In wrestling with the various contemporary Russian political and military initiatives it’s important to remember that Putin is primarily a tactician and we are seeing an iterative series of actions rather than the execution of some long term, grand strategy which would have been more typical of the Soviet Cold War era. In fact one of the points which differentiates the tactics being put into play today is that they are actually more extensions and elaborations of American Dulles era (1950s) covert political/military action than they are historic Soviet practices.
During that era America and the West considered itself to be under siege, facing the existential threat of an expanding global Communist movement and seeing nation after nation fall to socialist or communist regimes. Only during the Kennedy presidency was there any understanding that many of those new regimes owed more to anti-colonialism and nationalist movements than to the root economic and social causes forecast by Lenin.
It was during the Dulles era that the U.S., the CIA, the Directorate of Plans and specifically a cadre of P/P officers began to launch regime change operations to undermine, destabilize and – if possible – remove leftist leaning regimes around the world. For reference, the P/P designation covered political action, psychological warfare and deniable paramilitary activities.
The CIA developed a highly sophisticated set of practices for deniability, establishing both individual and operational covers, using complex financial networks, proprietary businesses and ostensibly independent media outlasts – covering print, newspaper, newsreel and radio outlets. To a great extent these practices were known to Soviet intelligence but given that most often the Soviets were simply providing logistics and weapons support to their surrogates they made much less use of them.
The U.S. took great pains and expended vast amounts of money to achieve “deniability”. In contrast when the Russians preferred not to show their military involvement they simply lied, sincerely and consistently (from Korea and Laos onward). Otherwise they were quite happy to just ship military weapons to the regimes they openly supported.
This left the CIA as masters of the tools of covert political action, propaganda and psychological warfare. And while actual successes using those tools were few and far between, they were just frequent enough to keep the tools in play (much like gambling). One of the major problems was that the penetration of the tools was limited. Radio and leaflets could only reach so many people in target nations, the Communist regimes were centralized and extremely security conscious, no matter how well-crafted the content it was extremely challenging to get disinformation in front of enough people (or the right people) to make a difference, to crate truly widespread fear, uncertainty and doubt.
Fast forward to the 21st Century, the Internet, Social media, Wiki’s, and a Global economy where everybody talks to everyone and if possible does business with everyone. A new world and an entirely new set of tools and venues in which to apply some very well developed practices out of the Cold War. In that new venue it becomes far easier to quickly and widely spread disinformation, to circulate leaked or altered documents, to manipulate politics though global business relationships.
And at the beginning of the second decade of the new century the Cold War is history, “nativism” and ethnic identify are in resurgence, and security concerns are pretty much a non-starter except for ISIS or terrorism. The Russians are our friends, they could be great business and military partners. Everybody talks to everybody, why shouldn’t they. And if senior officers of Russian banks and investment groups actually came out of the Russian Federal Security Service, who’s asking…
Then a former senior KGB officer loses power in Russia; and very much wants it back. He turns to a very frustrated military industrial complex, a number of well-placed global business oligarchs and offers a world view more to their liking – and his political aspirations. As with Dulles in the 1950s Putin sees a threat in NATO and the West (or if not a real threat at least a path back to leadership) and a way to ensure that Russia can reassert itself as a global power rather than being just one vote at G20 meetings.
Opportunity knocks…..and this time the P/P tools will be brought to bear on the West.