Knowing what somebody else has done, is doing, or is capable of doing can be hard enough. Knowing why they are doing it, or what they intend to do in the future is an even more difficult task. Understanding intentions requires a deep and sympathetic knowledge of other actors’ motivations, interests, and mentality, of the constraints under which they operate, and of the manner in which they view the world. That requires one to drop all one’s own preconceptions and adopt fully those of another, which can only be done by studying them, their surroundings, and their history intimately. And even then one can never truly ‘know’ somebody else, as it is impossible to get inside their head. All statements about intentions are at best assessments. They can never be considered fact.
None of this, of course, stops people from proclaiming confidently that ‘Putin wants this’ or ‘Russia wants that’ as if their claims were proven. Rarely are these assertions backed by solid evidence; hardly ever do they refer to what Putin or other Russian officials have actually said that they want; they are simply guesses disguised as facts.
An example is a new report issued by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), entitled Countering Adversary Threats to Democratic Institutions. This is the product of two meetings of an ‘expert group’ organized by CSIS. The report makes bold claims about Russian intentions. But going through the list of ‘experts’, I could find only one with any expertise specifically on Russia rather than security and intelligence more broadly. How the experts came to their judgements on Russian intentions is never made clear.
The report begins with a foreword which states in startling terms that:
American democracy is under attack from Russia. … Putin’s objective is to weaken us by sowing chaos and discord, and to undermine the appeal of democracy itself. If he can show that American-style democracy … is incompetent, illegitimate, and hypocritical, he can use that to undermine its potential appeal among Russia’s population and in other countries around the world where we compete for influence.
This is an assertion concerning Vladimir Putin’s intentions, not his actions. Nevertheless, underpinning it is an assumption about actions – namely that Russia has indeed been waging some sort of ‘information war’ against the United States. It is indicative of the current state of affairs that this assumption is simply taken for granted, even though some people might consider it unproven (and if it is indeed unproven then everything else which follows falls apart). However, let us put that aside for the moment, and return to the issue of intentions. If it is true that Russia has done any, or all, of things of which it is accused, what does it have in mind?
The CSIS experts are confident that they know the answer: the aim is to ‘sow chaos and undermine trust in the liberal democratic order,’ ‘to erode trust in Western governments and sow confusion and discord,’ and ‘to exacerbate existing divisions in society … to weaken democracy.’ The report concludes that:
The Russian government is engaged in a covert and overt campaign to weaken Western democracies, with the express intent of promoting an illiberal order dominated by Moscow and like-minded states.
I have to wonder where this idea of an ‘express intent’ comes from, because I have never read anything by any Russian official expressing such an intent – never. Take, for instance, Vladimir Putin, whose speeches I have read in detail and on which I have published a couple of academic articles. You will read his speeches in vain for any criticisms of democracy as a form of government, any expressions of a desire to weaken democracy in the West (or in Russia for that matter), or any desire to ‘sow chaos’ around the world. On the contrary, you will find multiple expressions of support for democracy, of support of order and stability, and of support for better relations with the West. Of course, you could argue that his actions tell you something different, but the fact remains that he and other Russian officials have never stated the intention being assigned to them.
The CSIS report doesn’t say how it came to the conclusion that Putin wants to undermine democracy. It doesn’t produce any actual evidence to support its claim. It just asserts it. Moreover, it asserts it as a proven fact, failing to make clear that this is just what a bunch of security experts who don’t know too much about Russia happen to think is the case. Any suggestion of uncertainty is entirely absent. That does not necessarily mean that the claim is false, but it does mean that the confidence with which it is asserted is entirely unjustified and that the report therefore misleads by failing to make the degree of uncertainty clear.
Furthermore, there are points in the report where the ‘expert group’s’ lack of knowledge of Russia becomes clear and makes one seriously doubt their right to be able to claim to understand what’s in Vladimir Putin’s head. In particular, the report says:
The Experts Group discussed the perception of Russia as the ‘3rd Rome’ among an increasingly broad constellation of groups and individuals. Russian nationalists, with the encouragement of the Russian government, have promoted the idea of Russia as the heir to the Byzantine and Roman empires. … Russia is the sole protector of ‘legitimate’ conservative values: homophobia, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism.
But what is the evidence that the Russian government encourages ‘3rd Rome-ism’ and Russian nationalists, let alone ‘homophobia, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism’? In reality, nationalists and the government don’t get on very well, and most of the former regard the latter with undisguised hostility. The issue of homophobia is somewhat contentious, but on the other matters I am completely unaware of any actions or statements by the Russian government promoting xenophobia and anti-Semitism. Indeed, if you read Putin’s speeches, you will find numerous condemnations of such things along with a repeated emphasis on the multi-ethnic nature of the Russian nation (which is one of the reasons Russian nationalists don’t like him).
Underlying all this is a rather odd idea that Putin is bent on spreading an illiberal authoritarian model of government around the world, rather like the Soviet Union tried to spread communism. But this is an idea which is entirely unsubstantiated, and in my view entirely fictitious. Likewise, the claim that he wishes to spread chaos rather ignores the damage that such chaos would do to Russian interests, which rest largely on having a stable international order. It seems to me that the CSIS ‘experts’ are locked into a Cold War mode of thinking which they have failed to adapt to contemporary realities.
There’s another segment in the report which also struck me as very odd. This says the following:
The Russian government has advanced its strategic influence in Eastern and Central European countries by gaining influence, and in some instance, control over specific sectors: energy, banking and finance, real estate, transportation infrastructure, and media … First, Russia state-owned enterprises purchase assets … The purchased entity then gains influence with local officials … Simultaneously, the Russian government creates or sponsors local nongovernmental organizations … Finally, supportive local officials are placed in national governments … Collectively, these activities in some countries result in state capture.
It strikes me that there is a certain amount of projection going on here, as what is described could very easily be said, with rather more justification I suspect, about the United States. But in any case, what is the evidence for this claim? What country in Eastern and Central Europe has Russia ‘captured’? Which one? I can’t think of a single example. The claim concerning ‘state capture’ is is pure fiction.
The CSIS report ends with a series of proposals for what the United States should do to protect itself against the Russian threat. Some of these are uncontroversial. The report, for instance, calls for better cybersecurity measures. One can hardly argue with that. But Russia doesn’t have much to do with it. Better cybersecurity is required regardless of whether Russia is waging some sort of information war. Other proposals, though, are more problematic. For instance, we are told that:
Internet platforms and democratic governments must work together on technological and policy measures to increase barriers to entry for disinformation campaigns and make it easier for citizens to differentiate between legitimate and false information.
‘Legitimate’ information? What is that? And who is to determine what it is, and tell us that we shouldn’t have it? I find this sort of thing a little creepy, and don’t really think that it is for the state or private corporations to tell us what we should be allowed to read or what we should think.
At the end of the report, the authors note that ‘increasing public resilience against the kind of techniques used by Russia may ultimately be the most effective countermeasure.’ In particular, ‘participants emphasized that a sense of shared narrative is perhaps the strongest defence against Russian threats to our democratic institutions.’ This is possibly the most sensible thing that the report says. Russian ‘propaganda’, if there is such a thing, can only succeed in dividing people who are already prone to being divided. If the divisions in American society were reduced, then it would be harder for outside actors to ‘sow chaos’. If American government, state institutions, and the media were more trustworthy, Americans might be less inclined to turn to alternatives for information and political analysis. In such an event, Russian ‘disinformation’ would have no effect whatsoever.
In other words, the real threat to American democracy lies within America, not without.
The latest indictments in the ‘Russiagate’ affair certainly lend credence to the claim that some Russians went to some considerable effort to set up social media accounts that would look like they were genuine American ones, but their intentions in so doing remain a matter of speculation. It is probably the rather haphazard internet trolling allegedly carried out by ‘Russia-linked accounts’ that induces people to conclude that it was a matter of ‘causing chaos’, but it can’t be stated as fact. In any case, there is a difference between haphazard trolling and a deliberate effort to ‘undermine democracy’ in order to create an ‘illiberal international order’, which is a far more dramatic claim. I have yet to see any evidence supporting this.