A few years ago, I was captivated by Peter Schweizer’s book Reagan’s War: The Epic Story of His Forty-Year Struggle and Final Triumph Over Communism. That fascinating book detailed how the 40th President of the United States used the economic weaknesses of the USSR to bring it on its knees, notably with the help of the Saudis regarding the oil price and the military build-up with which Moscow could not compete with Washington.
Turns out that, while the USSR crumbled, a young KGB lieutenant colonel named Vladimir Putin took good note. In a recent interview with a former Soviet official, my interlocutor spoke to me about the Russian President’s love of judo – his favorite sport – and the transposition of its techniques in politics. The master of the Kremlin’s dealings in world affairs is a good illustration of his abilities to take advantage of his opponents’ weight to knock them down.
Nowhere is this ability more evident than in the pages of British journalist Luke Harding’s book Shadow State: Murder, Mayhem, and Russia’s Remaking of the West (Harper). In a real page-turner, the author details how the Russian government and its entities are influencing the West’s political life. For example, using Novichok as a calling card in attempting to neutralize Sergei Skripal, a former Russian intelligence officer who betrayed the GRU (The Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation). Or shabby dealings using banks allegedly to bail out influential people – allegedly like former US President Donald Trump. Moscow is determined to go to any lengths “[…] to return to a nineteenth-century model of great-power politics and to disrupt the ideals-based international order established after the Second World War […].”
Moscow therefore articulated hybrid warfare, a doctrine associated to Russian Chief of the General Staff General Valery Gerasimov. The weapon used in that strategy is information. Simple as that. To that end, Russian agents have not only mastered the English language to be able to operate efficiently in the West’s spheres of interest, but also on various social media platforms and the Internet. Taking advantage of Western model of open society, Russian operatives deploy a strategy to influence and manipulate actors and public opinion, whether it is during US presidential elections, Scotland’s independence referendum, for Brexit or to approach the establishment of American and European political parties – just to name these.
“Russia may not have invented the web” writes the foreign correspondent of The Guardian, “but it was quick to understand that its leading platforms—Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram—might be turned back against the country that devised them. America believed in an open model.” Our values and way of live are therefore a Trojan Horse. Between the lines, one can almost feel the pleasure Russian operatives must have felt in using the spear-phishing method to gain access to all the data of the Democratic Party. The author’s exposé on the subject is alarmingly fascinating, notably how easily one can fall into a trap as simple as an “email arrived in your in-box that looked like a security warning from Google.” No wonder the Russian President reportedly refuses to use emails as a means of communication.
The author also chronicles how “a group of geeks and glasses-wearing gamers sitting in a living room […] identified Skripal’s poisoners”, revolutionizing the way ordinary bloggers can shed light about military and intelligence operations, becoming essential players in the marketplace of information. It is also astonishing to read how two individuals – one of whom was reputed to have “links to a Russian intelligence service”” – have been able to obtain tickets to attend Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017 or how “two criminally indicted individuals” gained access to the President and denigrated the American ambassador in Ukraine – in the context of the controversy about President Trump’s pressures on his counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate “allegations of [Hunter] Biden “corruption””.
In a nutshell, Luke Harding’s masterful exposé is at the crossroads between James Bond’s breathtaking acrobatics and the sinews of a permanent political campaign directed by none other than the master of the Kremlin.
Moscow will probably never be the equal of Washington in terms of raw military power, but it has shown its capacity to flex its muscles on an ever more determining battlefield, public opinion. On several occasions, Putin’s army has won without firing a shot. And “despite all the decay and dysfunction the Russians remain and probably always will be very formidable adversaries. It is perilous to underestimate them.”
I like to think that Vladimir Putin and his entourage are keen students of history. They have learnt how to play the game of Western politics. And it would be foolish to pretend that the occupant of the Kremlin will stop having fun pulling the strings behind the scenes. He is the campaign manager of his country’s standing in the world and he had inspiring teachers on this side of the Atlantic.
Luke Harding, Shadow State: Murder, Mayhem, and Russia’s Remaking of the West, New York, Harper, 2020, 336 pages.
I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Nick Amphlett of HarperCollins for providing me a copy of this book and his continued support for this blog.