Russia’s fellow travelers aid disinformation in ‘cooler Cold War’


According to The Hollywood Reporter, Russian leader Vladimir Putin has been excised from two major upcoming releases. The move reportedly shows that Hollywood’s nerves are shredded after the cyber attacks that followed the 2014 release of The Interview, a slapstick comedy featuring the assassination of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.

The news will renew fears of Hollywood self-censorship in anticipation of authoritarian backlash (as featured in a recent report from the National Endowment for Democracy’s Shanti Kalathil and may also prompt memories of the cultural Cold War.

The claim that “the Cold War is over” and that the West needs a “new paradigm” for relations with Russia has become an antiphon in some political circles, notes George Weigel, Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center. The call for serious and creative thinking about Russia is welcome and sensible. The claim that the Cold War is over is not, because Vladimir Putin never got that memo. Ignoring that reality means danger in devising any new paradigm, he writes for First Things:

Putin’s Russia is an authoritarian kleptocracy with a post-modern difference, for the veteran KGB man is far more clever and deft than the reptilian characters who preceded him (think Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko). Yes, he wants to reverse history’s verdict in 1989 (when the Soviet external empire liberated itself) and 1991 (when the USSR disintegrated). But he knows he can’t compete with the West as the old Bolsheviks tried to do when they promoted communism as a humane alternative to liberal democracy. And he knows that, in the digital age, information—including fake “information”—is power.

As during the Cold War, the Kremlin is also able to rely on locally-based fellow travelers or ‘useful idiots’ to convey its message.

The Kremlin’s information warfare resonates in Europe because there is a large amount of ideological overlap between some political parties and the Russian government, notes a recent analysis from the European Council on Foreign Relations. Significantly, these include parties considered to be ‘mainstream’ – it is not just ‘fringe’ parties that share elements of the Kremlin’s world-view, according to Fellow travellers: Russia, anti-Westernism, and Europe’s political parties by Gustav Gressel

European political parties range from those that are ‘hardcore’ in their ‘anti-Westernism’ to those that are fully pro-Western. The former are much more open to cooperation with Russia and are generally aligned with its priorities. Strong election showings from anti-Western parties can change the character of entire national political systems. Most countries are ‘resilient’ to ‘anti-Western’ politics, but a large minority are favourable towards Russian standpoints. Important players like France and Italy form part of the ‘Malleable Middle’ group of countries which Moscow may seek to cultivate.

“The populist, anti-Western revolt of the last decade did not originate in Russia,” Gressel adds. “But it is yet to run its course, and Western politicians should act now to prevent Russia taking further advantage of it.”

The narrative of pro-Kremlin disinformation may differ from country to country, as may the tools and channels for spreading it. But one aspect is common: the negative approach towards the EU and NATO, according to a recent study “Information warfare in the Internet: Countering pro-Kremlin disinformation in the CEE countries,” published by the Warsaw-based Centre for International Relations:

Firstly, the channels used for spreading pro-Kremlin disinformation in each country are analysed. Whereas in the Czech Republic there are around 40 websites involved, and in Hungary even 80 to 100, in Poland the authors highlight the use of the comments sections of news outlets. Among less analysed, but extremely influential tools, email chains are mentioned. …

The second section of each country-related part of the study covers the main narratives spread by the disinformation-oriented outlets. In some of the countries, the core messages are tailored to local audience – in the Czech Republic, for example, the pro-Kremlin outlets focus on anti-refugee messaging and accusing the “globalist elites” of planning this conspiracy.

The paper covers the information space in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine. RTWT

While liberal democracies are trying to maintain a global sense of stability in the internet, authoritarian regimes are at best ambivalent, says analyst Michael Chertoff. “But even in some countries that may have a different political philosophy, there’s also value in recognizing that they benefit economically as well by having a true world wide web and not having fragmented networks,” he tells The Cipher Brief:

China’s an interesting example. In China, there’s an internal discussion. On the one hand, the Chinese are increasingly concerned about the kind of information and data that comes in from outside, and they worry to a considerable degree about issues of political stability. At the same time, you have some of the most dynamic e-commerce companies developing in China. Their ability to export, and even to import, is going to depend an awful lot on being connected to an internet; and therefore, from the Chinese economic standpoint, there are some strong arguments against localization. Ultimately, that government is going to have to decide how it wants to weigh the benefit of promoting political uniformity against the benefit of promoting economic growth.

Russia’s hybrid warfare model seeks to operate along a spectrum of conflict that has covert action and overt combat as its bookends, notes analyst Joel Harding. This model seeks to capitalize on the weaknesses associated with nascent technology and therefore acts aggressively in new domains of war—such as cyber—while continuing to find innovative ways to conduct effective information warfare.

Very few people in the West grasp the reality, much less the magnitude, of this threat to what might be called “cognitive security”: the capacity of Western populations to see things as they are, including things going on in our own societies, adds Weigel, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group:

The exhaustion of Western political culture and the devolution of ground-level politics in the North Atlantic world into a shouting match between the forces of political correctness and the forces of a new “populism” make us singularly vulnerable to this cooler Cold War. That this vulnerability has emerged a mere twenty-five years after the communist crack-up is something else to ponder in this summer of our discontent.

The ECFR’s Gressel recommends certain measures to counter Russia’s fellow travelers:

  • To make progress in this area, the problem must first be named. Anti-Western elements, exploitable by the Kremlin, exist not only on the fringes of European politics, but reach right into the heart of established parties.
  • Strengthening counter-intelligence services, tightening anti-corruption legislation and supervision, strengthening anti-trust laws, and strictly implementing the third energy package would make it more difficult for Russia to develop and exploit its various channels of influence.
  • It is up to politicians of pro-Western parties, especially ‘mainstream’ ones, to spot such trends, show leadership, and halt the drift towards a place where liberal democracy transforms itself into something rather less open.



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