Russia scored early victories in the hybrid World War III, but the West have begun to fight back. (More)
This week I review J.J. Patrick’s frightening book Alternative War. Yesterday we saw how the European Union, NATO, United Kingdom, and U.S. are under attack in an ongoing Russian ‘hybrid war’ campaign. Today we explore whether and how the West can fight back.
J.J. Patrick was a British police officer for 10 years, until he was forced out after exposing the manipulation of crime statistics by the Metropolitan Police, for which he was commended by the British Parliament. He is now an independent journalist for Byline, based in the U.K.
“A very successful criminal enterprise”
Accurately assessing the enemy is a key element in winning a war. That’s especially true in a hybrid war, where objectives and tactics are often clouded by distraction and disinformation. So if we are in a hybrid war with Russia … what is “Russia?”
We think of Russia as a country spanning from Eastern Europe to Northern Asia, but the word “country” does a lot of work there. As the Ukraine crisis erupted in 2014, Sen. John McCain said:
Look, Russia is a gas station masquerading as a country. It’s kleptocracy. It’s corruption. It’s a nation that’s really only dependent upon oil and gas for their economy, and so economic sanctions are important.
That’s nearer the mark, but J.J. Patrick’s description seems more on-point. After describing the scope of Russian organized crime – and, importantly, how Russian mobsters “colonized” European criminal organizations in the 1990s – he writes:
[W]hat makes Russian organized crime a particularly serious challenge is the direct connection between criminal networks and the Kremlin’s state security apparatus, notably the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), military intelligence (GRU), and the Federal Security Service (FSB) — all three of whom are also engaged in the subversion of democracy across the West.[…] Even back in the 1990s, Boris Yeltsin expressed his concern that Russia was becoming a “superpower of crime” and, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the old-school tattoed mobsters of the so-called vorovskoi mir and their vor v zakone leaders were succeeded by a new generation of avtoritety (“authorities”). These are more hybrids: gangster-businessmen who were able to enthusiastically take advantage of crash privatization, legal anomalies, and state incapacity which characterized Yeltsin’s era. One former, senior commander of the police in Moscow said at the time: “These were days when we new the bandits had not just money and firepower on their side, but they had a better krysha [meaning “roof” and referencing to political protection in Russian slang] and we just had to accept that.”
There was, according to academic studies, a very real fear that the country would become, on the one hand, a failed state, and on the other, a very successful criminal enterprise. It became the latter.
The 1990s saw escalating turf wars between rival Russian mobs. But then:
The wealthiest avtoritety partnered with the vast resources of their oligarch counterparts, who had used the collapse of the old state to seize control of markets and assets. They were also joined by small groups within the military and security structures, motivated by both perverse nationalism and their own personal interests, who acted as provocateurs aiming for a renewal of Russian state power. This is how they all came together, in the end, to put an stop to constant disorder and build something from the ashes.
[W]hile criminals at first feared Putin was serious about his tough law-and-order rhetoric, it was soon understood his offer was a new contract with the underworld. Gangsters could go about their business without a systematic crackdown, on the condition it was accepted that the state was “the biggest gang in town and they did nothing to challenge it.” The underworld complied and, so the story goes, “indiscriminate street violence was replaced by targeted assassinations; tattoos were out, and Italian suits were in; the new generation gangster-businessmen had successfully domesticated the old-school criminals.”
The flip side was a tacit agreement that the criminal gangs would be state assets when needed:
[D]uring the Second Chechen War, for example, Moscow was able to persuade Chechen gangsters not to support their rebel compatriots. The same thing, it is alleged, recurred during the 2011 State Duma [parliamentary] elections — where criminal gangs were used to ensure a Putin vote while disrupting opposition campaigns. The genesis of managed democracy.
Add to this the fact that oligarchs and government officials who cross Putin tend to meet suspicious and untimely deaths – the death of tax accountant and whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky prompted the eponymous sanction laws that were the topic of conversation at the now-infamous Trump Tower meeting – and Vladimir Putin is less “the president of a country” than the godfather of the world’s largest-ever criminal gang.
That distinction is crucial, Patrick writes:
It is no surprise, understanding this, the tactics for waging this war include using organized crime as an instrument, and this is the face Western intelligence agencies – in particular, the UK, with its genetic code of private education and subsequent non-exposure to criminality – simply failed to recognize.
The hybrid conflict we find ourselves in is, in part, a war of the old ways and this new hybrid. The dead languages versus the modern. If you really want to know how all of this came down so hard and fast, I believe the answer is traditional privilege met contemporary criminality and couldn’t recognize it for what it was: sharper than Latin.
“The ‘Finlandization’ of all of Europe”
So what does Putin want? Well he wants the 1950s back, specifically: a world with Russia as an, even the, acknowledged superpower.
Despite demands for inclusion in the G8, Russia’s GDP ranks 12th in the world, between South Korea and Australia. Within Europe, Germany, Britain, France, and Italy have bigger economies than Russia, and Spain is close behind.
Worse, if you look at the European Union as a single economy, its $19.7 trillion GDP ranks 2nd in the world behind the U.S. at $20.4 trillion, both well ahead of China’s $14 trillion GDP. What’s more, those three economies make up two thirds of the world’s current $80 trillion GDP.
Russia’s $1.6 trillion GDP is … just 2% of the global economy … hardly an economic superpower. Yes, Russia has the world’s second-ranked military, behind the U.S. But again, the aggregate militaries of the European Union run a close third. And because NATO includes the U.S. and some other non-EU nations, its combined military strength dwarfs Russia.
How, then, can Russia hope to regain superpower status?
Patrick points to a set of strategies laid out in Alexandr Dugin’s The Foundations of Geopolitics: The Geopolitical Future of Russia, a 1997 book that has become a standard text at the Russian Academy of the General Staff.
Dugin proposed a Russian-dominated Eurasian Empire, based “on the fundamental principle of the common enemy: the rejection of Atlanticism, strategic control of the USA, and the refusal to allow liberal values to dominate us.” Specifically:
- Germany should be offered the de facto political dominance over most Protestant and Catholic states located within Central and Eastern Europe. Kaliningrad oblast could be given back to Germany. The book uses the term “Moscow–Berlin axis”.
- France should be encouraged to form a “Franco–German bloc” with Germany. Both countries have a “firm anti-Atlanticist tradition”.
- The United Kingdom should be cut off from Europe.
- Finland should be absorbed into Russia. Southern Finland will be combined with the Republic of Karelia and northern Finland will be “donated to Murmansk Oblast”.
- Estonia should be given to Germany’s sphere of influence.
- Latvia and Lithuania should be given a “special status” in the Eurasian-Russian sphere.
- Poland should be granted a “special status” in the Eurasian sphere.
- Romania, Macedonia, “Serbian Bosnia” and Greece – “Orthodox collectivist East” – will unite with “Moscow the Third Rome” and reject the “rational-individualistic West”.
- Ukraine should be annexed by Russia because “Ukraine as a state has no geopolitical meaning, no particular cultural import or universal significance, no geographic uniqueness, no ethnic exclusiveness, its certain territorial ambitions represents an enormous danger for all of Eurasia and, without resolving the Ukrainian problem, it is in general senseless to speak about continental politics”. Ukraine should not be allowed to remain independent, unless it is cordon sanitaire, which would be inadmissible.
Needless to say, those specific objectives and the larger “rejection of Atlanticism” require breaking up both NATO and the European Union. Individually, their members would then be too weak and divided to stand against Russia’s hybrid war tactics, allowing what Dugan called “the Finlandization of Europe” … where a strong country dominates weaker countries while leaving an illusion of independence.
“Russians regard Ukranian culture as an aberration”
Putin began implementing Dugin’s plan in 2014 with attacks against Ukraine that led to the annexation of Crimea. Or, as Russians see it, the restoration of Greater Russia. Patrick quotes his discussions with Euromaidan writer Steve Komarnyckyj:
“I and many other Ukrainians fought against the stigmatization of our culture for years. Russians regard Ukrainian culture as an aberration and believe that Ukrainians are simply self-deluding Russians.[…]
“Russia has always viewed Ukrainians and Russians as one people. Many Russians see Ukrainian identity as a kind of blasphemy against the Russian state. Russia has therefore engaged in a hybrid war against Ukraine for centuries.
“In Ukraine as in the U.S., Russia parachuted its candidate into the presidency. In Ukraine as in the U.S., he was aided by [Paul] Manafort, a Republican party fixer. In Ukraine as in the U.S., the candidate was a Russian style oligarch tasked with establishing a managed democracy.
“Elections are won by oligarchic political parties by a combination of mass brainwashing using fake news and deniable terror. [In Ukraine,] Critical journalists are murdered by shadowy figures who are never caught. Opposition leaders are gunned down when the cameras are switched off.”
But Russia overstepped, Komarnyckyj told Patrick:
“Putin and Russia made a critical error in Ukraine. Because they are blind to the differences between the two nations. Ukrainians have, in the absence of a state, developed a ferocious capacity for self-organization. They have simultaneously understood perhaps better than Russia itself the nature of the current conflict.
“The current war pits popular sovereignty against oligarchic populism – it is being fought within states and between states. Ukraine has its oligarchs but its people aspire toward a democracy where power is granted by the people. When [then Ukrainian President Viktor] Yanukovych tried to stifle protest in November 2013 he inadvertently mobilized Ukrainian civic society. Ukrainians quickly developed tactics to overthrow their autocrat.”
The crippling EU and U.S. sanctions on Russia after the seizure of Crimea and other aggression in Ukraine seem to have spurred on the next phase of Russia’s hybrid warfare: the successful Brexit campaign and the hacking and propaganda campaign that put the God-King in the White House.
“The main problem is that our elections are largely administered by local governments, which have little to no cybersecurity expertise but are suddenly on the front lines of international conflict.”
And then the successes largely stopped. Russian-backed candidates were defeated in the 2017 Dutch, French, and German federal elections. That wasn’t mere luck, and it wasn’t a matter of Dutch, French, and German voters being more discerning than British and Americans.
It was because the Dutch, French, and German governments took aggressive steps to protect their elections. For example, in France the National Commission for the Control of the Electoral Campaign for the Presidential election (CNCCEP), which serves as a campaign watchdog, and the National Cybersecurity Agency (ANSSI) combined to identify and expose Russian hybrid warfare tactics, and the responses included strict limits on media coverage during the weekend of the election … which nullified a Russian hack-and-dump campaign that was designed to embarrass Emmanuel Macron and boost Marine Le Pen.
The fact of the matter is that most Europeans don’t want to live in Russian vassal states, just as most Americans don’t want Russia attacking our elections or dictating U.S. policy. But most Republican voters don’t seem to mind that … so the next battle in this hybrid war will be fought in the November midterms.
Indeed that battle is already underway, as just this week Facebook detected and shut down 32 sites and Instagram accounts that were coordinating to spread disinformation. But Senate and House Republicans refused funding for increased election security and state and local elections officials, and the private contractors they rely on, are ill-prepared and underfunded:
The American election system is a textbook example of federalism at work. States administer elections, and the federal government doesn’t have much say in how they do it. While this decentralized system has its benefits, it also means that there’s no across-the-board standard for election system cybersecurity practices. This lack of standardization has become all the more apparent over the past two years: Hackers probed 21 state systems during the lead-up to the 2016 election and gained access to one. But the federal government and states don’t appear to have made great strides to ensure that this doesn’t happen again. To do so, they’d need to deal with not only their own cybersecurity deficits but also those of the private companies that help states administer elections.
Voting machine manufacturers and the makers of election software and electronic poll books (which are lists of eligible voters) are crucially intertwined with state election systems. All states, to some extent or another, rely on these private companies for election products. But despite the central role these companies play, state regulations of them are relatively lax. That’s a problem, especially at a time when these companies are, along with state governments, targets of foreign agents of chaos.
But [election security expert A.J.] Halderman also pointed out that private election companies are simply responding to the relatively unregulated marketplace in which they operate. “Somebody needs to produce and service election equipment, and the companies in this space simply respond to market and regulatory incentives. … The main problem is that our elections are largely administered by local governments, which have little to no cybersecurity expertise but are suddenly on the front lines of international conflict.”
The Netherlands, France, and Germany recognized that a hybrid World War III is already underway, and they took action to protect themselves. In Britain, the Elections Commission concluded pro-Brexit groups violated campaign laws, in part by concealing their ties to Russia. But here, the God-King yet again defied intelligence assessments and declared this hybrid war a “hoax” and, as noted above, Republicans refuse to fund better defenses.
At least for now, we’ll have to fight this the Ukrainian way: with self-organization to mobilize civic participation. So far, polls of voter enthusiasm are promising. But we grassroots activists will need to do the work to turn those polls into reality.
We are at war … and we need to volunteer and vote like it. Our democracy, indeed democracy itself, is at stake.
Illustration: Crissie Brown (BPICampus.com)
Good day and good nuts