In 1983, Swiss authorities shut down the Bern bureau of the Soviet press agency Novosti, expelling the Novosti bureau chief and a KGB officer who had been posing as a diplomat. The spy ran Novosti’s local operations: a small piece in a much broader, multi-faceted Kremlin-directed campaign to disinform, manipulate, and infiltrate the West European peace movement. Two years earlier, the Danes had expelled a Soviet agent for trying to buy his way into local anti-nuclear groups. During the Cold War there were countless such instances—and numerous front groups with names such as the Christian Peace Conference, the International Organization of Democratic Lawyers, and the World Federation of Trade Unions. The Soviet Union was bent on sowing confusion and swaying Western opinion.
Today, the cyber warfare of Wikileaks—linked by U.S. authorities to Russia—has been affecting the U.S. elections in incalculable ways. Apart from the ongoing desire to show democracy as weak and dysfunctional, it seems obvious that Moscow has a stake in the outcome. It’s very likely, dare we say, that Russian intelligence prefers the candidate who admires Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. Back in the day, Communist intelligence services were seldom bashful. In 1973 West German authorities discovered an East German spy working in the inner circle of West Germany’s Chancellor Willy Brandt. The KGB had ordered the East Germans to pull their mole; they didn’t want to jeopardize Brandt’s Chancellorship, whose detente policies were viewed as favorable to Soviet interests. But it was too late. Stasi spy Günter Guillaume was arrested, and Brandt was eventually forced to resign as a result of the scandal.
We persevered through the intrigues, and we won the Cold War. Today, though, a resurgent Russia seems hell bent on our losing the peace. It’s time for the West to focus.
Earlier this month, I attended in Prague a conference of the Beacon Project, an International Republican Institute (IRI) initiative aimed at understanding and countering Russian propaganda and disinformation. “The West has lagged behind in building coalitions and developing methodologies to fight these new threats,” says Miriam Lexmann, the Project’s director and head of IRI’s office in Brussels.
There’s loads of catching up now. Bills are making their ways through the U.S. Congress, one focusing on international broadcast reform, another on more effectively coordinating U.S. government expertise. There are European efforts. Brussels established a task force last year to monitor and respond to, among other things, RT and Sputnik; the Poles hosted a donors conference in Warsaw for another project aimed at countering Russian efforts in the information sphere. The Beacon Project was not alone in Prague: the event was co-organized with NATO, the European Values Institute, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the Atlantic Council, and was hosted by the Czech Interior Ministry. (Disclosure: I’m on the steering committee of the Beacon Project.)
Awareness of the scope and seriousness of the problem is growing. The Kremlin wants “to corrode democracy from within by deepening political divides and cultivating relationships with aspiring autocrats,” says a recent report led by former State Department official Heather Conley and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
History doesn’t repeat itself, as Mark Twain put it, but it sure does rhyme.
In Prague, there was analysis of Kremlin support for far-right groups and political parties in Europe. In Hungary, one participant noted, there are some ninety extremist blogs known or suspected of having Russian ties. In Slovakia, websites—appealingly free of paywalls—provide straight news and sports, mixed with disinformation. Traditional, socially conservative readers might learn, for instance, that official EU policy is to promote homosexuality.
Moscow, apparently, likes to throw any old accusation up against the wall and see what sticks. There are Russian fingerprints all over dubious election-monitoring groups. There’s blackmailing and bribing of politicians (as many as a hundred of the 751 members of the European parliament are thought to be bought). There’s the onslaught of cyber crime. Before the Beacon Project conference, Czech authorities arrested in a Prague hotel a Russian hacker suspected of targeting the United States.
From my own time in Prague as president and CEO of RFE/RL from 2007–11, I well remember the myriad efforts and the range of techniques employed by adversarial authoritarian regimes to intimidate and undermine the work of our journalists. Russia, along side Iran and China, has been among the best.
How to respond?
We would profit from more inside information about current Kremlin operations. Perhaps that’s what Mikhail Lesin had come to Washington to provide late last year. The RT founder and ex-Putin aide—at the time the subject of a U.S. Justice Department investigation—was found dead this past December in his Dupont Circle hotel room. Results of an autopsy released in March found that Lesin had died of blunt force trauma to the head. Last week, the District of Columbia’s chief medical examiner declared the death “an accident.”
We need resources. Stanislav Lunev, the Russian military intelligence officer who defected in 1991, claimed that during the period of the Vietnam War alone the Soviet Union spent roughly $1 billion on propaganda and disinformation. RFE/RL’s budget today, stretched to support television, radio, web, and social media in 28 languages, is roughly $100 million. East Stratcom, the new EU unit which has identified and publicized 2,500 Russia-planted fake stories over the past year, may soon be upgraded to a paltry budget of €1 million.
We also need to recall larger lessons from the Cold War. Our efforts in the information space must be part of a coherent and assertive foreign policy to be successful.
No one is saying that Vladimir Putin’s Russia poses precisely the same kind of global threat we faced with the Soviet Union. He’s also a new kind of dictator, an enemy arguably harder to rally against, as this Kremlin no longer presides over an ideologically defined, totalitarian state. Today’s authoritarianism is in many ways shrewder. State capitalism, kleptocracy, and pseudo-pluralism are often the order of the day. But the threats posed by today’s dictators demand a determined response. They view our problems as their opportunities, and there’s no end to the poison they can rub into our wounds.
There’s a context for all this. We’ve become hung up on fruitiness conversations about whether Putin has a strategy or whether he’s a mere opportunist. It’s beside the point. Russian has a vision. The Kremlin’s postmodern tsar wants a continent carved into spheres of influence. He wants a weak, fragmented EU. He wants the Western alliance relegated to the dustbin of history. “NATO and the U.S. wanted complete victory over the Soviet Union, they wanted to sit alone on the throne of Europe,” Putin told Germany’s Bildzeitung earlier this year. Can anyone doubt at this point that Putin wants to build Russia up by cutting America down? No, Russia is not a rising power. It has its own economic, demographic, and security problems. This may make the current regime an even more formidable and unpredictable adversary over the next several years.
And Putin sees an open field at the moment. Europe is dominated by concerns over Brexit, refugees, populism, terrorism, rising authoritarianism in Turkey, and declining faith in democracy in parts of the EU. For its part, America is up to its eyeballs in its own problems, trying decide in these final days between two presidential candidates who have the lowest favorability ratings in thirty years of polling.
But then we’ve found ourselves in a pickle a time or two before. In the 1960s and 1970s, the United States endured upheaval over Vietnam, the turmoil of desegregation, Watergate, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the assassination of an American President. When NATO was founded in the early days of the Cold War, Portugal was a dictatorship, anti-communist but hardly pro-American, Greece was engulfed by civil war, Norway was reluctant to join the defense pact (fearful of provoking the Soviets), while some fatigued, world-weary Americans wanted to come home, and London and Paris squabbled over issues of power, national sovereignty, and the future of Europe.
Yes, in the media and information space, we must work ferociously, invest seriously, and fight back. But above all the West needs a renewed vision. (Remember “a Europe Whole and Free”?) The community of democracies needs stiffened resolve. In the 1980s, it was Reagan and Thatcher, Helmut Kohl and the Pope, who lead the way. It was the Reagan doctrine, increased military spending, SDI, and a strong dose of optimism and self-confidence in the virtue of rule of law and human rights that helped turn things around.
Okay, it’s not the 1980s again. America has broken things to fix—like worsening income inequality, the growth of an African American lower class, and technology-driven cleavages in our society. To borrow from the work of Martha Bayles and George Weigel, there’s also a degradation of popular, political, and moral culture we must deal with. Just because we got through the trials of the past doesn’t mean we will prevail automatically in the future. The lesson of history, though, is that in times of struggle America has been able to look beyond the water’s edge.
The next American President must get real about Russian mendacity and manipulation—and the rise of the new authoritarians around the world. If we fail to respond, we’ll be complicit in writing a most tragic chapter in human history, namely ”How America and its allies won the Cold War, only to throw away the peace.” And make no mistake: Get this wrong, and it will be near impossible to get anything else right.