This is an old oligarchy, which goes back to the traditional values of society, where people knew their place.
Here is where those connections with Russia do come in. Alexandr Dugin is Putin’s favorite philosopher. He is also a defender of what is traditional and returning the Russian Orthodox Church to its rightful place in Russian society. That would be the center of society, and all the values that this implies. If you put this in parallel to the values and desires of the Fundamentalist American religious movements, it will match. The language that the United States is a Christian nation, is the same kind of belief.
Partly, this is not a new thing. Nor is this limited to the United States and Russia. This is global.
Russia is hardly just attacking American democracy. They are doing this globally. We have seen this with BREXIT and other European elections. And the president of the United States actually attacking democracy, and Western institutions is exactly what Putin wants. This is a victory for Vladimir Putin. He is getting exactly what he has been working for since that day at Dresden when he stood outside his headquarters and confronted protesters. This is to make Russia great again.
This is well known, and understood, in the National Security community. Those of us who know history, also get it.
What will the United States congress do? Will they act in any substantive way? Twitter statements are nice, but we need to face it. We are at war, even if no bullets are flying. This war is dynamic, and so far we are losing. We are losing badly.
We had an electronic Pearl Harbor, but so far the President acts as if this is normal. It is not.