World / Politics | ANALYSIS

Russia resurrects Cold War-era foreign policy tradition for the digital age

Bloomberg

Warning: the Kremlin is trying to split the West by spreading “altered facts,” conducting blackmail and setting up front organizations, the U.S. State Department said — in 1981.

So-called active measures were common during the Cold War, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union sought to unify and divide Europe with equal urgency. Now those tactics appear to be back, retooled for the digital age as President Vladimir Putin embraces the even older Russian foreign policy tradition of “derzhavnost,” or “great powerness.”

Fears of Russian interference are rampant across the continent.

Already reeling from Brexit, the European Union faces a string of key elections starting next month in the Netherlands, then in France and Germany. French National Front leader Marine Le Pen is vowing to abandon the euro and perhaps follow the U.K. out of the EU, a move that will shatter the bloc. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has led the EU’s united front against Russian actions in Ukraine, says she is fighting the toughest election of her career.

The U.S. has in Donald Trump its first president to publicly disparage both the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the EU, twin pillars of European security for the last seven decades. His comments on Europe have appeared contradictory, such as calling NATO “obsolete” only to voice “strong support” for the military alliance two weeks later. Yet the unpredictability of the billionaire-turned-politician leaves few reassured.

The Kremlin, according to former Putin adviser Sergei Karaganov, is reverting to Soviet and imperial strategies that emphasize national sovereignty and “hard-power” competition, after a brief interlude attempting to accommodate European rules-based systems and Western-built security structures.

“We are not interested in any kind of unity in the trans-Atlantic alliance,” Karaganov said by phone from Moscow. “The weaker the better.”

But that does not mean that Russia is actively seeking to destabilize the EU, Karaganov said, if only because the 28-nation body is collapsing on its own. “We don’t play the game in a hard way,” he said.

Others, however, detect the spread of so-called fake news from Russia-aligned websites, Russian funding for anti-establishment parties like Le Pen’s National Front and other once-familiar signs of disruption.

British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said this month Russia is “weaponizing misinformation” to test the West, a position echoed by the three Baltic EU and NATO members, all former Soviet republics. The EU itself warned of Russian “cyber-risks” to national elections and Germany’s domestic intelligence agency said it found “growing evidence” of meddling by Moscow.

Robert Legvold, professor emeritus at Columbia University and author of “Return to Cold War,” said Russia has only confronted a unified West since World War II, but it struggled to secure a balance of power and natural place on the continent long before the U.S. established itself as Europe’s protector. “Since Peter, Russia has been of the West but never in the West,” Legvold said, referring to Peter the Great, the 17th century czar who tilted westward and won several wars that turned Russia into a major European power.

Russia, which stretches across 11 time zones, including all of northern Asia, has always wrestled with its Western identity and its relationship with the rest of Europe has often been vexed. Invasions by both Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler showed that. At other times the Kremlin sought to shape the continent to its liking, as in 1815, when Alexander I signed a Holy Alliance with other conservative monarchies to roll back the spread of republican ideas.

Throughout, Russian policy makers were driven by derzhavnost, according to Legvold, who has traced the idea back to 9th century Russia.

“The idea of derzhavnost is that Russia has the right to be recognized as a major power,” regardless of whether it has the capabilities, and that includes having a say in setting the rules of the international game, Legvold said. “It has been a part of their DNA for a very long time.”

In many ways the Cold War was the historical exception, a period when the Kremlin defined itself outside the West rather than in it, according to Legvold. That offers hope that a way might be found to end the current breakdown of relations, even if Russia will remain a difficult neighbor, he said.

The first major Cold War attempt to split the West probably came in 1952, when Josef Stalin proposed forming a reunified, neutral Germany to forestall Western Europe’s consolidation. Five years later, amid tensions between the U.S. and European powers over the Suez crisis and an uprising in Hungary, Nikita Khrushchev turned to saber-rattling to try to drive those allies further apart.

By 1981, Soviet disruption efforts included disseminating “disinformation” through foreign media, “outright and partial forgery of documents” and the “exploitation of a nation’s political, academic, economic, and media figures” to influence policies, the report from former U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s administration said. These measures were designed and executed by “a large and complex bureaucracy” in Moscow, according to the State Department.

It’s a two-way street, of course. The historical record is peppered with examples of both antagonists interfering in the affairs of third countries.

In 1972, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev asked President Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, to ensure the result in a local election in West Germany. Both sides wanted the same outcome, to avoid complicating the ratification of major arms-control treaties.

Kissinger said it would be too difficult to sway a vote in a German state and asked Brezhnev if he could “influence the elections for us,” according to a U.S. transcript of the meeting. Kissinger’s office didn’t return e-mail and telephone requests for comment.

After the collapse of the communist bloc paved the way for EU expansion, the disconnect between derzhavnost and the sovereignty-sharing model governing most of the continent became glaring. Russia’s perceived loss of security, as former Warsaw Pact members rushed to join NATO, may have made reaching a full rapprochement impossible.

Russia’s interest in weakening Western unity is clear — to undermine U.S. global leadership and expand its own influence, according to Heather Conley, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“In some ways, the U.S.-Europe trans-Atlantic relationship is the strength that Mr. Putin needs to erode in order to achieve his objectives,” Conley said, adding that this makes Trump’s approach “hard to comprehend.”

Despite the growing alarm in Europe, Russian success is by no means assured. Even if Trump does try to abandon the trans-Atlantic alliance, senior Republicans and Democrats in Congress have threatened to block him through legislation. Officials in Moscow are already worried that Trump’s apparent amenability to Putin could turn against them.

Europe, meanwhile, could respond to any major changes in the existing order by itself returning to older, more self-reliant traditions. Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s new foreign minister, has already pledged that his country will step up and play a bigger role in international affairs should the U.S. withdraw.

“If Trump adopts a new isolationism, then Europe is likely to consolidate” rather than break apart, said Andrei Zubov, a Russian historian and political scientist. Europeans, he said, will understand that when the U.S. security umbrella is gone they’ll be left alone “to face the terrible Putin, a KGB-ized Russia with nuclear weapons.”