I’ve recently had the chance to do a couple of interviews on Creating Chaos, one rather tightly focused with focused with Joy LaClaire on Forthright Radio and one much more far ranging on the Ochelli Effect. You can find each interview at the links below.
An area of discussion which emerged during each was the subject of “election meddling”, which actually is only one of a number of “tools” which are brought into play in political warfare.
Unfortunately, due to the nature of our current American political jousting, that topic has pretty much subsumed what should be a much broader dialog. It has also provided an “out” for those who would prefer to ignore what is really going on – that out is simply to remark the U.S. has meddled in other nations elections over the decades so obviously its only reasonable that other nations (insert nation of choice, actually Russia but China, North Korea or even Iran if you would prefer to divert attention from Russia).
Such a diversion also has the advantage of making it all about “election meddling” which is only a part of the political warfare Russian actors began circa 2013 (began against the U.S. that is); they had begun testing and refining the practices years earlier against Chechnya, then against former Soviet Republics and against British media well before they began to tackle the U.S.
But that’s a long story, the way I attempted (probably poorly) to deal with the meddling issue in the interviews was to illustrate the difference between political warfare “fragmentation” campaigns (which are really an effort to “contain” an adversary) and electoral disruption.
Fragmentation actions (primarily involving psychological warfare and propaganda) are brought into play when one nation moves to “contain” an adversary that it feels is threatening its influence, whether economic or political. Perhaps the best large scale example of containment during the early Cold War was the containment campaign the U.S. launched against virtually all the new Soviet republics that has been established in Eastern Europe.
The great fear was that those republics were simply the “tip of spear” and that their political influence had to be blunted and their attention turned inwards – by sowing political discord, exacerbating religious and ethnic differences and highlighting corruption and favoritism in the new ruling regimes. The tools available for such campaigns were largely limited to short wave radio and massive leafleting via propaganda balloons.
The fragmentation tools available to contemporary Russian actors are exponentially more targeted and more effective, given the global internet, social media and population analytics it’s now possible to disseminate exactly the message even small but volatile segments of the public actually want to hear.
By piggy backing on highly emotional issues, group fragmentation can be accelerated – on occasion to actual violence. Political parties and elections are only one venue for fragmentation – religion, race, and social class, ethnic differences, even geography can be brought into play (and already has been). It’s all about turning the adversary inward, diverting national attention and reducing its foreign relations activities in contested areas.
But while understating the full nature of the Russian political warfare initiative is important, its backstory is equally so. Putin and the Russian leadership were clearly responding to what they felt was western “meddling” in their region of historical sovereignty – meddling in the form of official American and European electoral democracy initiatives, as well as with similar initiatives by private actors (NGO’s; non-government entities).
Of course from the Western perspective, supporting and enabling free and open elections isn’t really meddling. Training an inexperience electorate on how to do poll watching, exit polling, how to do pre-election surveys to estimate popular opinion…not meddling. Funding for alternative media, non-government radio stations, TV stations, newspapers, even the simply funding of printing presses and leaflets…not, meddling, just enabling democracy. Training campaign workers in electioneering, political advertising, and the use of electronic media for campaign organization – just standard practice in the west.
But it was not standard practice in nations that had been single party states for four or five decades, with the ruling parties in charge of the election apparatus itself, as well as the media used for reporting results. States with “elected” officials routinely put in place by 90% or more of the tallied votes. Introducing western democratic election practices was absolutely disruptive, and frightening for the long established power structures – how could they perceive it as anything other than meddling? And when parties and people who had been tied politically to Moscow for decades began to consistently lose, naturally it was seen as threatening.
The underlying reality is that democracy itself is disruptive, destabilizing to long term power structures. Its messy, often nasty and culturally challenging. And a good many cultures are not especially receptive to it. That is one reason Putin has been so clear in his statements – differentiating Russia from the West, stating that America and the West are making a mistake in thinking that because Russians look like them, they are indeed like them. He sees that as a fundamental misunderstanding of Russian culture. As far as Russia is concerned, he may just be right, at least for the present.
So…election meddling can indeed go both ways, however in my view the political warfare that we have been seeing coming our way is something much broader, much more orchestrated, much more targeted and much more divisive. Its full blown “containment”, something the US has indeed tried in the past – with little success. Its surprising so many of our legislators seem blind to it (or unwilling to acknowledge it) when its coming our way…