[For comment on our Intelligence Agencies’ joint Report on Russian interference in our elections, click here. For a recent post on fake news, click here
1. The Russian Bear has trouble making and keeping friends
2. Russia is modern history’s most battered nation
3. Russia makes almost nothing that the rest of the world wants
4. Yankee financial ideologues helped make Russia what it is today
5. Except for a mutual interest in survival, Russia’s core interests and ours are practically disjoint
“Fear is the mind killer.” Frank Herbert, Dune
Today the bilateral relationship between the United States and China is the world’s most important. It has been for some time. Ever since Nixon “opened” China to the US—really, vice versa
—that relationship has reflected the Chinese definition of “crisis”: danger mixed with opportunity.
Our relationship with Russia is a close second in importance. Together Russia and we have 95% of the world’s nuclear weapons. So how we interact also has been important for some time. A decade before Nixon and Kissinger went to China, in October 1962, our Cold War with Russia came close to extinguishing our species. You can’t get much more important than that.
Unfortunately, insofar as Russia is concerned, the sense of danger has prevailed over opportunity to the present day. We and the Russians must both manage our sense of danger and overcome our paranoia if our species is to survive, and if our current multipolar world
is to attain a new, stable order to replace the brief postwar Pax Americana.
How do we do that? We Yanks must begin to look for opportunity in Russia, rather than fear, enmity and danger. But before we Yanks can even manage that, we must begin to see Russia clearly.
Today, few of us do, least of all the McCain-Graham axis in Congress that thinks the Cold War is still raging. In order to see Russia clearly, we must, at a minimum, internalize five essential factual truths.
1. The Russian Bear has trouble making and keeping friends.
The bear is a fine metaphor for Russia. Bears are not known for cooperating. They are solitary predators and scavengers. Have you ever heard of a “pack” or “herd” of bears?
Bears are territorial but not particularly aggressive among their own species. They mostly keep to themselves and their own territory. But when they feel threatened—for example, a mother with her cubs—they can attack without warning. They can even attack and kill humans.
And so it is with Russia. Much of Russia’s sad condition arises from its status as humanity’s most battered nation, which we will discuss next. But some of its unique condition arises from its own inability to make and keep friends.
Can you think of any nation that is Russia’s true friend? I can’t. It has a series of satellites around its border, including Byelorussia, Kazakhstan, Moldova and the other Stans. It supports almost comical “strongman” dictators of those nations, who keep their people in chains and their economic progress minimal and fitful. Russia has dismembered and invaded its own “mother country” Ukraine, not once but twice, first in the Stalinist forced collectivization and resulting serial famines of the 20s and 30s
, and then more recently. It has used its modernizing conventional military to annihilate Syria in order to keep a butcher-tyrant (Assad) and his 13% minority in totalitarian power over what is left of the majority.
Russia’s own people are in some ways freer and more prosperous than they have ever been. But in its foreign policy, Russia seems to have lost its way.
What was once Russia’s most promising friendship, with Germany, has badly degenerated. Just a few decades after starting the most horrendous war in history, Germany had become Russia’s biggest and most reliable trading partner. But now that relationship is in disarray, partly due to Russia’s attempt to use its oil and gas for political blackmail, rather than mutual benefit. As a result of that blackmail and Russia’s current roles in Ukraine and Syria, Chancellor Angela Merkel—one of wisest and smartest leaders of either gender in human history—now views Russia and its leader with concern, suspicion and even fear. The Baltics view today’s Russia with alarm and terror.
Russia has never learned the lesson that strong, independent, friendly neighbors are better than sullen, restive vassal states. Could Stalin have repelled the Nazi invasion more easily had he not decimated the Polish officer corps and made Poland weak? if he had not beaten, collectivized and starved Ukraine into submission, to such an extent that much of its people welcomed the Nazi invaders and fought with them, at least until they began to see that the Nazis viewed them as subhuman?
We will never know the answers to these questions. You can’t replay history. But common sense suggests that Russia’s policy of keeping its neighbors in helpless vassalage and having no real friends has been a significant factor in its sad history as the globe’s most battered nation.
If Russia has any real
friend today, it’s Iran. But Iran has its own agenda: prosecuting the forever tribal war between Shiites and Sunnis, and spreading its influence, regardless of mayhem, throughout the Middle East.
Nevertheless, Iran seems to understand, better than Russia, the benefits of cooperation and trade. At least it has allowed its “friend” Russia to defang its nuclear program (temporarily) in the interest of ending economic sanctions and beginning a long walk down the road of trade and cooperation with Europe and the West.
How did Russia get this way? How did it end up being a nation whose sole friend is a much smaller and weaker but likewise friendless one, whom all its neighbors fear? To answer that question, we must address the single most important truth about Russia: its battered status.
2. Russia is modern history’s most battered nation.
Since 1800, it has suffered invasions by foreign armies at least six times. On the average, that’s about once every 35 years.
Napoleonic France invaded twice from the West. Germany also invaded twice, again from the West. Japan invaded Russia twice from the east, in 1904-1905 and again in World War II. Throughout the same two centuries, Russia has endured border struggles with the Turks and other Islamic peoples to its south, sometimes due to its own imperial ambitions, and sometimes due to others’.
In short, for more than two centuries, enemies have attacked Russia multiple times from every direction but the frozen north. In the most recent attacks (the Nazis’ assault during World War II), Russia suffered losses proportionally greater than did any other combatant nation. It lost an estimated twenty million people dead, or about one out of seven of its then population. Think about that. If we Yanks lost a proportional number today, it would be 46 million people, about the entire populations of California and Virginia.
In the siege of a single city, Leningrad, Soviet Russia lost more dead than we Yanks did in the entire Second World War, on both our eastern and western fronts. While we, the Brits and our allies were fighting 10 Nazi divisions in Western Europe, Soviet Russia was fighting 200 in the East.
Two key conclusions arise from these basic facts. First, neither we Yanks nor the Brits “won” the war again Nazi fascism. Soviet Russia did. We merely helped a bit, especially with supplies and materiel. Second, what looks like Russian paranoia to us is historical realism to Russians. When your nation has been battered more often and more severely than any other, you deserve to be a bit punch drunk.
If we Yanks can just get our minds around these basic facts, we might begin to replace reflexive fear and paranoia of our own with some understanding and even empathy. Who knows what benefits of cooperation then might follow?
3. Russia makes almost nothing that the rest of the world wants.
This point is sad, but true. The nation that gave the world Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Lermontov, Mussorgsky, Pavlov, Solzhenitsyn, Tchaikovsky, Tolstoi and Peter the Great, not to mention the Hermitage and St. Basil’s, now has an economy the size of Italy’s.
Yet Russia is unlike Italy, which sells art, clothes, handbags, fashion and luxury cars (as well as Fiats) all around the world. Russia sells virtually nothing abroad, at least to the West, except oil and gas.
When I was a Fulbright Fellow in Moscow in 1993, Russia was just emerging from the darkness and sterility of a fictional economic system called “Communism.” The most interesting places to shop were little impromptu street markets that had grown up around Moscow’s major Metro stations. There babushki
sold pickled vegetables and canned fruits and chickens grown on their dachas, and others sold almost anything they thought they could sell.
In one such market I found a Russian-language version of Paul Samuelson’s basic college text on real
economics. I bought the two volumes and gave them to the library at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO, in the Russian acronym), where I taught. The library put the book in its “special” collection, which students needed special permission to peruse.
For my first weeks in Moscow, I resolved to live like a Russian. I bought salted-to-death canned fish, rice and moldy vegetables at failing Soviet-style stores and made a sour-tasting fish stew. After about three weeks of this diet, I capitulated and began shopping at the best small valyuata
(hard currency) “supermarket” in my neighborhood. To my surprise, I found that two-thirds of the shoppers there were Russians who had somehow managed to acquire hard currency. The store was a branch of Julius Meinl, an Austrian small market-delicatessen chain.
Every week I visited the American Embassy to do my laundry, cash a check, and get a good, wholesome cafeteria meal. (The quality of the cafeteria was purposely much higher than usual, because at that time there were virtually no good restaurants in Moscow, except the likes of the Hotel Metropol, where a dinner for two started at $120.) As I approached the Embassy from the Metro on foot, I passed a seemingly endless line of semi-trailer trucks from places like Germany, France, Turkey and even Israel, all supplying our Embassy. Apparently there was not much from Russia itself that our Embassy or its employees wanted.
Things had improved a bit by the time I returned to Moscow on a State-Department-sponsored democracy-building project in 1996. One thing I remember was the Red October chocolate shop near the Arbat. Its candy and displays could compare with any in the West, but I’ve never seen its candy on sale outside of Russia. Maybe the Stans buy it.
Besides chocolates, Russia could easily sell the world aircraft. It has two lines of aircraft—Tupolev and Antonov—that it uses for internal travel and for military purposes. One Antonov cargo carrier is the largest plane in the world
. Whether you don’t see these planes outside of Russia because they couldn’t be brought up to international standards, or because Russia is afraid others will copy their designs and gain a military edge, I don’t know. But chocolates and aircraft at least create some
chance for Russia to sell something besides its limited natural resources. These two fields might create opportunities for both Russia and us Yanks.
4. Yankee financial ideologues helped make Russia what it is today.
Here and now, in 2017, it’s almost impossible to remember the tremendous capacity for change in Russia during the decade around the Soviet Union’s collapse. Here’s a rough chronology:
|1990, March||Mikhail Gorbachev elected first (and only) president of USSR|
|1990, July||Boris Yeltsin elected president of Russian Republic within USSR, with mandate for economic reform|
|1991, August||Lower-level Communists mount putsch against Gorbachev|
|1991, August||Yeltsin stands on tank in Parliament Square and rallies people and Army against putsch; putsch fails|
|1991, December||Gorbachev dissolves Soviet Union and resigns as its president|
|1992||Yeltsin, as president of Russian Republic, becomes presidentof newly declared Russian Federation|
|1993||Yeltsin, against opposition, pushes through new Constitution for Russian Federation|
|1996, June||Yeltsin wins presidency of Federation in close race against Communist|
|1997-1998||Yeltsin encounters difficulties in breakaway republics of Chechnya and Dagestan and with economic reforms|
|1999, December||Yeltsin, his health failing, resigns and appoints Putin Acting President|
|2000||Putin grants Yeltsin immunity against prosecution|
What this dry chronology doesn’t reveal is how open Russia was, during this period, to honest foreign influences, including those of us Yanks. That I saw personally, during an invitation-only 1993 conference at Moscow’s House of Journalists, a sort of “faculty club” for the top journalists in Russia..
Unfortunately, in revamping their economy after the Soviet Union’s fall, the Russians didn’t listen to me or to other Yanks like me, who knew the language and understood at least a bit of Russian history and culture. Official American advice to Russia fell under the spell of Wall Street and radical academic ideologues like Harvard’s economist Jeffrey Sachs (no relation to Goldman Sachs).
The result was an astoundingly brief bout of economic “shock therapy” and “privatization.” Under the spell and greedy enthusiasm of American advisers like Sachs, the Russian government tried to sell off Russia’s mighty state enterprises of heavy industry on a non-existent stock market. They tried to sell shares of stock to a population 99.9% of which had absolutely no idea what a share of stock is.
The result was predictable. The most savvy and clever of the old Soviet managers, plus some tricky newcomers, cornered the market in individual enterprises and became Russia’s oligarchs. They were like our Yankee Robber Barons, but with an important difference. They hadn’t risen up from the shop floor like Carnegie, or from years-long battles in executive suites, like Rockefeller or J. P. Morgan. Their
rise started and ended in a few months of mostly secret wheeling and dealing. Then these men, with virtually none of the experience of our own nineteenth-century Robber Barons, became the Robber Barons of Russia.
Is it any wonder what happened next? The Soviet Union had dissolved in 1991, roughly 74 years after the beginning of Russia’s bloody October Revolution (1917). For 74 years, Russia’s entire population had lived under Communism and forced collectivization. They had been taught that capitalism is the exploitation of workers, and that the law of diminishing marginal utility (the law of supply and demand) is a capitalist lie told to advance that exploitation. The only people in Russia who actually had experience with stocks and bonds were in their nineties. So they had little influence in Russia—except perhaps to breathe into the ears of their sons, the oligarchs, “buy low, sell high.”
Like 99.9% of Russia’s people, Vladimir Putin had been raised and trained under Communism. He had been taught fictional Communist economics in the very same institution
at which I taught as a Fulbright Fellow. He knew little or nothing about capitalism and how it works, far less about business. And as a spook he had been taught to trust no one and nothing, let alone a complex economic system he had never studied, except as an implacable enemy.
So should we be surprised that, over his sixteen years in office, Putin has broken, effectively exiled (Khodorkovsky) or subjugated all the Russian oligarchs and taken all Russia’s heavy industry back under his own control, or direct or indirect state control? After nearly two decades, the net effect of Sachs’ and our State Department’s “shock therapy” and emergency privatization has been to shift state ownership and control of Russian heavy industry from a formalized state structure to less formal, less transparent and more corrupt system of crony-state capitalism.
Cause and effect are a tricky business. Of course what we Yanks did is not the only cause of what happened. But if our State Department had set out, with all our best intelligence, to create a state-managed oligarchy in Russia and to reinforce the Russian government’s traditional anti-business, anti-capitalism culture, it could not have done a better job.
Our simplistic and mechanistic attempt to impose our own culture on Russia’s complex and deeply engrained one—and to try to do so overnight—was as horrific a mistake as Ike’s cooperating with the Brits’ spooks to overthrow Iran’s first democracy in 1953
. But, Russia being infinitely more important and powerful than Iran, our blunder in Russia is far more consequential. Today, Putin and the vast majority of Russia’s people suspect that our blunder was deliberate, and not just the result of ignorance, stupidity and hubris. It will take decades to convince them otherwise.
And is it a coincidence that the victims of two of our greatest foreign policy blunders—Russia and Iran—are now friends and cooperating in the butchery of Syria? Or is it some sort of terrible poetic justice in which others, not we, pay the price for our sins?
5. Except for a mutual interest in survival, Russia’s core interests and ours are practically disjoint.
Geography matters. This is still so despite aircraft, ballistic missiles, artificial satellites and instantaneous global communications. The world may now be “flat” (in Tom Friedman’s enigmatic expression), but it is still a very big place. And all politics is still local, as our own great pol once said.
To be sure, what is happening in Syria has global implications, including massive dislocation of refugees and random terror attacks throughout Europe and in our own country. But who would exchange a place—even in a country as insecure against terrorism as Belgium, and even for a microsecond—for a place anywhere in Syria? As we worry (only sometimes rationally) about local fallout from this terrible global event, we have to keep things in perspective.
Despite Russia’s huge geographic size and eleven time zones, its core interests and center of gravity are all in Eastern Europe. A second and lesser set of core interests lies to its south, on the ancient border of Christianity with Islam. These include Crimea and its base for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet—a bastion of Russian defense against perpetual turbulence in the Middle East and South Asia.
In an earlier essay
, I likened Russia’s interest in Sevastopol, Crimea to our Yankee interest in Guantánamo or San Diego. About three quarters of Crimea’s population is Russian speaking, and Russia had a least the fig leaf of a popular referendum on its annexation. But regardless of that, Russia is never going to give up Sevastopol or Crimea voluntarily, because they are simply too important to Russia’s defense, national security, history and sovereignty.
Anyway, Putin grabbed Crimea for Russia bloodlessly, cleverly and quickly, so quickly that the outside world had little time to react. Annexation is a fait accompli
. So rather than foment and rail helplessly, like McCain and Graham, maybe we in the West should start thinking about what reciprocal and like concession we can ask of Russia for recognizing its de facto
Eastern Ukraine and Syria are different matters. Putin’s action in fostering perpetual instability in the one and the peace of the grave in the other is troubling both morally and politically. But is either Eastern Ukraine or Syria among our core American interests? Imagine us going to war with Russia, let alone a nuclear exchange, to protect either place. It’s not going to happen.
So in both places we have three options. First, we can (as some, including I, have at times suggested
) give the “our side” Stingers and other accurate weapons and so perhaps escalate the conflict and the needless casualties. Second, we can turn our backs, stick to our knitting
, hide in self-imposed isolation, and bear the moral pain. Third, we can bargain with Russia about things that are in, or closer to, our core interests and maybe include Ukraine and Syria in those bargains.
Isn’t the third option the best? If so, what might we use as bargaining chips to tone down the turmoil in Eastern Ukraine and the butchery in Syria?
In looking for an answer to that question, we stumble upon an interesting fact. The challenges to our Monroe Doctrine that the Soviet Union once nurtured in “our” hemisphere are all but gone. By virtue of the deal that JFK and General Secretary Khrushchev made in 1962 to avoid species self-extinction, there are no more Soviet or Russian nuclear missiles in Cuba. Fidel Castro is dead. His brother Raúl is willy nilly bringing Cuba closer to the United States, if our rabid Cuban expatriates and their Tea Party supporters will permit.
At the same time, the revolution that the Soviet Union once tried to import into our hemisphere is dying everywhere. Colombia has a peace treaty with the FARC. Venezuela’s leaders are still trying to blame us for their nation’s agony, but gross economic mismanagement is becoming a more self-evident cause. Except for terrorism, gang violence, and narco-trafficking, our hemisphere is more secure and more hopeful than it has been in decades. Apart from the hacking, fake news and disinformation directed at us Yanks, Russian interference has all but ceased.
So the big new bargaining chip on Russia’s side is not the old kind of fomented revolution or low-level war. Instead, it’s what might be called “information warfare”: a combination of hacking, cleverly directed “fake news,” and disinformation.
Is this information warfare a core interest of ours? Does it affect a core interest?
The jury is still out on those questions. Of course information warfare that affects or disrupts critical infrastructure would qualify for serious attention. But while that’s possible and even likely, it has not yet been conclusively demonstrated. Indeed, it is not likely
to be conclusive demonstrated, as its use would be a more traditional act of war and would risk a military response.
The problem with cyber-disruption of critical infrastructure is that its consequences are unpredictable and could involve considerable “collateral damage.” It therefore is not
an accurate weapon
As for selective hacking and release of confidential information like that in our last election, it may be a self-immunizing infection. Presumably our resilient pols will henceforth be more careful with their e-mail; our software industry will offer greater protection; and our various political propaganda machines will learn to take WikiLeaks in stride. Surely the nation that invented the Internet and gave it to the world for free will not be the last to master its discontents
So the most likely use, if not the purpose, of Russian information warfare is not to threaten our own
core interests (a difficult task in the long run) but to serve as a bargaining chip to protect Russia’s own. Since Russia has virtually abandoned “our” Western Hemisphere as a target of interference and meddling, and since it cannot credibly threaten real war against us or its old nemesis Germany, the best it can do to get leverage is to threaten the defenseless Baltics with invasion and us and Europe with information warfare.
While annoying and possibly consequential, these threats are a far cry from the long-feared massive ground invasion of Western Europe backed by Russia’s many tactical nuclear weapons. Again, we ought to keep things in perspective, while keeping our guard up and strengthening our cybersecurity.
. If you line up these five essential truths about Russia and examine them together, you quickly come to some essential conclusions. First, Russia is far more isolated, both culturally and politically, than any other major power, including China. It begs to be brought into our global human culture, not by force or conquest, but by bargaining and with empathy. Second, for all his faults and his utter failure to understand capitalism and business, Putin appears to understand this point. It is likely that all the “bad” things that he has done (besides annexing Crimea—a necessity from Russia’s point of view) are but crude attempts to protect Russia from Sunni terrorism or to create geopolitical bargaining leverage.
Look at the “invasion” of Eastern Ukraine, for example. Putin’s generals claim they could be in Kiev in two or three weeks. Absent massive intervention from the West, they are probably right. But the vast majority of Russia’s troops remain encamped outside Ukraine’s borders, and the low-level civil war in the Donbas is mostly dormant now. At the same time, Putin is avoiding the need to fight over a land route through Ukraine to Crimea by getting one of his subjugated oligarchs to build a long bridge from Russia proper.
So the whole situation is beginning to look much like a bargaining chip. Reduce what Putin (and many Russians) see as NATO’s encirclement of Russia
(remember that old well-justified paranoia?), insure protection of Russian speakers and Russia’s industrial interests in the Baltics and Eastern Ukraine, and maybe the troops on Ukraine’s border will return to their home bases, the dormant rebellion will subside, and the crisis will disappear.
As for Syria, the terrible deed is mostly done. The nation is mostly in coffins and rubble, and there aren’t too many more potential refugees left. So the most serious threat to the West (for which Russia is responsible) may be the information warfare against us and our allies in Western Europe.
With out own elections a done deal, the threat in Europe is the most immediate. If Russia can arrange Chancellor Merkel’s loss in Germany’s upcoming election, and the ascension of the extreme right wing in such nations as Hungary, Poland and Italy, Europe could descend into political disorder, and the EU could fall apart. There’s not much besides open warfare that could affect American core interests more.
Against this background, Trump’s nomination of Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State seems a masterstroke. Russia has lots of oil and natural gas but needs our technology and expertise to extract it all, let alone economically. We Yanks have lots of frackable oil and gas, and our neighbor Canada has more, plus tar sands. But our allies in Europe and East Asia are going to need lots of oil and gas to survive the next generation or two as they convert to renewable and perhaps safe nuclear energy.
As CEO of Exxon Mobil and an experienced energy finder and negotiator, Tillerson will be in a position to forge a grand bargain that makes everybody better off. Europe and East Asia will be in a better position knowing they have a reliable source of fossil fuels to get them through their inevitable energy conversion. Russia will be more secure against “encirclement” knowing that Europe and East Asia (including Japan) depend upon its energy. The interdependence required to bring this state of affairs about will make Russia more like China—massively intertwined with the world outside its borders—and less like an isolated rogue state. And the leverage of this interdependence might be enough to get Russia to wind down its foreign interference and information wars.
In order to reach a result like this, Tillerson is going to have to come up to speed on the political
aspects of dealing with Russia. There is no evidence that he lacks the smarts to do so, and our State Department has plenty of career people able to teach and work with him.
But the key to it all is seeing Russia clearly for what it is. It is not a replay of Nazi Germany, notwithstanding some Nazi-like features that Putin has tolerated or orchestrated
. It’s not even a replay of the Soviet Union, with its aggressive exportation of worldwide revolution and support for rogue regimes like Castro’s in our own hemisphere.
Russia is the most culturally isolated and backward of all today’s major powers. Its leader is an inveterate spook who came of age after Russia’s most terrible battering. He trusts no one and nothing (with some reason), and he has little or no understanding of economics or business. But he is very smart and, like most of today’s leaders, wants only the best for his people and his country. Behind and below him lie whole strata of younger people who do
understand business and capital and just want Russia to become part of the rest of the world, maybe including the EU. In this respect, today’s Russia is not unlike its only real friend, Iran.
When and if those strata of young Russians rise to the top, they might modernize Russia as quickly as Japan and South Korea made their respective “economic miracles.” Putin with his paranoia will not lead Russia forever. In the meantime, the best approach toward Russia may be to excuse his crude gambits, as long as they don’t impair our or our allies’ core interests, and bargain on.
Whether this approach is feasible only future events will tell. Putin has consistently proved himself unpredictable, and some of what he has done (especially in Eastern Ukraine and Syria) has caused vast human suffering. Some of it may well be war crimes. So we should never take Putin’s rationality, let alone his goodness, for granted. He often seems a dark visionary following a hidden agenda that only he can see.
Nevertheless, we don’t have a lot to lose, at present, by playing for time and trying to reach some sort of grand bargain to reduce tension and Russia’s economic and cultural isolation. After all, in his early, idealistic years as Russia’s supreme leader, Putin spoke of a peaceful trading zone from the Atlantic to the Urals, and he actually helped our own troops get a foothold in Afghanistan
. Maybe that idealism still survives in him and just needs some trust to come out.
With his deep-water and cold-weather drilling and fracking technology to use as bargaining chips, and possible recognition of Russia’s sovereignty over Crimea as a sweetener, Rex Tillerson may be just the guy to strike such a grand bargain. That feat in turn might end the Cold War for good—a consummation devoutly to be wished.
Just the year before I taught there, MGIMO had retired an old lady who, every year for a long time beforehand, had taught a dry required course in so-called “socialist economics.” My understanding, from being invited to attend faculty meetings, was that the course itself had been “retired” along with her. Whether and when the institution replaced that course with a rigorous, quantitative introduction to the “dismal science” of economics (John Maynard Keynes’ term), I don’t know.
Info Wars: America Comes of Age
Last Friday our American Director of National Intelligence released an extraordinary and unprecedented Report
. It was an unclassified, redacted version of a more comprehensive report, prepared for the President and President-Elect of the United States, regarding Russian interference in our democratic processes.
Think about that. When, if ever, have our top national leaders, including our masters of intelligence themselves, thought it necessary to publish an abridged version of an “eyes only” presidential-level intelligence briefing to the American public, and to the world?
Almost never. Perhaps the most notable previous case came in 1962, when Adlai Stevenson, acting as our Ambassador to the United Nations, made public our secret U-2 photos of Soviet intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Cuba. The resulting crisis almost led to nuclear Armageddon and species self-extinction
So why this time? The answer, it seems, is less alarming but in the long run perhaps no less important. Our intelligence services’ unclassified Report seeks to dispel an extraordinary delusion of many Americans: naïtveté so profound—and so close to abject stupidity—that it threatens our nation’s survival and our way of life. The naïveté inheres in the unexamined beliefs of many Americans that, if you can see it on TV or on the Internet, it must be true, and that publishing “news” never involves an ulterior motive.
The unclassified Report
is short: about 25 pages, some of which are blank. Every American citizen should read it, from cover to cover, several times. For the most important things it reveals are much more basic and much more important than the last election and the Kremlin’s attempts to influence it. The Report details a massive, massively expensive, and decades-long program of sophisticated propaganda, run by the Kremlin and intended to support its policies and programs abroad, not just in America, but in other liberal democracies around the world.
The report’s conclusions regarding our recent election have been well reported and are easy to summarize. All three of our national intelligence agencies—the CIA, NSA and FBI—assess with “high confidence” that the Kremlin ordered, among many other things, hacking and release of data from Democratic National Committee files and hacking, but not release, of GOP files. All agree with “high confidence” that the purpose of this and other information warfare was to impair Americans’ confidence in our elections and our democratic system. All agree (the NSA with only “moderate confidence”) that the Kremlin wanted to influence our voters to elect Trump, at least after events had proved that outcome possible. But despite some evidence of successful Russian hacking of local election boards, all three agencies found no evidence whatsoever of Russian hacking of the election results
, i.e., modifying or tampering with actual vote tallies.
Finally, all three agencies refused to comment on whether the Russian interference succeeded, i.e.,, threw the election to Trump. All three viewed this question as beyond their purview and their competence: “The US Intelligence Community is charged with monitoring and assessing the intentions, capabilities, and actions of foreign actors; it does not analyze US political processes or US public opinion.”
So there you have it. At least you have what our scatterbrained, controversy-seeking media are all agog about, and what Democrats and Republicans will spend much of the next four years arguing about: whether and how much the Kremlin helped Trump win.
What you don’t have, unless you read and study the short Report, is its comprehensive evidence of Russia’s massive information war in the US and the West. The Kremlin’s annual expenditure on its television “news” service RT (formerly “Russia Today”) is reportedly $156 million. That may seem like a pittance compared to the reported $21 billion
in 2011 expenses of Fox, our own dominant domestic propaganda organ. But Fox is private; it is neither run by nor responsible to the US government, as RT is (indirectly) to the Kremlin.
The Kremlin’s “investment” compares better with our Cold-War expenditures on radio information. If we take our government’s 1971 expenses
on Radio Free Europe ($22.4 milllion, page 21) and Radio Liberty (13.9 million, page 47), total them ($36.3 million) and inflate them up
to current dollars, we get $216.3 million. Thus, at the height of the Cold War, we spent about one-third more on our European radio information services than Russia spends on its RT TV today.
Unbeknownst to most Americans, our national foreign broadcast information services still exist. They work under the bland aegis of the “Broadcast Board of Governors
” and include the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (Radio and TV Martí), Radio Free Asia, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, and the International Broadcasting Bureau. In 2015 we spent $756 million on these information services, all together.
That’s not bad compared to the Kremlin’s $156 million in our country and Europe alone. But the picture changes a bit when you look at the Internet and social media. The following table, taken from graphs in the Report on page 11, shows our mixed results in the information battle on the Internet (numbers estimated from graphics):
|Internet Dominance of Various Information Services(from DNI Report, page 11)
|Services||RT/RT America||Al Jazeera English||BBC World||CNN/CNN International|
As this table shows—and as the graphs on the Report’s page 11 show more clearly—early results in the information war between Russia and the West are mixed. Russia appears to be winning the battle for YouTube viewers but losing the battle on Twitter and Facebook.
YouTube is a visual medium—more visceral and less analytical than written media like Twitter and Facebook. To some extent video bypasses normal thinking processes and affects emotion and impressions directly. To the extent this is so, YouTube and its video may represent the equivalent of ballistic missiles in the information wars, and so there may be an information “missile gap.” We Yanks may need to improve our game.
Yet the most important aspect of these information wars is something on which our redacted intelligence Report didn’t even touch: truth. By virtue of our traditional absolutist approach
to free speech and the First Amendment, we Yanks are virtually defenseless against lies.
That is where our naïve Yankee culture renders us most vulnerable. Our own
foreign information services, for example, try to distinguish themselves with honesty and understatement and by avoiding obvious propaganda. Adherence to these journalistic values helped our information services win audiences over the old Soviet broadcasts, most of which were not only of poor technical quality, but rife with crude, obvious and jingoistic propaganda.
Now, however, “news” as propaganda has become much more sophisticated and harder to spot worldwide
. Our own president-elect has participated
in propagating “fake news,” including the “birther” lie about Obama’s alleged alien birth and the lie that “millions” of fraudulent votes were cast for Hillary. In addition, corporations as powerful as Rex Tillerson’s Exxon Mobil once assured the public (before Tillerson’s own tenure as CEO) that climate science and global warming were uncertain and shaky.
If our own leaders and major corporations can get away with fake news, why not the Kremlin? Aren’t Putin and his fellow spooks as clever and resourceful as our own PR people? There is certainly no “missile gap” in our favor in making things up and making them appear real, with all the power of modern electronic media and modern techniques of persuasion.
In the past our Yankee culture relied on three things to spread facts rather than lies. First, we used to have only a limited number of “news” channels. The people who ran them and worked there adhered to high standards of truth, honesty and professionalism. Second, our pols also had a more honest culture. Nixon in his day could exaggerate and demagogue
the real Soviet menace, but pols like Joe McCarthy, who made up scary “facts” out of whole cloth, were ostracized. Finally, the ethos of “public relations” and “advertising,” whose purpose is, in the final analysis, to make people believe things whether or not they are true, had not yet made the leap from product advertising to politics.
Today, all these things have changed. Instead of three TV networks, we have thousands of Internet “channels,” managed by anyone who cares to do so (including me on this blog). A recent studies of fake news have shown
, these channels have nothing resembling the professionalism and fidelity to accuracy that our three networks once had. Today, even our major
networks believe only in profit—a jealous god that often rewards exaggeration, premature publication, and sensationalism—the most insidious temptations of journalists. When our winning presidential candidate resorted to spreading bald lies (Obama’s alleged alien birth and massive voter fraud), we know we Yanks are not in Kansas anymore.
Against the massive changes in our media and political culture, our erstwhile belief in the “free marketplace of ideas” as a cure-all for falsehood—including deliberate fraud of powerful people and organizations—seems the height of naïveté. As our coarse, anything goes, let-the-buyer-beware media culture grows and develops, such naïveté could easily subvert and destroy our democracy, as well as what remains of our moral elevation and our “exceptionalism.”
No doubt the Kremlin’s attempt to meddle in our sacred electoral process, as detailed in our intelligence agencies’ joint Report, will come as a shock to many Americans. But we Yanks have been doing the same thing to ourselves for at least a generation now, as restraints of honesty and professionalism have begun to vanish from our news media and our politics. Why should we be surprised if foreigners join the party? Why, in particular, should we be surprised if a country like Russia, which has often counted on spooks like Putin to pull its irons out of the fire
, does so?
Let’s be honest. An information war is far better than a real war, let alone one with nuclear weapons. But we Yanks are now facing a three-front
information war. Not only do we have Russian and Chinese propaganda to deal with. We also have our own native propaganda, including that of Fox, which has brilliantly seduced many ordinary voters by making propaganda seem like entertainment.
To survive this three-front onslaught, our ordinary Yankee voters must have one of two things. First, there must be some screening of so-called “news” for factual accuracy, if only under the “recklessness” standard that our defamation law now permits
. Or, if we wish (for reasons unfathomable) to let the Internet and our media continue to be an open sewer of lies, we must immunize our people against propaganda by early and exhaustive training and education. We used to do that in the early postwar era
, but we long ago have let our collective guard down.
In any war, defense is as important as offense. Information war is no different. As our intelligence agencies’ joint Report so well shows, our defense against foreign propaganda, like domestic propaganda, is now woefully inadequate. We desperately need to strengthen it, in every respect from cybersecurity, through better respect for e-mail and its misuse, to restricting or immunizing voters against fake news and at least foreign propaganda. If we cannot do that, and do it well, we can expect to replay the fate of ancient Rome, and we each ought to prepare for that destiny.
Since the days of Stalin, the Russians have become far more sophisticated in using our own laws and culture against us. For example, the Kremlin has set up RT in our country in the form of a nonprofit subsidiary, in part in order to avoid any legal requirement to register it as a foreign agent. At the same time, the “news” outlet has changed its brand from “Russia Today” to the enigmatic “RT” and removed “Russia Today” from its screens in order to hide its real ownership and control from viewers.
I had a chance to observe this phenomenon personally while a Fulbright Fellow in Moscow in 1993. While listening to radio in Moscow to improve my comprehension of spoken Russian, I found that, even then, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty (which the Russian Federation had only recently stopped jamming) offered some of the best programming on the Moscow radio dial. Not only could I always hear all participants in broadcast conversations, but the “news” our services offered was just that: “straight news” with no apparent factual slant or point of view. I could only imagine how attractive that kind of transparent and professional news service was to Muscovites who had been fed obvious Communist propaganda for 74 years.
The most well-known instance of this sort was Soviet Russia’s theft, through espionage, of our secret means of triggering the Atom Bomb. Our citizens the Rosenbergs were executed after being convicted of participating in that espionage.
Again, my own experience is instructive. While a senior in high school in 1962, I had a superb teacher of Social Studies. He had kept old copies of Life
Magazine in his basement, dating from World War I. One issue of Life
showed a drawing of a “normal” human head in profile, extending rearward from the back of the neck. An arrow pointed into that rearward portion, pretending to locate the “soul.” Below was a second drawing of a Junker German head, with a straight back of the head extending right above the neck. Here a like arrow pointed into empty space, “demonstrating” why Germans had no soul.
It wasn’t hard for us students, remote from the wartime demonization of Nazis, and even more remote from World War I’s demonization of the Kaiser’s Germans, to identify this little feature as crude propaganda. Our training to identify propaganda and other nonsense like this continued for about two weeks.
Whether such training would have sufficed to immunize us against today’s far less crude and obvious propaganda is hard to say. But it might have made us less gullible than many Internet surfers today.