Late last year, Vladimir Putin met with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Sochi. On the agenda was a political settlement to end the war in Syria. Russian observers framed this summit a “new Yalta without Americans,” as it revived memories of the 1945 meeting between Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin to establish the postwar order in Europe. Leaders in Moscow relish memories of Yalta, recalling a bygone era when great powers cut sweeping deals at the expense of little ones. Putin even praised the Yalta Conference before the UN General Assembly in 2015, claiming that it laid a “solid foundation for the postwar world order.” That same year, State Duma speaker Sergei Naryshkin specifically cited the 1945 meeting of the “Big Three” as an ideal solution to international problems. In their respective speeches, both Putin and Naryshkin indicated that they still saw Washington as a useful partner. However, the implication of Sochi was clear: The United States was no longer wanted. Pro-Kremlin commentators even described the Sochi meet-up as the “axis of order.” It was undoubtedly a dig at George W. Bush’s “axis of evil”—and the sacrifices the West has made to uphold the principles of international law and state sovereignty. Putin was sending a message.
Kremlin leaders still regard themselves as players in a great-power competition with the United States and Europe. And they harbor a grudge: They believe that the international system treats them unjustly, even though Russians have benefited from the international order that both sides—East and West—helped to establish after the collapse of the Soviet Empire. They see the pillars of the post-1991 order—universal human rights, democratic norms, and the rule of law—as a pretext for foreign meddling in Russia’s internal affairs. And they fear that such ideas could undermine the legitimacy of Putinism and threaten its survival. The Putin regime already appears to be in long-term internal decline, and the Kremlin is increasingly willing to take risks—sometimes recklessly—to prove that it deserves a seat at the great-power table. Risk-taking is a dangerous business for any state, declining or otherwise. But what if the Kremlin is indeed stacking the odds of survival in its favor?
Chaos for Strategic Effect
For all of Russia’s weaknesses as a great power, the Kremlin thinks it possesses one key advantage in long-term competition with America and the democratic West: Russia is more cohesive internally and will thus be able to outlast its technologically superior but culturally and politically pluralistic opponents. In recent years, Putin, his chief military strategist Valery Gerasimov, and other Russian leaders have employed disinformation to spread chaos for strategic effect. The Kremlin’s goal is to create an environment in which the side that copes best with chaos (that is, which is less susceptible to societal disruption) wins. The premise is Huntingtonian: that Russia can endure in a clash of civilizations by splintering its opponents’ alliances with each other, dividing them internally, and undermining their political systems while consolidating its own population, resources, and cultural base. Such a strategy avoids competition in those areas where the Kremlin is weak in hopes of ensuring that, when confrontation does come, it will enjoy a more level playing field.
Strategies of chaos are not new; other great powers in history have sought to sow instability in neighboring states to enhance their own security. Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, and Haushofer all advocated the use of what we would now call information warfare to confuse and weaken a foe before attacking him militarily. In Russian strategic history in particular, there is a tradition of stoking chaos on the far frontier to keep rivals divided and feuding internally—and thus unable to combine forces against Russia.
But there are disadvantages. Chaos strategies tend to backfire: Efforts to sow instability in a neighbor’s lands can ricochet, eventually affecting the initiator. In the lead-up to World War I, for example, the Russian Empire employed an aggressive information warfare campaign aimed at splintering Austria-Hungary. The effort increased the instability of Russia’s own western regions and contributed to a surge of Bolshevism that forced the Russians out of the war. Indeed, in today’s war against Ukraine, Russia has sealed its borders against returning fighters lest they cause trouble at home.
Another problem with chaos strategies is that they involve a tactic—the purposeful use of disinformation—that tends to become more extreme with time. Methods of spreading disinformation that are initially surreptitious become more recognizable with use, so new and more drastic ones must be invented. In addition, since they are ultimately acts of war, it is hard to know when disinformation campaigns are preludes to kinetic operations. And by provoking counter-moves by their targets, they can trigger tests of strength, which these tactics were designed to avoid in the first place. Despite these potential pitfalls, the Kremlin is gambling that the West won’t recognize its strategy of sowing chaos or organize a sufficient response. It may be right.
During the first half of the 20th century, Poland’s famed statesman Józef Piłsudski executed one of the more innovative nonlinear chaos strategies in the history of statecraft. He dubbed it “Prometheanism” in homage to the mythological Greek hero who rejected the authority of the more powerful Zeus. Prometheanism was Piłsudski’s answer to the enduring question: How can a relatively weak power successfully compete against a much stronger one? In Piłsudski’s case, the solution was to exploit the vulnerabilities of neighboring Russia by creating divisions and distractions across his rival’s territory. Compared to Russia, Piłsudski’s Poland was relatively weak. However, he could level the playing field by stoking that troublesome legacy of the former czarist empire: Russia’s nationalities problem. By supporting potentially disruptive independence movements across Russia, Piłsudski intended to keep his rival off balance. Chaos was his strategy. Fostering disorder inside Russia was his goal. But Piłsudski’s Prometheanism may have had unintended, adverse consequences: It probably informed the USSR’s own subsequent strategy of exploiting its opponents’ vulnerabilities.
During the interwar period of the 20th century, Soviet policy in the Baltics represented a form of Prometheanism in action, especially the Kremlin’s use of disinformation and political subversion. By this point, Russian leaders had learned much from grappling with Piłsudski’s original Promethean gambit against the fledgling Soviet Union. Russia’s Promethean campaign against the Baltics underscored an important aspect of the strategy: It need not be an end in itself, but can also be preparation for more kinetic forms of warfare. Upon the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939, which divided the territory between Germany and the USSR into respective “spheres of influence,” the Soviet Ambassador to Tallinn reported with satisfaction that Estonians were left “bewildered” and “disoriented.” The Kremlin’s subterfuge was complete. The use of disinformation disguised Moscow’s true hostile intentions in the run-up to war, leaving its neighbors strategically off balance. Prometheanism had worked.
In the early phases of the Cold War, the Soviet Union again used Prometheanism against West European states—creating fifth columns and intentionally pitting discrete factions against one another. Weakening the West had a number of purposes: to prevent rearmament in Germany; to discredit pro-British and American leaders in Italy; to engender beneficial political chaos for local communist parties; and to win de facto recognition for Moscow’s consolidation of power in the eastern half of the Continent. The postwar era likewise revealed an inherent danger of Prometheanism: blowback. Soviet policy in Europe eventually backfired dramatically, by becoming a major stimulus for the Marshall Plan. Prometheanism carries a cost.
In the 21st century, Russian leaders are now employing a modern variant of the Promethean strategy as a power balancer against the West. Just as Piłsudski once attempted to balance Poland’s weakness by exploiting Russia’s vulnerabilities, today’s Kremlin-backed efforts to manipulate the information space use the openness of Western systems against them. Unlike during the Cold War, today’s Russian propaganda does not crudely promote the Kremlin’s foreign policy agenda. Instead, it is designed to confuse, distract, and disrupt Western states.
Russia enjoys some superficial advantages in creating chaos. First, the Kremlin does not need to beat its Western competitors outright—only to keep them confused, uncoordinated, and off balance. Second, Russia’s leaders believe that their authoritarian system grants them a natural competitive advantage in managing the politics of disorder. A third advantage is technology. Russia’s disinformation (and associated cyber) operations—prime vehicles for seeding division and distraction—leverage the anonymity, immediacy, and ubiquity of the digital age. Finally, there is surprise. As seen in recent Western elections, Russia regularly catches the West off guard.
Examples of Russia’s strategy in action are many. In the Baltic States, modern Russian disinformation campaigns try to exploit fears of U.S. abandonment, while simultaneously stoking feelings of alienation among local populations. In Romania, Russian-backed media foment animosity toward Western “meddling” and eat away at public faith in NATO. In Ukraine, Moscow has exploited ethnic and linguistic divisions to create opportunities for land-grabs. It is Russian disinformation that has inflamed anti-Ukrainian sentiments among the Polish population, and widened divisions in Lithuania over energy diversification policies. Facts have become distorted. Policy debates have been hijacked. NATO has become the enemy in some quarters, and Euro-Atlantic solidarity is eroding. Ordinary citizens are left dismayed, suspicious, or disillusioned. This is what a successful 21st century disinformation strategy looks like—and chaos is its aim.
A great deal of recent Western attention has been dedicated to granular considerations of the “who” and “how” of Russia’s techniques for creating disorder and distraction. We now know, for example, how Moscow makes use of Russian-language and foreign-language media outlets and social media networks to sow doubt about Western security structures like NATO. We also understand now how Russia’s military doctrine has incorporated “information confrontation” into its methods of warfare. And thanks to multiple analyses of Russian General Valery Gerasimov’s writings on the use of “indirect and asymmetric methods” for defeating an enemy, our awareness of Moscow’s “nonlinear” methods for manipulating information and political systems is expanding.
Meanwhile, comparatively little work has been devoted to fitting these necessary pieces into a holistic framework that includes the “what for” and “what’s next” of Russia’s efforts. Consequently, Western leaders are perpetually playing defense against Russia’s latest toxic narrative or remarkable cyber operation. All too often, they are surprised by the Kremlin’s next moves.
Part of the problem is our misunderstanding of Russia’s strategic behavior. Prior to the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia was generally viewed as a weak actor with declining power in the global arena. Mired in economic crises, social problems, and plummeting population growth, Moscow’s ambition of achieving regional hegemony and global influence seemed to be things of the past. As far as Western leaders were concerned, Russia did not have the wherewithal to support a military or geostrategic rivalry. Western relations with Russia were subsequently premised on assumptions of a “win-win” situation rather than on zero-sum calculations of “us-versus-them.” These assumptions have now been shattered. From its incursions into Georgia and Ukraine to its bending or breaking of treaties (among them the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe and the Helsinki Final Act) to its militarization of the Black Sea and Kaliningrad enclaves, Russia has ramped up its hostility to the existing Transatlantic security order. In the process, it has also demonstrated that even a weakened competitor can be highly disruptive.
To counteract Russia’s behavior, the West must understand the Kremlin’s use of information warfare as an example of a chaos strategy in action, and detach itself from its current focus on social media and IT-heavy analysis. In particular, Western analysts must consider how the concept of a bloodless “disordering of the far frontier” has figured in past Russian political-military strategy. Using both historical and contemporary assessments of Russian thinking, they can improve the West’s own competitive strategies.
Indeed, the Kremlin’s chaos-seeding strategy shows us what its leaders fear: Western power. Yet to date the West has not fully considered how its power can be brought to bear against the Kremlin’s vulnerabilities. Every strategy has a weakness. For example, there are disadvantages as well as advantages to our instantaneous modern communications: The interconnected nature of the modern information space makes it harder to achieve effects in a geographically targeted way, heightening Russia’s own susceptibility to a “boomerang effect.” What unintended consequences are beginning to occur as a result of its chaos strategy? How aware are Russian leaders of these problems and how willing to address them? How vulnerable are they to blowback? These are questions that Western policymakers must ask.
The stakes are high: Russia’s chaos strategy has a potentially far-reaching impact on bilateral relations and on the efficacy of our treaties and agreements with Russia (old and new). It may increase the risk of unwanted military escalation and threaten the future stability of frontline states in Central and Eastern Europe. It should also prompt caution about the prospects for agreements on Ukraine, Syria, and North Korea.
In light of these risks, U.S. policy must remove the predictable and permissive conditions that enable a chaos strategy in the first place. Second, it must conceive of and work toward a sustainable end state in which Russia returns to “normal” strategic behavior patterns. Here are four key actions that policymakers must take if they are to accomplish both goals:
- Realize that Russia sees the international system very differently than we do, even though our interests on specific issues may coincide (for example, counter-terrorism).
- Approach our dealings with Moscow with the understanding that its use of terms like “international law” and “state sovereignty” are quite different than ours, and that Kremlin leaders evoke these concepts for ad hoc advantage—not as ends in themselves.
- Understand that Russia’s use of information warfare has a purpose: reflexive control. (Such control is achieved by subtly convincing Russia’s opponents that they are acting in their own interests, when in fact they are following Moscow’s playbook.)
- Prioritize the sequencing of the “carrots and sticks” offered to the Kremlin. Sticks first. This means initially increasing the penalties imposed on Russia for continued revisionist behavior and sowing of chaos (for example: tougher sanctions, wider travel bans, greater restrictions on access to the global financial system, financial snap exercises).
Unfortunately, we in the West—particularly in the United States—have been too predictable, too linear. We would do well to consider ourselves the underdog in this contest and push back in nonlinear ways. The only thing that Kremlin leaders perhaps fear more than Western power is the rejection of their rule by Russia’s own people. While our final goal should be to ensure that Moscow becomes a constructive member of the Transatlantic security community, our responses for now should serve the shorter-term goal of forcing Russia to play more defense and less offense against the West. For this purpose, we should dispense with concerns about “provoking” the Kremlin. It is hardly a basis of sound policy to prioritize Putin’s peace of mind. The Russian government will work with the West if that path suits its goals. Otherwise, it will not. We should do the same.