13 September 2016

Moscow’s war on Washington

U.S. intelligence officials are near certain that Russian services have hacked U.S. Democratic Party emails and election registration websites. Moscow’s cybertheft is part of an expanding offensive against Western governments and institutions designed to delegitimize and disarm its key adversaries, and its primary target is Washington.

The overarching objective of President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy is to restore Russia as a great power with global reach. To achieve this ambition, the predominance of the U.S., particularly in Europe and Eurasia, must be reversed not by outright war but through a sustained campaign of penetration and subversion.

Diverse methods of disinformation are employed by Moscow to undermine Washington’s international influence whether through the traditional or social media. To undergird its campaign, Moscow has reanimated the Western geopolitical scapegoat invented in Soviet times. It depicts the West as dangerous and unpredictable with Russia as the alleged victim of NATO expansion. In reality, NATO is no threat to Russia’s security, but it is a threat to Moscow’s pursuit of Western insecurity and ultimate control over its neighbors.

Western politicians who question NATO’s raison d'etre, cast doubts on the defense of new allies, or acquiesce to a Russian sphere of influence are highlighted and supported. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and his advisers need to be mindful that any perceived weakening of NATO by questioning its rationale simply whets the Kremlin’s neo-imperial appetite and could lead to violent regional conflicts.

In its anti-American campaigns, the West in general and the U.S. in particular are also depicted as decadent and declining civilizations. But even as it supposedly deteriorates, America is charged with pursuing “democratic messianism," in which perverted Western liberal values and political systems are forced upon states such as Russia through NGOs and multinational institutions such as the OSCE.

For Moscow, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is one of the chief culprits of this messianism because she has criticized Russia’s regularly falsified elections. Moreover, recent U.S. administrations stand accused of a multitude of additional nefarious designs, including unilateralism, militarism, undermining the independence of states, overthrowing governments and breaking up sovereign countries such as Yugoslavia.

In its propaganda assaults, Moscow also seeks to drive wedges between the U.S. and Europe. American arrogance purportedly limits the sovereignty of all EU states and pushes them into conflicts with Moscow by supporting “political adventures” in countries along Russia’s borders, including Ukraine. The Kremlin’s objective is to erode transatlantic solidarity, whether in supporting the Ukrainian government or enforcing financial sanctions on Russia.

A tried and trusted method of gaining influence is to encourage, praise and fund useful Westerners to adopt policy positions that assist Russia’s version of globalism. Through its lobbying efforts and business deals, Moscow recruits politicians, businessmen, journalists and consultants to support Russia’s foreign policy goals. Over the past two decades, several politicians have been essentially bought to promote Moscow’s international agenda. The most glaring example was German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder who was hired in 2005 as Chairman of Nord Stream, the pipeline that supplies natural gas from Russia to Germany and is part of the Gazprom chain that combines economic dependence with political manipulation.

Moscow also provides television shows on its international channel RT to prominent critics of the U.S. and the EU. Britain’s Nigel Farage, former leader of the UK Independence Party and one of the primary proponents of “Brexit,” has recently been offered his own program.

An assortment of political parties, movements, networks, campaigns and influential individuals in the West are openly or covertly courted and supported by Kremlin-connected organizations and media outlets. Moscow seeks to benefit in particular from anti-establishment sentiments whether among ultra-leftists, radical rightists, or militant populists. It has focused in particular on influential individuals and radical groups espousing anti-liberalism, anti-globalism, religious and ethnic intolerance and Islamophobia.

Where Moscow cannot influence the policies of Western parties and governments it seeks to disrupt their activities and minimize their impact. Moscow’s security services have developed cyberspace warfare to undermine Western targets, including systematic assaults and denial of service attacks on government sites by Kremlin-orchestrated hackers, as witnessed in Estonia, Georgia, Ukraine and elsewhere.

The model of penetration used in Europe is now being applied to the United States. The hacking of Democratic Party emails and releasing potentially controversial texts at opportune moments is intended to sow confusion and conflict among its adversaries. The Wikileaks operation has also become a valuable ally in this anti-Western onslaught. The purpose is to expose the U.S. as a failing or fake democracy in which elections are bought or rigged. The Kremlin can thereby undermine the legitimacy and credibility of the next American administration, especially if Clinton prevails as the next President.

Moscow’s multiple objectives are to weaken the legitimacy of the American system, undermine U.S. foreign policy, disqualify America’s human rights campaigns and foster U.S. isolationism through Washington’s political disengagement and military withdrawal. The Republican candidate for the presidency seems to be unaware that he is falling into Putin’s trap and unwittingly weakening America’s global position. By negatively comparing a democratically elected U.S. President with the Kremlin autocrat, he is also legitimizing a corrupt and expansionist dictatorship in Russia.

Europe's Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the Center for European Policy Analysis. 

Photo: Artyom Korotayev/TASS