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May 11, 2017

Brian Whitmore: Russia Is Waging Non-Kinetic War on West

An interview by Andri Frolov, BNS.

Brian Whitmore
Brian Whitmore

Senior Russia Analyst for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Brian Whitmore, Senior Russia Analyst for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty moderated a night owl session entitled "What Are Russia’s Values?" at LMC 2017.
Brian Whitmore, Senior Russia Analyst for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty moderated a night owl session entitled "What Are Russia’s Values?" at LMC 2017. Photo: Annika Haas

Andri Frolov: Do you believe Russia’s cyberattacks against other countries’ elections are a political success or a failure?

Brian Whitmore: The cyberattacks are just one component of a broad spectrum of tools Russia is using to disrupt Western democratic institutions, and their success or failure needs to be viewed in this context. Russia is waging a non-kinetic war on the West. They are trying to sow doubt, distrust, and confusion. They are trying to cause us to lose faith in our institutions, in our democracy.

Toward this end, they are using not only cyberattacks, but also disinformation, corruption, organized crime, and other active measures. I many ways they have weaponized globalization. They are using the instruments of democracies and open societies as a weapon against democracies and open societies.

As for the success or failure of this, it is an ongoing process. Russia is attacking the West at a time when the West is going through a crisis of confidence. In the aftermath of the Iraq war, the 2008 financial crisis, the subsequent Euro crisis, and the migrant crisis, many in the West are increasingly doubting the viability of our institutions. Globalization has left significant parts of the population feeling marginalized, alienated, and disenfranchised. And Russia is attacking the West at its most vulnerable points. It is trying to shine a spotlight on our weaknesses.

So, while Russia’s efforts may look successful in the short run, the thing to remember is that Western civilization and Western democracy has proven to be very resilient. We go through these periodic crises of confidence, as was the case in the 1970s for example, and we tend to learn from them and come out stronger. There are already signs, with the elections in Austria, the Netherlands, and France, that the West may be beginning to turn the corner. There are signs that the anti-establishment, populist, and xenophobic wave that has been sweeping the West, and that Moscow has been encouraging, has crested and is receding.

Why does Russia take the risk of cyberattacking other countries elections and the campaigns of candidates? What are the political and practical advantages and disadvantages of this practice?

Russia is taking this risk because it believes it is at war with the West. We aren’t shooting at each other, but it is still a war. It’s a political war, a non-kinetic war. For Vladimir Putin’s regime, the European Union presents a domestic political problem. Because for all its faults, the EU provides a model of transparent and democratic governance that contrasts sharply with the autocratic kleptocracy in the Kremlin. It also provides a consensual model of integration that contrasts sharply with the coercive model of integration Russia is attempting to use with its neighbors. And this European model exists very close to Russia’s borders and acts as a magnet for Russia’s neighbors and for the more progressive elements inside Russia. For these reasons, Putin and his cronies see the EU as a threat to their regime’s viability. They are seeking to discredit the EU, they are seeking to undermine it, and they are ultimately hoping to destroy it. And I expect them to continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Should cyberattacks against elections be seen more as a proactive tool to gain advantages in the future or a retroactive tool to punish politicians who are seen to have slighted or worked against Russia?

Russia uses cyberattacks for a number of different purposes. They do it to gather intelligence. They do it to intimidate, as was the case in Estonia in 2007. And they do it to achieve political goals like undermining politicians Moscow considers detrimental to their interests.” The Russian presidential election is less than a year away and both the current regime and opposition have started making preparations for the vote.

How would you assess the opposition’s current ability to contest the 2018 presidential elections? Is the opposition sufficiently unified to mount a strong challenge?

When we talk about the opposition, we need to make some distinctions. Most of the candidates who will be running against Putin next May — people like Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Gennady Zyuganov — are not opposition. They are systemic figures whose role is to be a sort of fake opposition. |In terms of the real opposition, the only figure worth talking about is, of course, Aleksey Navalny. And I believe that Navalny represents a real threat to the regime in the long run. He is tapping into populist anger against corruption in Russia, which illustrates that Russia is not immune to the populist wave that has been present in the West. His anti-corruption videos are watched by millions of people. He has a proven ability to put people on the streets. And he is extremely resilient. The Kremlin has tried to neutralize him with fabricated criminal cases. Pro-Kremlin vigilante groups have physically assaulted him, most recently with the green antiseptic ‘Zelyonka.’ They have smeared him with videos suggesting he has fascist leanings. And teachers are lecturing students about him, threatening that supporting him constitutes ‘extremism.’ Just ask week, a man was arrested in the Moscow Metro for having Navalny stickers on his bag.

But no matter what they do, Navalny keeps on coming at them. He’s like the Kremlin’s Freddy Krueger, with a Twitter feed and a YouTube channel. All of this suggests that the Putin regime is very worried about the threat Navalny poses. He appeals to both urbane liberals as well as nationalists. And while many find his nationalistic views objectionable, this is a very potent combination. He has a magnetic attraction for young people. He’s extremely savvy and charismatic. Now it is highly unlikely that Navalny will be allowed on the ballot next year. And even if he was, the Kremlin has enough administrative resources at its disposal to assure the election result it wants. But Navalny is playing a much longer game. I call it a “Tortoise Revolution” — a slow long-term game in which he chips away at the regime’s legitimacy bit by bit. And in this regard, the election next May will be very interesting. Navalny appears to be indicating that he will be campaigning for president regardless of whether he is allowed on the ballot. So, we may have this situation where Putin is running in an election against fake opponents while Navalny is conducting a parallel campaign ridiculing the fake election.

How would you assess the current mood of the Russian public? Is there potential for the kinds of street demonstrations we saw after the last presidential election?

The basic struggle in Russian domestic politics is between the television and the refrigerator. The television tells Russians that they live in a great superpower that has risen from its knees and is reclaiming its rightful place in the world. The refrigerator tells people that the economy is in crisis and many people can barely provide for their most basic needs. After the annexation of Crimea and the patriotic fervor it unleashed, the television was clearly winning this battle.|But the annexation of Crimea was like giving the Russian public a collective hit of cocaine. It was a drug that made people forget about their problems. But the thing about drugs is that they wear off and this is what we are seeing now. What the March 26 protests Navalny organized and which brought out tens of thousands of people across Russia showed us is that people are not afraid to attend demonstrations even when they are unsanctioned, even when the authorities have forbid them, even at the risk of arrest.

How would you rate the strength and staying power of the current regime in the run-up to the elections? Does it feel threatened or secure, in your opinion?

Regimes like Putin’s appear invincible right up until the moment that they collapse. I would be reluctant to make any predictions about the viability of this regime. I would say that the Putin regime is not fragile, but it is brittle. It is very vulnerable to a shock that could undermine its foundations. The regime is struggling to justify its rule right now. During Putin’s first two terms, the social contract was: we will raise your standard of living and you will give up your political rights. That social contract collapsed in 2011-12. Since the Crimea annexation, the social contract was; we will give you an empire and you will sacrifice not only your political rights but your standard of living as well. And now that drug has worn off. In many ways, we are back to where we were in 2011-12. Which is not a good place to be if you are Putin.

There is also the issue of Putin’s relationship with the elite. This is what I call the conflict between kleptocratic Russia and ideological Russia. The struggle between the inherent corrupt nature of the regime — and corruption in Russia is not a bug in the system, it’s a feature — and Putin’s project to turn Russia into a great power, an empire. The old arrangement was that the elite was allowed to be corrupt, to steal, as long as they were loyal to Putin. Kleptocratic Russia was ascendant over ideological Russia. But now, Putin is changing the rules of the game. The economy is contracting and there is not enough money for everybody steal. And empires cost money. So, Putin has been sacking his old cronies, people like former Russian Railways head Vladimir Yakunin and former Kremlin chief-of-staff Sergei Ivanov. He is trying to make ideological Russia dominant over kleptocratic Russia. This is not very popular among much of the elite, which is accustomed to monetizing their positions. So right now, the regime is facing serious challenges both in its relations with society and with the Kremlin’s relationship with the elite. The coming year should prove to be very interesting, indeed.

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