The Kremlin continues to look for new ways to challenge U.S. hegemony, expose the limitations of the West and win respect for Russian values and interests.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson watches as President Barack Obama leaves after speaking at the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center in Arlington, Jan. 13, 2015. Photo: AP
Russian cyber power and the Kremlin’s possible involvement in attacks on the Democratic National Committee (DNC) have generated a stream of Western commentary. Most of it expresses a growing fear that Russia is determined to undermine American values and even falsify the results of the U.S. presidential election – presumably in Donald Trump’s favor.
The Senate minority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to investigate potential Russian election tampering. During the Sept. 26 presidential debate, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton accused Russia of “trying to wreak havoc” in the United States and threatened retaliation.
These reactions indicate a new level of Russophobia in the U.S. media and political class. The perception of the Russia threat reappeared in the U.S. establishment mid-2000s and was consolidated in the context of U.S.-Russia clashes over the Magnitsky Law, anti-American laws in Russia, the handling of political protests by the Kremlin, asylum for Edward Snowden, the annexation of Crimea, and the intervention in Syria.
The former executive editor at the New York Times, Bill Keller, provided the consensus view by calling Russia’s president Vladimir Putin “a nationalistic and homophobic hard-liner” trying to start a new Cold War and “turn back 25 years of history.”
The hard evidence of the Kremlin’s involvement in the cyber attacks is yet to be produced. Nevertheless, such involvement is possible and fits the broader pattern of Russia’s international assertiveness. Since the Munich speech in February 2007, the Kremlin has challenged the United States’ global hegemony and developed multiple tools for projecting Russia’s power and ideas into the Western information space.
Such tools included establishment of the television network Russia Today (RT), reorganizing news agencies, and creating specialized programs to navigate the global cyber space and deflect Western criticisms. Russia’s definition of information warfare is broader than that of the West and incorporates both cyber attacks and media manipulation.
Moscow sees itself responding to the information war launched against it by the West in order to install a friendly regime in Russia, as it did in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Georgia, Ukraine and Libya. Russia’s assertiveness is not the method of launching a new Cold War on the West, let alone destroying its domestic institutions. The Kremlin’s fight is one for a greater recognition of Russia’s values and interests, especially in Europe and Eurasia.
For years, Moscow resisted Western attempts to deter Russia by strengthening political and military relations with Russia’s neighbors at its own expense. The Kremlin remains hopeful of finding a way to cooperate with the West in vital international areas such as counter-terrorism and nuclear non-proliferation. At the same time, Moscow is determined to challenge the United States’ global dominance as Washington refuses to grant Russia the recognition that it seeks.
Putin’s return to the presidency meant that Russia lost much of the trust that it had in the United States. As opposed to Ronald Reagan’s motto of “trust but verify,” Russia’s foreign policy motto seems to be “don’t trust and verify.” Moscow is extremely frustrated with the U.S. attempts to pressure Russia on human rights grounds, while refusing to consider its values and interests.
In response, the Kremlin has come to believe in peace and cooperation though demonstration of strength. Russian leadership is encouraged by what it sees as recent successes of its hard bargaining tactics. For instance, the United States had to change its initial insistence on Assad’s resignation and began to consider military cooperation with the Kremlin against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) following Russia’s military intervention in Syria.
The Kremlin knows that it is heavily disadvantaged relative to the U.S. superpower capabilities, including in the information space. The recent highly secretive, borderline illegal data collection and spying on American citizens and allies (let alone other countries) exposed by Edward Snowden showed the enormous cyber power of the United States and confirmed its international image of promoting democracy in the interests of remaining the world’s policeman.
The U.S. also dominates in the world of global media. For instance, for a relatively young network RT has achieved great successes in the global media space. RT makes the top-5 list of most watched international TV news channels and is especially popular on You Tube. However, experts indicate that RT’s popularity on social media – when judged by followers of its official Twitter account – is only slightly more than one-tenth of BBC World News, let alone CNN. RT’s performance on Facebook is better, yet five to eight times lower than those of the mentioned Western stations.
If one judges by funding levels, Russia is also not in a very competitive position. Relative to the RT annual budget of $220 million, the official budget for the Broadcasting Board of Governors is over $721 million, in addition to an estimated $100 million in support of independent news publications’ overseas and other programs within the U.S. government.
Russia seeks to compensate for its structural weaknesses by selectively displaying its capabilities abroad and consolidating unity at home. For instance, Russia’s recent parliamentary elections were designed to demonstrate the internal unity. Putin’s United Russia party did extremely well and will dominate in the new Duma. That presents a sharp contrast to the poor results of the Christian Democrats in Germany and the disarray of the U.S. presidential elections.
Since the second half of 2000s, the Kremlin has been operating in asymmetrical assertiveness mode by showing strength in those areas where the liberal West is the most vulnerable. It exploited the White House unwillingness to use force in Syria in order to preserve Russia’s interests in the Middle East. The Kremlin also prevented Georgia and Ukraine from joining NATO by using various types of covert political and military tactics that the U.S. could not block. In addition, Russia has cultivated relations with right-wing parties in Europe and is in process of rebuilding its political and energy alliance to reduce its dependence on Western consumers.
In the information area, being asymmetrical means attacking secretly and confusing the opponent, rather than promoting Russia’s own values. He who attacks has the tactical advantage. Here too the goal is not to get involved in a full-scale information war with the West. Rather, it is to expose limitations of the West’s global media and cyber dominance and demonstrate Russia’s strength in anticipation of future reassessment of bilateral relations. The U.S.-Russia cyber-security agreement is yet to be negotiated, which could be a subject for a future conversation.
As the U.S. is going through the process of power transfer, Russia wants to strengthen its bargaining position for relations with a future U.S. president. The Kremlin is exploring its options in case Trump wins, but it is also getting prepared for possible victory by Clinton, whom Russia views as the greater of two evils.
Western thinking on Russia as a declining power with an unsustainable system of values is severely outdated. Although the country is going through an economic recession, it is not threatened politically. There are few pro-Western constituencies left. In addition, while allocating resources for economic recovery, the Kremlin continues to perfect its various power capabilities including media and cyber.
The attitude of dismissal toward Russia’s power and demonization of Putin are highly damaging to the United States and the West in general. If Putin indeed shifts from a hard bargaining mode to a new Cold War against the West, it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy coming true. The new U.S. administration would do well to reexamine its Russia policy with these considerations in mind.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.