Fiona Hill’s warning to Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee not to repeat the “fictional narrative” that Ukraine interfered with the American election in 2016 calls for some historical perspective. Senator Angus King, independent of Maine and a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, offered a bit of it recently when he said the following of Putin and the Russian intelligence services: “These people are pros at this. . . . The Soviet Union used disinformation for 70 years. This is nothing new. Vladimir Putin is a former KGB agent. He is trained in deception. This is his stock in trade, and he is doing it well.”
From the period of time before World War II up to the end of the Cold War, the primary targets of Soviet disinformation campaigns, those who were called at the time “useful idiots,” were either convinced Communists or left-liberals who agreed in part with the Soviet Union’s ideological attacks on the policies of Western governments. The historically novel and unprecedented aspect of the current Russian disinformation campaign is that, on the whole, the primary “useful idiots,” those who repeat the falsehoods for their own interests, are on the American right, including not just conservative media outlets, but also the President of the United States and Republican politicians.
During the Cold War, the West’s soft spot at which Soviet intelligence services took aim was the West’s intellectuals on the left, in journalism, in the universities, and in politics. Especially during and after the war in Vietnam, denunciations of “American imperialism” were likely to be echoed in whole or in part by the Western left. In the era of Putinism and Trump’s “America First,” however, the nature of those likely to repeat Russian propaganda has changed significantly. In the New York Times, Julian Barnes and Matthew Rosenberg write that Russian intelligence officers spread the false story about Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. election “to prominent Russians and Ukrainians who then used a range of intermediaries, like oligarchs, businessmen, and their associates, to pass the material to American political figures and even some journalists, who were likely unaware of its origin”—that is, to a group interested in making money first and foremost, but babes in the woods regarding the history of Soviet-era intelligence services. Eventually the narrative was picked up and amplified by the biggest figure on the right: Donald J. Trump.
In the era of Putin and Putinism, the Russians have switched from targeting left-leaning intellectuals to aiming at Western businessmen like Trump, who are convinced that they have some special insight into the “real” world of international politics because they have made a lot of money. The Russians realize that in Trump they have a genuine “useful idiot,” one who, beyond their wildest dreams, uses the power of the presidency to repeat the kinds of narratives that the Reagan- or Bush-era Republican Party would have denounced as conspiracy theories and lies stemming from Leninist efforts to use democracy to undermine democracy.
As with Putin’s latest narratives about Ukraine, Soviet-era fictions were intended to accomplish two goals: to deflect from Soviet actions, and to place blame on others. Let’s look at two of these narratives. The first was the idea, spread by Soviet diplomats at the United Nations in the late 1940s and then repeated by communist parties and leftist activists around the world, that the state of Israel was a creation of “American imperialism.” In fact, as I’ve found in my research for a work in progress on the responses to the establishment of Israel in the United States and Europe, it was the Soviet Union that offered crucial diplomatic support and, via its ally and satellite Czechoslovakia, crucial weapons deliveries, first, to the Jewish Agency led by David Ben Gurion in Palestine, and then, after May 15, 1948, to the new, still fragile state of Israel. Soviet bloc diplomatic and military assistance to the Zionists took place at the same time that the United States supported and helped to enforce a United Nations embargo on sending arms to the Arab states, to the Jews in Palestine, and to Israel. The embargo harmed the Jews, who did not have a state before May 1948, more than it did the Arabs.
One of the Soviet Union’s most successful disinformation campaigns of the Cold War sought to repress from international memory these two crucial years of Soviet Zionism and to foster the equally false narrative that the United States was the primary driving force behind Israel’s creation. President Truman’s support for recognition of Israel was vital, to be sure, but the United States did not deliver weapons in any serious dimension until after the Six Day War of 1967. Indeed, officials in Washington tried to overturn the UN Partition Plan of November 29, 1947, out of fear that the Jewish state in Palestine would antagonize Arab opinion so greatly that Western access to oil would be endangered and Soviet prospects would be enhanced in the Middle East. Yet Soviet intelligence services and diplomats succeeded in deflecting “blame” for Israel’s establishment from the Soviet Union and the global left of 1947-48 onto the “imperialists,” and many on the left continue to perpetuate the myth linking “U.S. imperialism” to Zionism.
A second Soviet-era fictional narrative brings us back to the biography of Vladimir Putin and efforts of the Soviet Union to split the United States from its NATO allies in what observers call “the second Cold War” in Europe. It began in the mid-1970s with a Soviet military build-up that included intermediate-range SS-20 ballistic missiles, which were able to reach Western Europe but not the United States and were equipped with nuclear warheads. The growth of this arsenal followed the American defeat in Vietnam and the persistence of the policy of détente under Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. As I pointed out in my 1991 book War by Other Means: Soviet Power, West German Resistance and the Battle of the Euromissiles, the first Western leader to raise the alarm about the Soviet build-up was West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, not President Carter. Schmidt worried that the growth of the Soviet arsenal called into question the credibility of the U.S. commitment to retaliate should the Soviet Union attack non-nuclear West Germany. West German strategists worried that the growth of the Soviet intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) would enhance the Soviet Union’s ability to credibly threaten a nuclear war limited to Central and Western Europe.
In December 1979, the United States and its West European allies took the “double-track decision” to deploy Pershing ballistic missiles and subsonic cruise missiles in West European countries but also to enter negotiations with the Soviet Union in the hopes of reducing INF on both sides. In November 1981, President Reagan changed the American proposal to one of a “zero-zero option”—that is, to do away completely with NATO INF deployments if the Soviet Union would dismantle its SS-20 and other INF missiles. The purpose of the NATO decision was to enhance deterrence by convincing the Soviet leadership that the United States remained committed to extending nuclear deterrence to Western Europe and that therefore the chances were very high that, if the Soviet Union attacked Western Europe, it would immediately be at war with the United States and would face likely conventional and possibly nuclear retaliation on its own territory.
The NATO double-track decision called for deployment of new weapons in order to sustain—not change—the American policy of extended nuclear deterrence that had been in place since NATOs origins. It was a mix of reassurance to our NATO allies that the United States remained true to its past commitments combined with a message of deterrence to the Soviet leadership. It made war limited to Europe less likely, not more, and was intended to convince Soviet leaders that war in Europe was irrational, suicidal, and thus not an option that any sane leader would adopt. American policy makers assumed that the Communist leaders were rational people who had no desire for martyrdom and glory in a next world. Reagan and others believed that eventually the Soviet leadership would realize the absurdity of the arms build-up it had begun and agree, as they did in 1987, to the essence of the “zero-option” of 1981 embodied in the INF treaty that withdrew the NATO missiles deployed in 1983 and dismantled weapons that the Soviet Union had not needed in the first place.
The signal accomplishment of the Soviet Union’s fictional narrative of 1979-83 was to reverse the meaning of the NATO double-track decision into one decided on by the United States in order to victimize Europe. In response to that decision, the Soviet Union launched one of the most important and successful disinformation campaigns of the entire Cold War. It made the claim, which became increasingly absurd as the numbers of SS-20s grew rapidly before any NATO deployments had taken place, that its deployments did not upset the balance of military forces. This claim of continuing military balance, despite its prima facie absurdity, was repeated by some journalists and politicians on the left in Western Europe. The Soviet leaders claimed that the impetus for NATO’s decision did not begin with expressions of concern by leaders in Western Europe, but with “hawks” and “cold warriors” in the United States. While the NATO double-track decision was intended to reinforce the “coupling” of the defense of Western Europe to American nuclear deterrence, Soviet leaders argued that the United States was doing just the opposite—that is, it was making plans to deploy “first-strike weapons” in order to fight and win a nuclear war limited to Europe. Soviet propaganda called the NATO deployments plans for a “nuclear Auschwitz.” That claim struck a deep chord in West Germany and was repeated in books and reports across the media. The Soviet Union, which had initiated the crisis with its own deployments, presented itself as the innocent victim in the situation.
If these claims had come only from the neo-Stalinists in the Kremlin, they would have found a very small audience in Western Europe. What made them politically and strategically significant was that, in the wake of harsh rhetoric from the Reagan Administration that unsettled even the moderate left in Western Europe, they were repeated in various forms, first, by small communist organizations and their front groups, then by a “peace” and “anti-nuclear” movement that evolved into the new Green Party in West Germany. Journalists at some major papers and magazines repeated that interpretation, thus lending it legitimacy in their various countries. Most importantly, the denunciation of the NATO decision did not come only from the leftist Greens but increasingly from the moderate left, especially the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in West Germany. As one West German strategist put it, during the battle of the Euromissiles Helmut Schmidt’s party, the SPD, had evolved from a left of center bulwark against communist arguments into a lever that the Soviet leadership could pull to exert influence over Western foreign and military policy. Not only did tens of thousands of demonstrators pour into the streets of West Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands to denounce the United States or, at best, “both superpowers” for threatening Europe with a “nuclear holocaust;” West Germany’s leading left of center party, along with Britain’s Labour Party, both historically committed to the Atlantic Alliance, also exerted pressure on the United States to accept versions of Soviet positions in the negotiations taking place in Geneva that would leave the SS-20s in place without any new NATO deployments.
Because the Soviet Union and the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe were all dictatorships and did not allow their publics to protest Soviet policies, the universal and rational fear of nuclear war shared by their own citizens could have no impact on the policy of the Soviet government. Because NATO members were democracies, this same universal and rational fear did exert pressure, but only on the policies of the Western Alliance. The public protests did not and could not exert pressure on the Soviet Union to dismantle its SS-20 arsenal. The battle of the Euromissiles was an example of what I have called “asymmetric strategic interaction,” in which the virtues of democracy became, in the short term, strategic vulnerabilities. France’s Socialist President François Mitterrand captured the asymmetry in his quip that “the Soviets deploy missiles and we deploy pacifists.” Others worried about whether democracy’s virtues would contribute to its collapse. Soviet strategy sought to use the divisions within Western Europe to its own advantage.
There were politicians in Western Europe, such as France’s President Mitterand and Italy’s Prime Minister Bettino Craxi—as well as journalists of the center-left—who supported the NATO double-track decision. They, too, presented the rationale of extended nuclear deterrence, recalled its origins in decisions by West German Social Democrat Helmut Schmidt and the American Democratic President Jimmy Carter, and pointed out the absence of demonstrations in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Yet by 1983, the Soviet hard line had helped to bring political leaders of the right to power: Helmut Kohl in West Germany, Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain, and Ronald Reagan in the United States supported implementation of the deployments in the face of the Soviet disinformation campaign about the impending “nuclear Auschwitz” or “nuclear holocaust.”
By 1983, however, that fictional narrative had ceased to persuade electoral majorities in Western Europe. The Soviet Union’s hard line backfired as electorates concluded that Reagan’s zero-option was preferable to a continent facing the SS-20 arsenal with no new NATO deployments. That outcome did not, however, come about by itself. It required the determination of leaders in Washington, Bonn, Brussels, London, Rome, and Paris to make the case that what the Soviet leadership was proffering was, in Fiona Hill’s terms, a fictional narrative; that it was the Soviet Union, not the United States, that was deploying weapons that could carry out a war limited to Central and Western Europe; and that the United States was promising to continue, not abandon, the policy of extended nuclear deterrence that had contributed to four decades of peace in Europe.
In the United States, the Reagan Administration and the Republican Party recognized the Soviet disinformation campaign for what it was and rejected it. The Republican Party of that time was proud of its skepticism about such narratives and contemptuous of the left’s credulity. In a sense, the Republican Party in its current Trumpist incarnation is a result of the success of the Western victory in the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union and the communist states of Eastern Europe. The end of the Soviet threat deprived many Republicans of their key reason for sustaining a U.S. role in world affairs. Large parts of the party that fought and helped win the Cold War have now reverted to the mentalities, moods, and hatreds of the isolationist, nationalist, and xenophobic Republican Party of the 1930s, when Charles Lindbergh, among others, offered the first incarnation of an ideology of “America First” in opposing U.S. intervention against Hitler in Europe.
The point of this excursion into the not-so-distant past is to remind today’s Republican Party of two points. First, as the story of these two Soviet fictional narratives indicates, when it served its interests the Soviet Union was willing and able to spread disinformation that benefitted the Western left and undermined the Western right. Putin’s Russia, which seethes with resentment about American power, could certainly find reasons in the near future to support leftists eager to dismantle Western defenses and pursue a leftist version of “America First” that would, for example, oppose “endless regime-change wars.”
Second, this historical excursion underscores the point made by Senator King—namely, the endurance and continuing relevance of the Soviet legacy in Putin’s Russia. Historians know that societies and polities change very slowly, even when dramatic events such as regime-change occur. The weight of the past is heavy. Traditions sink deep roots, especially when, as in the Soviet Union, which collapsed a mere 28 years ago, those roots had been in place for 70 years. As Putin’s long tenure in power, his authoritarian rule, and the murders and arrests of political opponents and dissenting journalists make clear, the traditions, habits of mind, tactics, strategy, institutions, and personnel of the Soviet era are alive and well in Russia today. Russia is no longer communist, but the skills needed to spread deception and deflect blame onto others, honed for decades by the Soviet intelligence services, are very much at work in Russia’s current attacks on our democracy.
In the final decades of the Cold War, the Republican Party fought the good fight against the disinformation campaigns of the Soviet Union. Today, that same party, led by the President, seem all too eager to prove themselves Vladimir Putin’s useful idiots.