The Brave New Russian World (A Six Part Series)

brown and gray concrete building during daytime

Winston Churchill famously said: “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Any effort to understand Russian foreign and domestic policy, its overall strategy and, most importantly, the motivations that drive all decisions, all leads to one particular individual:  Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose number one priority is to remain in power. The events that caused the dethroning of Mubarak and Gaddafi galvanized his actions to remain in the Kremlin indefinitely.  

In the coming weeks, Fortress International staff will cover six areas of particular interest and provide a holistic overview of the current events. They are neither exhaustive scholarly theses, nor do they claim to be. Rather, they are meant to provoke opportunities for different ideas and viewpoints in the areas of:

The Russian Empire, the U.S.S.R., and now the Russian Federation each had to deal with unique sets of perceived social, political, and cultural challenges posed by a multitude of ethnic groups and nation states on their periphery. Russian leaders have developed a variety of methods to face these challenges, ranging from outright Russification to complex efforts of fostering regional ethnic or national identities. Oftentimes, these policies coexisted and were tailored to whatever region they were implemented in. Following the collapse of the U.S.S.R., two important lessons were drawn from the previous decades.

First, there is no benefit from prolonged war. The extended arms race with the U.S. drained the fragile and inefficient Soviet economy, therefore accelerating the inevitable implosion of an economy that was based on unrealistic planning and plagued by a bloated bureaucracy. The Soviet misadventure in Afghanistan added to the process, albeit it was only one of the many conflicts within Moscow’s sphere of influence. 

Second, in the midst of chaos, there is opportunity. This quote by Sun Tzu appears to be one of the guiding principles of the Putin government since the early 2000s. Whether one looks at the annexation of Crimea; the poisoning of former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal in the U.K.; military recruitment in Moldova by Russian “peacekeepers”; or meddling in Macedonian elections, Russia appears to have an interest in promoting instability. The ‘Question’ to ask of this is, for what gain? Sean McFate discusses in his book The New Rules of War, “[i]n shadow war, subversion is the strategy and plausible deniability the tactic. Rather than fight the forces of durable disorder, shadow wars harness them by creating chaos and using it. In other words, the essence of shadow war is to keep the enemy guessing.” 

It is important to remember that President Putin’s worldviews were shaped by the Cold War and he was trained by the Soviet KGB, an organization that was a mix between the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which specialized in paranoia and repression. He is a man highly skilled in the art of Judo and using an opponent’s strengths against him. As it stands, the things that shaped him from early age to adulthood seem to have guided his actions towards the goal of staying in control, something he is fervently avoiding to lose. In traditional Judo teachings, the goal is to bring the opponent off-balance, hold the opponent down, and bend or twist the opponent’s arms or legs in such a way as to cause pain or fracture. In order to keep with people skilled at formulating enduring lessons: “Out of clutter, find simplicity. From discord, find harmony. In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” Albert Einstein. Chaos in Russia’s periphery provides an opportunity to shift the focus from the issues at home to the failings of other countries. It also opens the door for endeavors in foreign countries akin to an old Colonial Power. 

Jose Matemulane left his native Mozambique nearly two decades ago, and spent years studying politics with an emphasis on dynamics of mass consciousness, human development and geopolitics in St. Petersburg and saw the Russian soul. “The Russians have their own way of thinking different from the Western patterns,” Mr. Matemulane said. “I used to tell people: Russians are nothing else than white Africans, white blacks.”

Russia’s last emperor Nicolas II focused the czarist-era colonial expansion primarily overland into North and Central Asia. One of the reasons for that was the lessons learned from the colonization attempts in the Americas from 1732 to 1867. Periodic Native American revolts, the political ramifications of the Crimean War (1853-1856), and the inability to fully colonize the Americas to their satisfaction, led the Russians to conclude that their American colonies were too expensive to retain and any efforts in the realms outside of the home continent were abandoned. 

Only in the Russian case does one encounter a practically allergic reaction to the word ‘colonial’ (kolonial’nyi). In October 2016, Russia’s Security Council called for the creation of a special center for the production of approved versions of Russian history in order to counter ‘falsifications’ from the West and from former Soviet republics, which includes the ‘speculation on the colonial question.’ However, the last three decades of the Tsarist regime saw the acceleration of what was explicitly described as a ‘colonizing movement’ (kolonizatsionnoe dvizhenie) of Russian and Ukrainian peasants into Central Asia, overseen by the Resettlement Administration, whose house journal was called Voprosy Kolonizatsii (Questions of Colonization). In fact, the whole area of what is now modern Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and southern Kazakhstan, was often referred to as nasha koloniya (our colony). However, in Soviet thinking, there could be no such thing as a favorable attribution to imperialism or colonialism, so over time the use of that word, as well as the acknowledgement of past Russian colonization, had disappeared. 

Fast forward to 2020, Russian colonialism away from the Asian continent is in full swing, but without openly using the word. President Vladimir Putin stepped up Russia’s push for influence in Africa days before he hosted a summit with African leaders, saying that Moscow could offer help without strings attached unlike what he casts, as the exploitative West. The Kremlin has been working to increase its power on the continent in recent years by sending arms, offering mercenaries, and cinching mining deals. Additionally, through its international propaganda arms RT and Sputnik, a message of Russian benevolence is being honed. On 23 October 2019, the Black Sea resort town of Sochi hosted more than 3,000 delegates from the fifty-four African states for the first ever Russia-Africa Summit and Economic Forum, hosted by Russia’s president Vladimir Putin and Egypt’s president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. Seizing on the gravity of that event, Putin wrote off approximately $24 billion in African debt during the two-day summit. Aside from sending a clear sign to the West, the unprecedented gathering was also an answer to Beijing’s Forum on China-Africa Cooperation.

The deals signed during the summit included agreements with South Sudan, Rwanda, and Guinea to search for carbon resources on their territories; the mining of gold, uranium, diamonds and iron in Namibia; as well as exploring oil fields off the shore of Mozambique by Russia’s largest oil company, Rosneft. Additionally, Putin’s associate Yevgeny Prigozhin and Prigozhin’s private military company, Wagner Group, have been active in the CAR and Libya, among other African countries. At a military training base located on former palace grounds, southwest of the capital Bangui, hundreds of Russian fighters described as army reservists, are training CAR government soldiers in preparation for deployments along the country’s border. In North Africa, Russia’s support for Khalifa Haftar’s military in Libya and its possible victory in the ongoing civil war converges with Moscow’s naval basing goals in the southern Mediterranean.

This demonstrates a pattern of behavior of what the Kremlin still avoids to openly acknowledge, but what could be described as “colonialism by other means”: weapons sales; military support; providing troops, but not really (Wagner private military contractors with full logistical support of the Russian government); establishment of bases; as well as resource extraction through mining and fossil fuel concessions. Regardless of how it is being referred to, the race for Africa is on. And at the moment, it appears that the victor will be decided between China and Russia. As for Mr. Matemulane’s moment of clarity when he saw the Russian soul, there once was an American president with a similar experience.

It isn’t a new word, but rather just one of the family of names given to the various malignancies that increasingly contaminate the public discourse. Other associated terms are “propaganda,” and with the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election only two months away, “misinformation” and “fake news.” Disinformation is oftentimes equated to misinformation and while both terms are closely related, there is one important difference: intent. Disinformation requires the specific intent to spread false or misleading information, with the goal of creating the issue of confusion as to what information is real—and what is not—a modern problem with a long pedigree.

In 1787, as part of an act of deception one would expect today only to be found in classical movies, Grigory Potemkin, commander of all of Russia’s armies, hosted his empress, Catherine the Great, during her grand tour of southern Ukraine and the Crimea. Those territories had been conquered from the Ottoman Turks only recently and a new war with Turkey was already brewing. As the story goes, Potemkin was eager to reassure the tsaritsa that the new lands were firmly under Russian control, with settlers already filling the territory’s vast empty spaces. In order to ensure this message, he allegedly had mobile villages built that could be set up quickly as the royal entourage passed through, and then taken down at night and set up farther south as Catherine continued her journey. Fittingly, historians are unsure whether this example of disinformation is in fact only an exaggeration of the events, a smear campaign by Potemkin’s enemies, or a case of disinformation aimed not at the tsaritsa, but at Russia’s enemies to feign weakness in the new territories. 

Whatever the true story might be, subsequent Russian regimes have had a certain inclination for the deliberate spread of false information, a process generally referred to as “active measures.” This applies even to the murky origin of the word disinformation, which came into English as a translation of the Russian word dezinformatsiya (Дезинформация). One story has it that Stalin deliberately created the English sounding word to ascribe its origin to the West, thus making the use of disinformation simply a matter of using the enemy’s tools in self defence. Some of these “tools” include forgery, planted news stories, and front companies. All of them  designed to trick the media, officials, and sway public opinion. The tools often only hold up to scrutiny for a short amount of time, enough to make an impact. Others continue to live on for decades in the realm of conspiracy theories. 

(Disclaimer: The following are examples of some of these disinformation measures and are reprinted for the purpose of this article only. They do not represent the opinions of Fortress International L.L.C. or its staff.)

Before the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, for example, communications from the Ku Klux Klan were mailed to the olympic committees of African and Asian countries, which made front-page news in many countries. The heading was: THE OLYMPICS—FOR WHITES ONLY! The letters themselves read:

African monkeys! A grand reception awaits you in Los Angeles! We are preparing for the Olympic games by shooting at black moving targets. In Los Angeles our own Olympics flames are ready to incinerate you. The highest award for a true American patriot would be the lynching of an African monkey. Blacks, Welcome to the Olympic games in Los Angeles!

We’ll give you a reception you’ll never forget! In kindling the Olympic flame and glorifying the might of the white man, the ancient Greeks in their wildest dreams could not imagine their descendants competing at Olympics with black and yellow apes.

We shall put an end to this. The blacks and yellows will not be permitted to defile America’s stadiums. We shall not permit the apes to be present either. If your cubs dare to come to the Summer Olympics in America, they will be shot or hanged.

Signed: Ku-Klux-Klan.

Ethiopia, Angola, and Libya boycotted the games, albeit it is unclear whether those decisions were based solely on those letters. 

In September 1985, the KGB informed other Warsaw Pact foreign intelligence agencies that it had launched a new, major disinformation campaign, which later became known as “Operation Denver.” Thanks to a recent documentary on the same topic, it is now falsely but more commonly known under the name of said documentary: Operation Infektion. This campaign was in connection with the appearance of a new dangerous disease in the USA known as AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome), propagating the claim that this disease was the result of secret experiments by the United States with new types of biological weapons that spun out of control. The operation was initiated with a 17 July 1983 article in the Indian newspaper Patriot, a known front for KGB disinformation, under the title, AIDS May Invade India: Mystery Disease Caused by U.S. Experiments.  The letter, allegedly written by an anonymous yet “well-known American scientist and anthropologist,” claimed that the disease had been developed as a bioweapon at Fort Detrick, MD. Today, similar theories have been circulating regarding the origins of the COVID-19 virus. 

In 2016, with a national debate underway on whether Sweden should enter a military partnership with NATO, the country encountered a sudden and deeply unsettling problem in the form of a myriad of distorted and outright false information on social media, leading to a nationwide confusion of the public perceptions of the issue. The claims included that the alliance would stockpile secret nuclear weapons on Swedish soil; NATO could attack Russia from Sweden without government approval; NATO soldiers, immune from prosecution, could rape Swedish women without fear of criminal charges and others. Although all false, the disinformation began propagating into the traditional news media, making the Swedish people wary of any NATO partnership. Defense minister Peter Hultqvist was repeatedly grilled about these stories when he traveled the country to promote the pact in speeches and town hall meetings. As of this writing, Sweden remains an ‘Enhanced Opportunity Partner’ with no clear path towards full NATO membership. 

On 12 July 2014, Russian state-run television station, Channel One, aired an interview with Galina Pyshnyak, a refugee staying in a camp in Russia’s Rostov region. She claimed to have witnessed Ukrainian troops nail a 3-year-old boy to a post in a city square in Slovyansk, Ukraine, and slit his sides open while his mother was forced to watch as he bled out. The mother was then “tied to a tank and dragged through the square,” Pyshnyak said. The story was refuted by several journalists as a fabrication related to the annexation of Crimea, suggesting that origin for the story may have come from Alexander Dugin, a  ultraconservative political scientist with known ties to the Kremlin.

The parents of a Russian-German teenager, only referred to as Lisa, reported her missing on 11 January 2016  after she failed to appear at her school in the Marzahn district of the German capital, Berlin. She returned home 30 hours later with injuries on her face, and told her parents she had been attacked by men of Middle Eastern or North-African appearance. Reports of the incident spread on social media, sparking outrage among Berlin’s Russian-German community. Yet, when she was questioned three days later, “she immediately admitted that the story of the rape was not true,” according to a spokesman for the state prosecutor.  Allegedly, Lisa had been scared of going home after the school had contacted her parents over an incident at school. The local protests immediately following her claims came in the wake of  reports of mass sexual assaults allegedly carried out by migrants in Cologne. The case caused an uproar on Russian-language social media, where the German police were accused of ignoring the incident and refusing to pursue the alleged perpetrators. Additionally, Russia state-run television station Channel One, ran a series of highly emotional features, including members of the girl’s family, as well as  members of the community threatening to “meet violence with violence.” 

These are examples of disinformation efforts that have been investigated and were proven as false. How many more of these types of false stories circulate social media and other outlets is debatable, but can be safely assumed to be in a significant number. However, attributing the originator and their motivators are seemingly impossible tasks. Regardless, the effects these measures have are easily observed. They can cause uncertainty within a population, discord with governing bodies or institutions, delays in geo-political decisions, as well as long-term effects on trust between countries. Beyond creating chaos in the periphery, they can also be used to rewrite history altogether, a topic that will be addressed in the next article of this series. 

Hermann Göring was one of the most powerful figures in the Nazi Party, which ruled Germany from 1933 to 1945, and also a convicted war criminal. He is recorded as having voiced this sentiment at the Nuremberg trials: “Der Sieger wird immer der Richter und der Besiegte stets der Angeklagte sein,” which more or less translates to, “The victor will always be the judge, and the vanquished the accused.” Considering the expenses in life and material that come with warfare, this statement should not come as a surprise. Once the opponent is obliterated, whether literally as a whole or on the battlefield, the winner of the conflict has the liberty to depict the events from their perspective, which by virtue will usually paint them in the best light possible. The resulting “documented facts” will glorify their own cause and denigrate the conquered adversary. As Napoleon once said, “What is history, but a set of lies people have agreed upon?” This is not to say that every historical record is false or grossly distorted, but rather that we should not take them for granted as static, immovable and fully accurate, especially in this age of (dis-)information.

Rewriting history for the sake of re-evaluating the past and discovering “how events actually unfolded” is the professional endeavor of historians, who see history as something alive, and constantly evolving. At the same token, there are people who have voiced their concerns about the perils of rewriting history, cautioning that important events from the past could be erased or forgotten in the process. Both sides make valid points insofar that there has to be a balance to ensure all of the facts are preserved, not only those that seem convenient. Unfortunately, this appears to be exactly what has been happening in the Russian Federation. 

On 20 December 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin weighed in on the history of World War II during an informal summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Addressing the causes of the outbreak of the war, he said: “It was them [the Polish people], who, while pursuing their mercenary and exorbitantly overgrown ambitions, laid their people, the Polish people, open to attack from Germany’s military machine, and, moreover, generally contributed to the beginning of the Second World War.” Careful observers will notice a more than slight deviation from the events leading up to the war and the events that sparked the outbreak of hostilities, noticeably what is now known as the Gleiwitz Incident. On the evening of 31 August 1939, as part of several false-flag operations conducted along the German-Polish border by the SS, a seven-man team under the leadership of Reinhard Heydric and disguised as Polish insurgents, stormed a German radio transmitter station, thus providing Germany the official excuse of “self-defense” to invade Poland.   

Leadership in Russia has been known to approach historical records with a certain amount of liberty. Communist leader Josef Stalin for example was known for airbrushing his enemies out of photos. This type of “casual” handling subsided slightly after Stalin’s death, but made a comeback after the presidential elections that put Mr. Putin in power. Controversial topics covered included the turbulent transition from communism to democracy, as well as contemporary history and politics, which many see as blemished by widespread corruption, and the breakdown of the rule of law. History books issued in 2013 do not mention the protests against Putin in 2011 and 2012, nor his political adversaries, like the exiled tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky

Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, denied accusations that they were trying to rewrite history to fit a preferred narrative.”One cannot rewrite history. On the contrary, we (Russia) consistently stand against attempts to falsify the history,” Peskov said. However, events appear to demonstrate the contrary. In recent years, this has involved the removal of memorial plaques at the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) headquarters in Tver, Russia, which commemorated the thousands who died during what became known as the Katyn Massacre. Another example was the passing of a 2014 law by the Russian Duma, which penalizes criticizing Soviet activities during WW2 with up to 5 years in prison for “lying about history.” Similarly, Russia’s parliament considered measures to change the narrative regarding the annexation of Crimea in 2014 to that of a reunification. Disregarding that Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev transferred the Crimea from Russia to Ukraine in 1954 as a gift, Valentina Matviyenko, Chairwoman of the Federation Council since 2011, in 2014 said she expected to pass a bill that would “establish the fact that… in 1954, an illegal act was committed” when Crimea was transferred to Ukraine. The aim, she said, was to restore “historic and legal justice.” If Crimea was never legally given to Ukraine, then it should still belong to Russia today, the reasoning goes. As Gwynne Dyer pointedly put in 2019: “In the Soviet Union, the future was always certain; only the past could change without notice. The signal that it had changed was often the publication of a pseudo-scholarly article that denounced the “falsifications” of the existing version of history.” 

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