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The Russian Threat Briefing

  • Whitepaper Available Access:

    • Members & Fellows

    • Members of U.S. Congress

    • Three Seas Region Embassies

  • Congressional Roundtable Advisory Available, Contact EEIT for Details

  • Embassy Roundtable Advisory Available, Contact EEIT for Details

  • National Press Club, Washington, D.C. To Be Announced

  • Member Breakout Sessions at May Summit

Briefing Outline

Topics to be covered:

  • Russia’s Economic Outlook.

    • The Resurrection of Russian Agriculture?

  • Russian Global Influence.

  • Russian Influence Operations Playbook.

    • Russian Strategy.

    • Tools.

      • Disinformation/Maskirovka.

      • Cyber operations.

      • Energy.

      • Money.

      • Violence. 

      • Kompromat

      • Espionage.

      • Diplomacy.

  • Tradecraft

  • Russian Propaganda Operations. 

    • Internet Research Agency. 

    • Sputnik and RT. 

  • Russia and COVID-19 Pandemic. 

  • Conclusion.​

 

Introduction:

For decades after World War II, Russia being a significant part of the Soviet Union, was in a power duopoly with the United States. After the fall of communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia drifted into a chaos of social and economic transition, characterized by its rapid economic decline, widespread corruption, and the emergence of a group of individuals, nicknamed “oligarchs,” that took control of its valuable natural resources. This transition led to the decline of Russian global influence, relegating Russia to the second-tier power and leaving the U.S. as the world’s sole superpower.

During the 1990s, under the leadership of Boris Yeltsin, Russia experienced a prolonged economic depression followed by economic stagnation, two wars in Chechnya to prevent its secession, and political turmoil in 1998-1999, which led to the appointment of three Prime Ministers within 12 months. The last of these was a relatively unknown politician Vladimir Putin, in August 1999. After a solid performance of the newly-formed Unity party in the parliamentary elections in December 1999 and Putin’s rapid rise in popularity, Boris Yeltsin resigned as President on December 31st, opening the door to Putin’s convincing first-round win in the presidential elections in March 2000.

Vladimir Putin has ruled Russia since 2000, creating a “soft” dictatorship that used economic prosperity to maintain a sufficient level of public support, which is boosted through prodigious use of government-controlled media and a large public sector (providing a large electoral base). Since 2005, Russia is not considered a democratic country by international human rights organizations.

Russians see the U.S. as their “traditional” rival due to the long rivalry during the Cold War, and also due to the widespread perception that the U.S. contributed to the collapse and breakup of the Soviet Union to further its strategic goals. While the ideological view of the U.S. has changed since communist times, Americans are commonly viewed as dumb and uneducated, ruled by shadowy corporations and corrupt politicians. Perceived widespread corruption in American politics is one of the lasting legacies of the communist era.

There are two aspects of Russian society that are crucial for understanding the Russian attitudes and worldview: nationalism and the deep state. Russian society is conservative and patriarchal, even with the highest percentage of college-educated people. Russia is a multi-ethnic state with over 180 different ethnicities; however, around 81% of the population is ethnically Russian.

Russia is a profoundly nationalist society: the origins of Russian nationalism can be traced back to the Slavophile and Pan-Slavic movements of the early 19th century, and it has been a constant feature in Russian society, even under communist rule. During the Nazi invasion in 1941, the communist Soviet regime used nationalistic iconography to inspire resistance against German invaders, including the use of Orthodox Christian icons and comparing the German invasion to the failed 1812 campaign of Napoleon.

Communists only repackaged Russian nationalism as ‘communist internationalism’ where an international community of communist countries was to be led by the Soviet Union. The breakup of the Soviet Union only served to fan the flames of Russian nationalism, as Russia saw its global influence reduced to that of regional power and underwent a severe economic and social crisis. While Boris Yeltsin’s rule was characterized by efforts to reform the society and strengthen democratic institutions, Vladimir Putin embraced nationalism and used it to rebuild the authoritarian state.

Nationalism is deeply entrenched in educational programs, culture, and mainstream media, and even liberal politicians opposing Putin have relatively nationalist attitudes, which reflects on religion, too. In Western countries, religion is mostly part of personal identity; however, for Russians, religion is part of the national identity.

While most Russians are not particularly religious (they do not attend church service regularly, do not pray, or observe customs like regular fasting), they consider themselves Russian Orthodox and members of the Russian Orthodox Church. The President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko calls himself an “Orthodox atheist,” which sums up the attitudes of most Russian people towards religion. Religion is as much a part of national identity as the Russian language. The Church itself has been tightly connected to the Russian State for centuries, and fully integrated into the system of power that exists in Russia.

The term ‘deep state’ has been used more frequently in Western countries; however, when one looks at Russia, the term assumes a whole different dimension. Historically, Russia has been an authoritarian society: from the despotic Tsars of the Russian Empire to the communist Soviet Union and today’s Russia. There has not been an extended period when Russia enjoyed real democracy.

Even in the chaotic 1990s, democracy was merely partial and nascent, propped up by Boris Yeltsin’s authority. The main instrument of the authoritarian state has always been its secret police or, in the modern world, its intelligence services. Tsarist Russia depended on Okhrana, the Imperial secret police, to keep the rulers safe and to deal with dissenters and revolutionaries.

After the October Revolution, Cheka and then NKVD were tasked with protecting the revolution against its enemies. After World War II, NKVD transformed into the KGB, which was dissolved in 1991, and a new organization, eventually named FSB, took its place. Besides, the military intelligence branch GRU represents a separate intelligence arm that operates within the same space as FSB. GRU dates back to 1810 and the Special Bureau of the War Ministry and has been operating continuously since.

Secret services are deeply entrenched in Russian politics: both Vladimir Putin and his predecessor Sergei Stepashin in the position of Prime Minister served in the secret services. Stepashin was the Head of FSK (predecessor of FSB) from 1994-1995. He then served as the Justice Minister and the Minister of the Interior (which is a national security post in Russia, controlling the police force) before his brief appointment as the Prime Minister in 1999.

Vladimir Putin joined KGB in 1975 and served until 1991: he resigned during the failed military coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, starting his political career. It is also worth noting that early in his political career, in 1992, Putin was investigated for corruption worth $93 million while working at the Office of the Mayor of St. Petersburg. The investigators recommended he be fired from his post; however, this was ignored.

This example shows why secret services dominate corrupt authoritarian societies like Russia: they protect corrupt officials. The latter can then rise to the top of the power ladder and use their position to protect the very system that created them. They also provide a valuable network of contacts: after losing in the 1996 election in St. Petersburg, Putin moved to Moscow, where he quickly became one of the rising stars in the Yeltsin administration.

 In 1997, Putin was appointed Deputy Chief of Staff for President Yeltsin: his predecessor in this position Alexei Kudrin would go on to serve as the Minister of Finance under Putin from 2000-2011. Meanwhile, Putin’s successor Nikolai Patrushev would go on to serve as the Director of FSB from 1999-2008 and has been the Secretary of the Security Council of Russia since 2008. This demonstrates that Putin’s rise to power was not an accident, but rather a carefully orchestrated affair where a group of people from the secret services were promoted up through the system until one of them was ready to take the reins of power.

Therefore, viewing Putin as a dictator that rules Russia personally would be completely wrong. There is a system in place that put Putin in power, which he is now using to stay in power. That system is not based on personal loyalty to Putin, but loyalty to Mother Russia. This is where deep state and nationalism intersect to create a unique blend of patriotic authoritarian rule.

Nationalism is deeply entrenched in the mentality of the Russian people, and the secret services. It creates a system where the authoritarian system could be maintained without dependence on a single person: secret services could even play both sides in an internal conflict and side with whoever wins. However, there is one constant: the unshakeable belief that whatever is being done, is done for the good of the country. Additionally, it does not contradict with widespread corruption because personal gain, no matter how ill-gotten, is a reward for doing well for the country, and the system of corruption allows control: loyal subordinates can be rewarded and disloyal ones punished.

Therefore, Putin’s rise to power after the chaotic 1990s and the struggling democracy promoted by Boris Yeltsin can be seen as a return to normalcy for Russia. Putin is a prime example of the social contract that has existed in the Russian society for two centuries: authoritarian rule and personal enrichment are allowed as long as Russia maintains its rightful place as one of the world’s leading powers. Today, Putin’s wealth is estimated at anywhere from $70 to $200 billion, which would make him one of the richest people in the world. However, he maintains an image of a modest lifestyle to portray himself as one of the people.

Putin’s rule over Russia has been characterized by a lack of effective opposition: his official opposition is the Communist Party (which was part of the parliamentary coalition that voted him Prime Minister in 1999) and the far-right Liberal Democratic Party which had its zenith in the late 1990s but has since lost more than half of its electorate. These two parties constitute the “constructive opposition”: parties that formally oppose Putin but are relatively harmless and do not represent a threat to his regime. Also, they create an illusion of parliamentary democracy.

Liberal opposition to Putin is mostly fragmented; its most prominent leaders have been Boris Nemtsov (who was assassinated in 2015) and Alexei Navalny. They mostly focused on allegations of widespread corruption and had some success with this approach. However, their activism was met with repressive measures from Putin’s regime: candidates were forbidden from running in the elections, and prominent politicians were accused of different crimes, mostly financial. In addition, Boris Nemtsov was assassinated, and Alexei Navalny was allegedly poisoned recently and had to be transferred out of the country for treatment. Also, the governor of Khabarovsk Sergei Furgal was arrested on July 09 on charges of involvement in multiple murders of several business people in the region.

Furgal was elected in 2018, beating Putin’s incumbent governor in a landslide run-off victory. The arrest sparked protests with tens of thousands taking to the streets on six occasions between July 11 and August 15. During this time, the local officials increased repressive measures toward the protesters, with several protesters detained and sentenced to two-week prison. This also sparked protests in several large Russian cities, like Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kazan, Krasnodar, and Irkutsk in support.

Corruption has been a sore spot for Putin’s regime: Russia’s extreme income and wealth inequality created a large population in poverty or at risk of poverty. The population is particularly sensitive to corruption allegations and displays of wealth by politicians. Therefore, Putin has tried very hard to clamp down on any corruption allegations and occasionally singles out his people, usually an unpopular local administrator, for punishment. This is typically a media stunt and rarely involves actual criminal trials. Still, it has been useful in portraying him as someone who is not corrupt himself and is ready to act personally to suppress corruption.

Rather than a personal dictatorship built on the personality cult, Putin’s rule over Russia should be seen as a product of a system that has been in place for more than a century. This system is mostly invisible from the outside: its principals mainly stay out of the public limelight, and it is not built specifically for personal benefit or dependent on any individual. It is a result of a particular set of circumstances that exist in Russia, where traditional authoritarian rule has been wedded to the ability of secret services to manipulate and influence people in the name of national interest and maintaining Russia’s status as one of the world’s premier powers. The result is a self-perpetuating, oligarchic system that benefits people connected to the secret services.

More to be covered at the briefing.