Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Trump-Putin Will Talk Against Backdrop Of Broader Russian Mischief

Debate over Russia’s role in 2016 election blurs larger picture.


By Gerald F. Seib
The Wall Street Journal
July 4, 2017

When President Donald Trump meets Russian leader Vladimir Putin late this week, many will be watching to see whether they discuss alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election.

That much is obvious. Less obvious, but more important, is how any Russian meddling in the American presidential-election season—whatever form it may have taken—fits into a much larger tale. This is the tale of a systematic Russian effort to disrupt democratic and capitalist systems internationally, using an updated version of tactics Mr. Putin learned in the bad old days of the Soviet KGB.

In fact, one of the dangers in the current hyperpartisan American debate over Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential election is that it is blurring this larger picture. If the 2016 election was the tip of an iceberg, the rest of the iceberg warrants serious attention.

A useful reminder of the breadth of the problem comes in the form of “The Kremlin Playbook,” a publication released last October by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a centrist American think tank, and the Center for the Study of Democracy, a European public-policy institute. In retrospect, it was a remarkably prescient look at the controversies that have mushroomed since the American election that came a month later.

The Playbook is an in-depth study of Russian efforts to use overt and covert tactics over a period of a decade to expand its economic and political influence in five Central and East European nations. A group of regional leaders from such nations warned President Barack Obama in a 2009 letter—which also looks prescient now—that Russia was conducting “overt and covert means of economic warfare, ranging from energy blockades and politically motivated investments to bribery and media manipulation in order to advance its interests….”

The Russian strategy, the study finds, isn’t ad hoc. Rather, it is the implementation of a doctrine developed by Russian Gen. Valery Gerasimov called “new generation warfare.” One European analyst called that “primarily a strategy of influence, not of brute force” aimed at “breaking the internal coherence of the enemy system.”

The strategy, as it has unfolded in Central and Eastern Europe, proceeds along two parallel tracks, the study found. The first track is economic. Russia seeks to find business partners and investments that allow it to establish an economic foothold, which in turn produces economically influential patrons and partners who have a vested interest in policies friendly to the Kremlin. That is a particularly fruitful endeavor in Europe, where many nations depend on Russian energy supplies.

The goal on this track is to cultivate “a network of local affiliates and power-brokers who are capable of advocating on Russia’s behalf.”

The second track, perhaps more relevant to the U.S., is designed to disrupt prevailing democratic political patterns. The goal, the Playbook says, is “to corrode democracy from within by deepening political divides and cultivating relationships with aspiring autocrats, political parties (notably nationalists, populists and Euroskeptic groups), and Russian sympathizers.”

On this track, the effort is designed in part to advance parties and figures sympathetic to Russia. But the broader goal is simply to disrupt the process, create confusion and discord, and discredit democratic systems both in targeted countries and in the eyes of Russian citizens, who are told the chaos to their West shows they shouldn’t long for a Western-styled democratic system at home.

A key tool in this effort, the report says, is a “war on information” campaign that uses disinformation and propaganda to disable opponents and foment nationalist and anti-Western sentiment. “Toward this end, Russia exploits existing political pressure points such as migration and economic stagnation, blames Western and U.S. operations for all negative international dynamics (such as the attempted July 2016 coup in Turkey), and discredits the current state of Western democracy,” the report says.

Remember that this was written before Mr. Trump won the American presidency and the investigations into Russian influence went into high gear. The findings are about a broader pattern of Russian behavior, not about what it might have done in the U.S. political system.

Yet these findings present a backdrop for both the current debate over Russia’s 2016 U.S. activities, as well as Mr. Trump’s meeting with Mr. Putin on the sidelines of the G-20 meeting in Germany this week.

Heather A. Conley, a senior vice president of CSIS and one of the authors of The Kremlin Playbook, says the months since its publication have brought “an acceleration” of Russian influence-seeking, ranging from a plot against the prime minister of Montenegro to interference in the French election to cyberattacks in Ukraine.

The goal, she says, “is disruption, to create governmental policies that accommodate Russian interests,” first in ending Western economic sanctions and then in building a broader sphere of influence. She adds: “We continue to be unprepared.”


Article Link To The WSJ: