Putin’s Power Play in Syria
How to Respond to Russia’s Intervention
In 1864, the Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev wrote that “Russia’s only natural policy toward the West must be to seek not an alliance with the Western powers but their disunity and division.” In the decades that followed, Russian and Soviet leaders heeded that advice. A century and a half later, the United States is still grappling with the aftermath of Russia’s attempts to amplify and benefit from divisions within American society during the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign. As a result of that interference, which Moscow reprised to a lesser extent in the 2020 campaign, Russia has become a toxic issue in American politics, to a degree not seen since the McCarthy era.
Unlike Chinese election meddling, which appears designed to influence U.S. policy toward Beijing, the Kremlin’s schemes have a more diffuse aim: to sap Americans’ trust in their democracy and to magnify the already dramatic polarization of U.S. society. It is an ambitious mission, but it has produced mixed results for the Russians. In 2016, the most significant effort involved hacking the email accounts of senior members of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, gaining access to a number of computer servers belonging to the Democratic National Committee, and providing the stolen contents to WikiLeaks, which then released them. The Kremlin also took advantage of the anonymity offered by social media by deploying Russians to pose as Americans and spread disinformation that would help Moscow’s favored candidate, Donald Trump. The Russians used more advanced cybertools to penetrate harder targets, including voter registration databases and networks used by state and local governments.
Of course, the Kremlin claimed to have nothing to do with any of these crimes. But U.S. intelligence agencies, U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian meddling, and a separate investigation carried out by the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee all made clear that in each instance, the hackers were connected to Russian intelligence services, particularly the military intelligence agency known as GRU.
One reason these schemes succeeded in sowing so much discord and confusion was that the Kremlin was pushing on an open door: thanks to deep political polarization and protracted culture wars, the United States is a country divided, vulnerable to all kinds of malign influences. Why, however, did Washington seem so unaware of the risk? Why were critical systems, both public and private, so insufficiently protected? And has the country learned anything from what happened that will make it less vulnerable to future meddling?
Two recent books tackle those questions by delving into the long history of political warfare between Moscow and Washington. The political scientist Thomas Rid’s Active Measures is the more comprehensive and analytic of the two, using extensive archival research and interviews with former and current intelligence professionals to tell a gripping story of intrigue, deception, and murder. The journalist Tim Weiner’s The Folly and the Glory offers a somewhat more familiar portrait of the covert struggle between Moscow and Washington and goes on to argue that U.S. policies increased Russian President Vladimir Putin’s suspicions about Washington’s intentions—which in turn reinforced his determination to forge a state dominated by veterans of the Soviet intelligence services.
Putin built that state, but it is unclear whether his use of it has always worked to Moscow’s advantage, at least when it comes to U.S.-Russian relations. Indeed, the Russians might feel some buyer’s remorse about their interference in the 2016 election. Their preferred candidate won, but the Trump administration pursued a contradictory policy toward Russia: Trump wanted to make a deal with Putin, but the rest of the executive branch took a more hawkish stance. Meanwhile, bipartisan anger over Russia’s meddling led the U.S. Congress to impose a raft of sanctions on Moscow that will remain on the books for many years. The Kremlin’s more limited covert efforts to influence U.S. politics in recent years suggest that Putin himself might have some doubts about just how successful these schemes really were.
In Russia, the term aktivnye meropriyatiya, or “active measures,” refers to forms of informational warfare designed to weaken an adversary. The Russian practice of weaponizing disinformation began over a century ago, before the Bolshevik Revolution. An early instance was the notorious tract The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which first appeared in 1903 and purports to unmask a nefarious Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world. In 1921, The Times of London revealed that the book was a forgery. Although its exact authorship remains disputed, the tsarist regime enthusiastically distributed it, and the Soviet Union was still disseminating it well into the 1950s. More than a hundred years after its initial appearance, it continues to sell well in some parts of the world because it reinforces the beliefs of people who are less interested in knowing the truth than in bolstering their own version of reality.
That dynamic is a theme that runs throughout Rid’s book. Over the past century, the technology of disinformation has changed as the digital revolution has profoundly altered the means of delivery, with hacking and leaking now enabling a far larger group of propagandists to penetrate Western societies. But for Russia and other authoritarian states, the aim remains the same: to attack the “liberal epistemic order, or a political system that places its trust in essential custodians of factual authority,” and to erode the foundations of open societies. Over time, Rid concludes, active measures have become more active and less measured, helping usher in a post-truth world in which more and more people seem willing to accept “alternative facts.”
Of course, the United States has also played a role in creating such conditions. After World War II, the Truman administration established an office of “special projects” to coordinate secret offensive operations against the Soviet Union and its satellite states. In the decade that followed, U.S. political warfare was centered in Berlin. There, the legendary intelligence operative Frank Wisner and his colleagues led a team they called the Kampfgruppe, German for “battle unit,” which sought to “harass and weaken the Soviet administration of East Germany,” as Rid writes. One tactic the team deployed was to distribute glossy magazines to convey subversive, pro-Western messages to the East German population: Der Kämpfer (The Fighter) was aimed at the East German armed forces, and Der Parteiarbeiter (The Party Worker) targeted Communist functionaries; other magazines were distributed to religious organizations that the East German government had suppressed.
These disinformation operations ceased when the Berlin Wall went up in 1961 and it became much harder for U.S. intelligence operatives to access East Berlin. Rid argues that when it comes to information warfare, “moral and operational equivalence” between democracies and nondemocracies existed only during the first decade or so of the Cold War. Thereafter, “U.S. intelligence retreated from the disinformation battlefield almost completely.” But the Soviets and their satellites never did.
Rid’s account is full of fascinating details about the Kremlin’s active measures, stretching all the way back to the Bolshevik era. In 1922, under orders from the Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin, the Soviet secret police created the Trust, a faux-monarchist organization. Lenin was worried that domestic opponents of the Bolsheviks would link up with émigré organizations that sought the restoration of tsarist rule. The Trust’s disinformation activities slowly reduced that threat by sowing chaos within the émigré groups. Over time, Rid writes, the Trust “became more and more like a Russian matryoshka doll, with several layers of disinformation nested and stacked into one another.” In 1923, the Kremlin fully committed to disinformation and established an even larger organization, which began to churn out volumes of deceptive material that portrayed the Soviet Union as a strong military power whose population generally supported the new government.
The Soviets also found ways to meddle in the politics of Western democracies, sometimes with the assistance of proxies in other communist countries, such as East Germany. At its height in the late 1980s, the East German state security organization known as the Stasi—which conducted both internal and external espionage—boasted more than 90,000 full-time employees (out of a population of 16 million) and 175,000 “informal collaborators,” who reported on their neighbors, coworkers, and even spouses. The Stasi’s most successful operation was carried out in 1972 on orders from Moscow and involved bribing two members of the Christian Democratic Union, the opposition party in West Germany. In exchange for payments equivalent to around $90,000 today, both members agreed to break with their party and abstain from a no-confidence vote in the West German parliament that would have led to the removal from office of Chancellor Willy Brandt. The Kremlin wanted Brandt to stay in power because he supported improving ties with the Soviet Union and the communist bloc. Thanks to the two abstentions, the vote narrowly failed, and Brandt kept his position. (The victory was short-lived, however: soon after, Brandt resigned after one of his closest advisers was discovered to be a Stasi agent.)
Putin might have some doubts about just how successful these schemes really were.
During the 1980s, the KGB, the Stasi, and other communist-bloc intelligence services teamed up to exploit divisions in Western countries over the issue of nuclear weapons. As the Soviet Union built its vast nuclear arsenal, it fed disinformation about its policies and intentions to credulous antinuclear campaigners in the West and the developing world, secretly funding activists who called for a “nuclear freeze” and who opposed the development of the neutron bomb and the deployment of intermediate-range U.S. missiles in Europe. In this way, even as Soviet nuclear stockpiles grew, the Kremlin was able to convince significant numbers of Westerners that the real danger of war came from the United States.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, U.S. officials hoped that Moscow’s active measures would fade away. But Russian President Boris Yeltsin declined to dismantle or reform the intelligence services. “The KGB is the only organized state structure left by the old regime that works,” Yeltsin remarked in the early 1990s. “Of course, it was criminal, like everything else, but if we destroyed it, we would have risked unleashing total chaos.” And so Russian purveyors of disinformation regrouped and reemerged in full strength when the former KGB case officer Putin took over.
Rid describes in vivid detail the rebirth of Russian active measures made possible by the dawn of the Internet age, such as the Kremlin cyberattack that crippled the Estonian government in 2007 and the disinformation campaign that Moscow launched in the wake of the 2014 Ukraine crisis, when the West sought to isolate Russia. Rid also delves into the story of Edward Snowden, the disgruntled U.S. National Security Agency contractor who arrived in Moscow in 2013 after having leaked millions of highly classified documents that revealed that the United States had carried out far more intrusive and extensive surveillance than was publicly known. Snowden received political asylum and eventually applied for Russian citizenship. Some American commentators believe that Snowden was a Russian asset all along. But according to Rid, “viewed from Russia, the Snowden leaks looked like a spectacularly successful American active measure targeted against America itself.”
For Russia, war and peace are not binaries; they merely sit at opposite ends of a continuum. Somewhere in between lie active measures and “political warfare,” which Weiner defines as “the way in which nations project their power and work their will against an enemy, short of launching missiles or sending in the marines.” In his lively account of the rivalry between Moscow and Washington during and after the Cold War, Weiner dates the origins of Russian political warfare to Ivan the Terrible, the tsar who in 1565 created the oprichnina, a kind of state within a state that employed a network of spies and unleashed a reign of terror against Ivan’s purported enemies. In recent years, Weiner shows, Putin has built on this long tradition, using cutting-edge techniques in his quest to weaken the United States and cause its citizens to question the fundaments of their political system—all while creating an image of Russia as a bulwark against political disorder, a bastion of traditional values, and a stable alternative to chaotic democracies. Despite Russia’s economic and demographic problems and its limited resources, it appears to be much better at political warfare than the more powerful United States.
Nevertheless, compared to Rid, Weiner places more emphasis on Washington’s role in the story of how modern-day political warfare developed. Indeed, one of the most prominent figures in Weiner’s account is the storied U.S. diplomat George Kennan. In 1948, Kennan, then serving as director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, persuaded the Truman administration to create a special directorate for covert operations against the Soviet Union and its satellites. At Kennan’s recommendation, Wisner was put in charge of the new unit, which launched a number of bold yet ultimately unsuccessful operations—many of which relied on disinformation—to dislodge the Soviets from Eastern Europe.
In the 1960s, as many European colonies won their independence, political warfare spread to the so-called Third World, and Moscow and Washington fought for the hearts and minds of Africans. Weiner devotes a considerable part of his narrative to Congo and the civil war that broke out there after the Belgians hastily withdrew in 1960. The United States supported Joseph Mobutu (later known as Mobutu Sese Seko) against the Soviet-backed Patrice Lumumba. Eventually, Mobutu prevailed, with assistance from the CIA, and went on to rule the country for three decades in what Weiner describes as a “carnival of corruption.” It is not altogether clear why Weiner thinks that this particular case is so significant, however. And in indicting Washington for supporting Mobutu and other corrupt dictators in Africa, he neglects to identify better alternative policies and fails to address whether the Soviet-backed leaders were any less corrupt. Political warfare in the developing world during the Cold War was often, to borrow a phrase from U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, a case of Moscow and Washington both choosing to back what their policymakers considered “our son of a bitch.”
Weiner argues that the Kremlin’s continued reliance on political warfare after the Soviet era stems from Russian resentment over what happened in the years that followed. In the eyes of many Russians, the country was humiliated in the 1990s by an arrogant United States that did not take Russian interests into account. This is the narrative that Putin has used to justify his quest to make Russia great again—and Weiner implicitly endorses elements of it. He faults the United States for inviting former Soviet states to join NATO, contrary to promises that U.S. Secretary of State James Baker allegedly made to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990. According to Weiner, this betrayal convinced the Russian leadership that it could not trust the Americans. The problem with this argument is that historical facts do not support it. The U.S. government made no such promises to Gorbachev about NATO enlargement because that prospect was not on the agenda in 1990. As Gorbachev himself wrote in 2014, “The topic of ‘NATO expansion’ was not discussed at all, and it wasn’t brought up in those years. I say this with full responsibility.” At the time, the only question regarding NATO’s posture was whether any troops under its command would be deployed in the former East Germany after German reunification—and they were not.
These books raise a larger question that neither answers adequately: How can the United States and other democratic societies make themselves less vulnerable to disinformation? U.S. President Barack Obama and his administration were slow to grasp the full scale of what Russian hackers, leakers, and Internet trolls were doing in 2016, and they arguably did not do enough to push back. To shore up U.S. defenses, the Biden administration should work to secure public and private networks in the United States and work with social media companies to limit the spread of disinformation on their platforms. Retaliating against cyberattacks—going on the offensive, in other words—is also an important part of the toolkit, but it must be used judiciously, so as not to lead to escalation. It is worth noting that Russia has on several occasions offered to begin talks with the United States about a pact on mutual noninterference. There is, naturally, considerable skepticism about whether Washington could trust Moscow to honor the terms of any such agreement. But it might be worth exploring what Russia is proposing before dismissing the offer out of hand.
In the meantime, perhaps the most important things the United States can do to protect itself from foreign meddling are to address its own social and political divisions and better communicate with Americans about the difference between genuine news and propaganda. Russia did not create the polarization that is dividing the country; it merely exploits it. Russia did not invent the conspiracy theories that pervade social media; it merely amplifies them. And the Kremlin did not elect Trump in 2016; it merely provided him with ammunition as he sought to erode Americans’ trust in the integrity of their country’s political system and party establishments.
It is also worth considering whether the benefits Russia enjoyed from its 2016 interference actually outweighed the costs. The knowledge of Russian interference—and the belief by some of Trump’s opponents that he did not win the election legitimately—made Russia a toxic domestic subject for Trump’s four years in office and made it impossible for him to fulfill his campaign promise to improve relations with Moscow. Despite the trollish pleasure that Putin clearly took as Trump cast doubt on the judgments of U.S. intelligence agencies and instead accepted Putin’s denials of responsibility, the Russian leader could point to precious little evidence that the interference had actually served his country’s interests.
Nevertheless, the United States has remained divided and politically fractured since 2016, and this is no doubt a source of deep satisfaction for the Kremlin. Washington’s international prestige has diminished, and Moscow’s domestic and international state-run media have relished in describing the United States as a declining, shabby ex-superpower. Yet Russia left fewer fingerprints on the election in 2020 than it did in 2016; toward the end of the campaign, Putin seemed to be hedging his bets between the two candidates. Perhaps the Kremlin realized that it might be preferable to have a more predictable president in the White House, one committed to more traditional diplomacy with Russia.
One hopes that the end of the Trump presidency will lead to a revival of a more reasoned discussion about where Washington should cooperate with Moscow and where the two sides will inevitably compete. Putin’s ability to undermine U.S. democracy has been exaggerated, but Russian active measures will not disappear, and Americans would do well to make their country a less inviting target.