Andrew Wilson - 01/03/2016

In 2014 the West was mesmerised by Russia’s ‘hybrid war’ in Crimea and east Ukraine. ‘Little green men’ in Crimea and disposable warlords in the Donbas served as proxies and cut-outs to disguise the invasion of Ukraine, and other blatant violations of and attempts to undermine its sovereignty, leaving the EU and USA constantly behind events on the ground.

Locals were not so surprised, however. They are used to the Russian term aktivnye meropriyatiya; which roughly translates as ‘active measures’ or ‘events’ (doubly active - the noun has the implication that meropriyatiya are guided rather than just unfold). Locals were also well aware that neither hybrid war nor active measures are really new; they have deep roots in the Soviet system and even in Russian imperial practice. The Soviet use of active measures was broader and more institutionalised, but usually in the service of the official ideology; today’s Russian practitioners therefore arguably have more in common with the cynicism of their Tsarist predecessors, as they do not seek to advance a specific ideology, but rather to weaken and divide the states Russia perceives as its enemies by any means they can.

But the key to understanding what is happening today is not just the recycling of old playbooks. The Kremlin also has a sophisticated if deeply cynical post-modern understanding of how to manipulate both its own society and our own. It uses every weakness and failing of modern Western democracy to argue that the Western model has failed; and this makes countering the 'active measures' particularly complex. Naming and shaming them is not enough: we have to identify and address our own faults too.

But for a start, interested readers can check out the web sites and (though the latter seemed to have been the subject of active measures at the time of writing and may still be inactive).

The Playbook

As the Russian Empire experimented with democracy in the very, very late Tsarist era, the secret police, the Okhrana, actually set up or controlled many of the new political parties. Agents and informers made sure that the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were kept at each others’ throats. There were also so-called ‘police parties’, which in one sense weren’t actually fake, as they openly supported the regime. But they also served as a controlled substitute for any true kind of mass politics. As in Russia under Putin, the authorities under Nicholas II distrusted all political parties, even conservative ones; their priority before 1917 was to fake democracy, if they could not prevent it. Father Gapon, who led the crowds at the Bloody Sunday massacre in 1905, was an Okhrana agent provocateur.

Simple forgery also played a role, most notoriously with the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, first published in Russian in 1903 after a secret commission by the Interior Minister von Plehve. The Protocols took on a life of their own, as arguably one of the most successful deceptions in history. In 2015 the new Polish Defence Minister Antoni Macierewicz was widely mocked when an old interview was discovered in which he referred to the Protocols to claim that “experience shows that there are such groups in Jewish circles.”

Staged events like the Beilis Trial in Kiev in 1913 used the infamous anti-Semitic ‘blood libel’ to help right-wing forces mobilise in Ukraine, although the authorities knew it to be a complete travesty - Kiev was then a major centre of nascent Russian nationalism. It isn’t any more; but it would be hard to find a clearer parallel with Ukraine in 2014 than the events described by Stephen Kotkin in his magisterial study Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, when the Bolsheviks staged an ‘uprising’ by the Armenian minority in the disputed Lori district as an excuse to invade independent Georgia in 1921. Putin has made no secret of his admiration for Stalin, as in Putin’s euphemistic terms, an ‘effective manager’. Putin’s use of fake 'local forces' (actually, as he himself admitted later, Russian special-forces soldiers) to stage a fake 'uprising' in Crimea shows that imitation remains the sincerest form of flattery.

False conspiracies were a particular favourite under the USSR, both for feeding the machinery of show trials and repression-by-quota, and creating an ever-expanding list of enemies, each with their particular –ism (from well-known sins like ‘Trotskyism’ to obscure ones like ‘Petliurism’, named after a Ukrainian nationalist). The ‘Tagantsev Operation’ in Petrograd in 1921 was used to entrap ‘latent’ supporters of the ancien regime , with over 800 arrests and 98 executions – mostly intellectuals falsely accused of residual Tsarism. ‘Operation Trust’ from 1921 to 1926 managed a similar trick abroad: by setting up a fake anti-Bolshevik resistance organisation, the ‘Monarchist Union of Central Russia’, and convincing Western powers that it was genuine, the secret police intercepted a treasure trove of men, materials and donations, including the British ‘Ace of Spies’ Sidney Reilly.

Some active measures weren’t even plausible. The annexation of the Baltic States in 1940 was preceded by the creation of fake ‘Popular Fronts’ to call for ‘voluntary’ incorporation. No serious historian would take them or their fake elections seriously; but the point was to create an echo chamber effect – the act of Soviet leaders constantly referring to ‘voluntary incorporation’ became a self-perpetuating discourse in its own right, and the myth that the Baltic States 'chose' to join the USSR remains alive in Russian-speaking circles to this day. Such blatant lies took on a life of their own through the sheer insistence of their repetition, and were never properly discredited after the fall of Communism. Which is why it has been depressingly easy to revive the practice in Putin’s Russia.

‘Political Technology’

Along with much else. But active measures now come in the post-modern form of self-styled ‘political technology’, which presents all politics as a video game, with the political technologist holding the remote control. Its techniques have been perfected under Putin, but it is important to note that they weren’t invented by him. The anarchic would-be democracy of Boris Yeltsin’s Russia was never the same as Putin’s anaemic autocracy; but from the very beginning, and indeed even in the Gorbachev era, so-called ‘political technologists’ were working to hollow out the political system in the name of corruption and control.

The new ‘technologists’ were young (Vladislav Surkov, the ultimate Kremlin grey cardinal, was born in 1964), and superficially, cynically clever. The reference to ‘technology’ was to the post-modern techniques they thought made them the new Masters of the Universe – and which, incidentally, were a substitute for the resources and hard power control that impoverished post-Soviet Russia simply didn’t have. Their favourite world was ‘clone’ – which was also a way of doing things on the cheap by copying real democracy with parody, pastiche and collage. Their favourite medium was originally TV – the real world was full of mayhem and events that could not be controlled. But in the new Russia only what they broadcast could be true; the real world outside was less true than the politics of the TV studio and nightly news.

Significantly, the men of the 1990s were not outflanked by the new media of the 2000s. The political technologists had already learnt from all-too-often leaden Soviet propaganda, and from Marshall McLuhan, that the ‘medium was the message’; entertainment, emotion and empathy had to come first, propaganda could then follow. The political technologists therefore easily learnt the vulnerabilities of social media too. On Facebook and Twitter you don’t know most of your ‘friends’, creating a perfect vehicle for trolls, sock-puppets and hidden source messaging. But surveys show that people trust social media more, precisely because messages comes from ‘friends’, without looking too closely at who they actually are. 

After the Yukos affair in 2003 the Kremlin imposed a monopoly of political manipulation. The political technologists now worked for the Kremlin or for Kremlin media, or they got other jobs. By 2011 the life had been starved out of public politics. One of the key architects of the system, the former Kremlin political technologist Gleb Pavlovsky, published a book last year in which he called Putin’s Russia ‘sistema RF ’, an Emerald City where ‘there is no real state’, just the corrupt ‘system’ behind it, and ‘RF’ or the Russian Federation is just a brand or a label designed to shield the corrupt clique in power from the public gaze. The only reality left in politics is the stuff of reality TV, as Pavlovsky admitted without too much of a mea culpa. And he continued, ‘the technologist took the place of politics. Power is exercised as re-post, with paid likes, trolls, bots, and other attributes of the networked world’.

But political technology has moved on from mere puppetry, now that everybody on the public stage is controlled. Its main purpose is now to create and direct Putin’s super-ratings, which are currently somewhere over 80%. A US President in a two-party system polling above 50% has convinced some of his or her opponents that they are doing a good job. Whereas Putin’s 80%-plus is nothing to do with his job performance; it exists because the sistema needs the near unanimity of everybody following the same artificially-created narrative – war with Ukraine one minute, Russia’s mission in Syria the next. ‘Pragmatists’ or ‘realists’ in the West therefore completely misunderstand Russia. Putin is not following ‘national interests’; he is running the state as a propaganda screen between his cronies' interests and the eyes of his own citizens.

The protest movement that flared briefly in 2011-12 was therefore a dangerous moment for the Kremlin; not because of the numbers on the streets or the range of interests involved, but because there was an ‘Emperor’s Clothes’ moment, where a minority dropped their illusions and complicity in the regime’s narrative and simply shouted “Putin is a thief!”

But the dilettante leadership of the protests were no match for a revanchist Kremlin doubling its bets by launching ever-new forms of diversionary politics after 2012. The protestors were isolated and demonised by a new meta-narrative of ‘conservative values’ and restoring the collective might of the former Soviet world against a decadent West, for whom the protestors were ignorant or mercenary dupes.

Diversionary Politics

So long as active measures were confined to domestic politics, the downside was limited. The political system became brittle and dysfunctional, starved of inputs and information. But the active measures disguised and belittled that change, and the more the system was hollowed out from within, the more they could be deployed in a controlled environment, without too much reality bite-back.

But over-confidence, and the West’s simple failure to understand what was going on, has combined with the regime’s crisis in 2011-12 and led to a hubristic expansion abroad, where the risks of blow-back are much higher. There are too many real actors in Ukraine and Syria, and too many victims on the ground. Arguably, reality has defeated Russia in east Ukraine, or at least forced it to accept a draw on the ground. Hybrid war turned out to have its disadvantages when you are fighting a real war. The Ukrainian side is badly-armed, but is fighting an openly-declared defensive war, and is prepared to take casualties. So long as Russia denies that it is involved, it is constrained by the number of casualties that conventional Russian forces would take in any large-scale assault. The annexation of Crimea was a bloodless success; the attempted creation of puppet states on Ukraine's eastern territories has been a bloody failure.

But mess up and move on is part of the pattern. Consequences supposedly don’t matter so much in a post-modern world. A row with Turkey may be next, although there are sections of the Russian elite which don’t like to see the loss of a traditional trading and energy partner, and a fellow critic of the EU.

But it is of course the Syrian misadventure that has the most potential real-world consequences. Russian air power has not given Assad the quick and easy victory the Kremlin must have hoped for. Other actors, notably Saudi Arabia, could well be willing to up the military ante to support the same proxies that Russia is bombing. Russia is now at a turning point. Even its rulers are in uncharted territory. If reality bites back, should they keep on increasing the dose of diversionary propaganda? Or will what security expert Mark Galeotti has perceptively called ‘fantasy fatigue’ set in?

Moreover, once they are abroad post-modern political technologists have found that their post-modern systems of remote control gain less traction. They have turned to pre-modern methods which are both more predictable and less deniable: exploiting the ‘conservative values’ of the Orthodox world, creating unstable ethnic micro states on Russia’s doorstep and now possibly in Syria too, and unleashing the genies of Russian nationalism that they will struggle to control. Plus they are not that clever. ‘Pastiche’ is often crude parody. The staged ‘public meetings’ (in local slang, Putingi) that elected ‘people’s mayors’ in Crimea and east Ukraine in 2014 were not the same as what happened in Kiev’s Maidan, where the (spontaneous) protests were self-limiting and nobody was actually ‘elected’. The proxy militias that Russia has used in east Ukraine have proven incompetent, vicious and corrupt – despite repeated purging by their masters.

Russian propaganda channels also mix up clever programming with blatant use of Photoshop. But arguably Russia’s biggest successes are the ones that are harder to spot. In the last year, first a committee of EU ‘Panel of Eminent Persons’ and then Henry Kissinger both came out with strikingly similar analyses for the future of relations between Russia and the West. They both pointed to a clash of ‘narratives’, and argued that we should be sensitive to Russia’s narrative of defensive response to Western encirclement. But what if that is also a propaganda trope, even if many Russians now believe it, having heard it for so long? It isn’t just the Russian TV audience that is being manipulated; the West is vulnerable too.


Andrew Wilson is Professor in Ukrainian Studies at University College London and a Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. His most recent books are Ukraine Crisis: What the West Needs to Know (2014) and The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation (new, expanded fourth edition 2015).