Prime Minister Theresa May expressed concern last Friday about Russia’s attempts to manipulate public opinion in the West. “I will call for us to do more to counter destabilising Russian disinformation campaigns,” she told other leaders at a European Council summit in Brussels. Then, on Sunday, Britain’s Foreign Secretary joined the debate. “We have no evidence the Russians are actually involved in trying to undermine our democratic processes at the moment,” said Boris Johnson. “We don’t actually have that evidence. But what we do have is plenty of evidence that the Russians are capable of doing that.”
Ignore the mild discrepancy between the two statements and instead welcome that the issue is finally being addressed, even if it does feel, as they say in Russia, like swinging fists when the fight is already over.
If Vladimir Putin has never had our best intentions at heart, he has certainly done a remarkably good job at disguising his true feelings towards the West. Whereas the old Soviets would project their hard power across the globe, the current Kremlin much prefers the shadows, where the evidence of their involvement remains largely circumstantial. When journalist and author Anna Politkovskaya was shot in the elevator of her Moscow flats on the 7th October 2006 there was no obvious connection to the Kremlin. We just had the “coincidence” that the author of the book Putin’s Russia was killed on Vladimir Putin’s birthday. Liberal opponent to Putin, Boris Nemtsov, was killed opposite the Kremlin, conveniently at a moment when a “stopped municipal vehicle” blocked the view from nearby security cameras. When Alexander Litvinenko was murdered in London, there was no obvious connection to Moscow, just a trail of radiation (usually a sign of state involvement) leading to a flat in Hamburg linked to one of the ex-KGB agents suspected of his murder.
If the Cold War did not end with the end of the Cold War, it seems to have taken us time to realise that Russia represents the same threat as the old Soviet Union, just a threat stripped of the notional red-cheek and tractor morality that Communism and the Socialist State were meant to represent. The problem we increasingly face with Putin is a manifestation of the problem we’ve had with Putinism for nearly two decades. It is the problem with that conveniently obtuse word “oligarch”. We know it sometimes implies something like “shady” but we also know that “shady” is not quite the same as “criminal”. “Oligarch” hints at questions that have not been answered, might never be answered, and, for many people, might never be asked. How did these individuals make their vast fortunes? How did they get their power? We shrug our shoulders and simply say “Russia” and are otherwise glad of their patronage. In so far as this new face of Russia represented anything, it has meant boom years for those selling Kensington mansions, Monets and football teams.
That’s not to say that the sinister nature of Russian wealth hasn’t already been exposed but, if it has, it has become something peculiarly comfortable to us and our Western notions of success and wealth. There’s always been that sly doubtlessness about what John Le Carré memorably called the “Surrey oligarchs”. In Our Kind of Traitor, he described that moral greyness in which the good of the nation trumps the moral deed”
“[…] none of that has stopped the Surrey oligarchs from beating their war drums, or the financial editors being briefed that if [a new Russian-owned bank’s] application is rejected, the City of London will end up a poor fourth behind Wall Street, Frankfurt and Hong Kong. And whose fault will that be? The Service’s, led up the garden path by one Hector bloody Meredith!”
If Russian wealth has been seen a strange cultural phenomenon, the ambitions of Russia itself have often been dismissed too lightly with the threat of the new Russia conveniently seen as being no threat at all. The Trump administration now wants to feed us a narrative in which Russia emerges as its new ally. Russia is the buffer against the Islamic world. Russia is the counter force against the rise of China. Russia is, as the alt-right would phrase it, one pillar in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Russia has certainly positioned itself into this role of the misunderstood bad guy. “In contrast to some Western counterparts who see a rival in Russia,” said Putin last year, “we do not look for enemies and have never done so. We need friends. However, we will not tolerate that our interests are either neglected or infringed.” On the face of it, this feels like an honest assessment but only because Putin is so masterful at this kind of moral equivalency. Putin took back the Crimea not because he’s in the business of issuing overt threats but because he knew there would be strong arguments made (as well as some sympathy) for Russia keeping its only warm-water port. Putin moved into Syria because there was a power vacuum he could exploit but, more importantly, arguments that paint Russia as the only force willing and capable of easing a humanitarian crisis.
Passive aggressive or aggressive passivity? None of this should surprise us as much as it perhaps does. Putin is a black belt in Judo and all too often the geopolitics of Russia have begun to resemble the strategies of the dojo.
To the non-martial artists, judo looks a lot like wrestling. In that were true then the analogy would have the West and Russia fighting as they always fought: wrestling muscle to muscle, comparing stockpiles, and counting tanks as they amass on borders. Yet the trained judoka does not wrestle their opponent. Judo is about using an opponent’s strength against them. If they move forward, then you don’t push them back but pull them towards you and leverage their momentum against them. If they kick, you turn their imbalance to your advantage. For every move, there’s a counter move that is far more dangerous simply because the defender can profit from the natural vulnerability that an attacker exposes by their initial move.
This is perhaps where the West have underestimated the Russian threat. Russia’s tactics towards the West has been following a similar pattern for some years. What we think of as our strengths, Putin exploits as potential weakness. If our great strength is our democracy, then Putin pushes democratic movements (rumoured to include France’s Front National and Golden Dawn in Greece), leveraging the power of the ballot to get results that favour Russia. Where we are proud of our free press, Putin pushes us to go further, investing in a plurality of free presses to slowly erode our belief in one source of news. We believe in “facts” so he creates spaces for “alternative facts”. We believe in freedom of debate, so he deploys Russia’s web brigades (often called “Russia’s troll army”) in the Below the Line (BTL) attacks on major newspapers or he funds divisive political figures via their appearances on the RT news channel.
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Boris Johnson might say that there’s no evidence that Putin seeks to “undermine our democratic processes at the moment” but, with so much circumstantial evidence, a strong case surely begins to be made for exactly that. This is why the current situation in the United States will be a watershed moment. It’s already obvious that if Russia didn’t hack the US election then Russia certainly hacked the electorate. Hacking is not always done electronically and the election was “hacked” each time Russia went about its business of making covert deals, meeting campaign officials, and, probably, leaking Democratic emails to Wikileaks. Yet the beauty simplicity of the Russian strategy is that no one action meant much in itself. These are the tactics of the internet fraudster who sends out a million emails knowing that they need only one to succeed.
Putin is the master hacker and this new Russia made in his image, shaped by his deft psychology, is so much more dangerous than that of the old Soviets with their fashionably untrimmed eyebrows and belief in Marxism. Back then, we at least knew who the bad guys were. They didn’t fly in, newly trucked and trimmed, from Monaco, to buy up half of London and leave western politicians procrastinating as they try to balance the economic benefits with the moral objections of living next door to gangsters.
It’s why these days sometimes feel more dangerous than the days of the Cold War. We have naively felt and acted as though unthreatened by an evil that was and remains circumstantial.