To fight the new Cold War, we must forget the old one
Imagine a four-kilometre-long train shooting through Siberia at a breakneck speed. It is 1951. The heroic engineer Blinov knows no fear; the tireless locomotive pulls four hundred wagons at an incredible 150 km/h. Blinov is the “New Soviet Man,” quite used to performing such feats; he joyfully drives more hours, and faster, every single day. The train, built with Soviet steel and sweat, puts the mighty synergy of socialist mechanics and proletarian work ethic on display. A master of his train, Blinov is but a cog in the machine of the Soviet state. He has two goals: first – to build communism and defeat capitalism through peaceful labour; second – to shame America by showing that in the USSR, the daily conquest of the impossible is the new norm.
But Blinov and his train are merely a case of Soviet “fake news” – Cold War propaganda. The US government fought this throughout the Cold War; American citizens recognised it and stayed vigilant, too. We should resist it now even more vigorously, since Russia’s efforts to disseminate lies as truth may be less obvious, but are stealthier, stronger and more widespread.
During the Cold War, despite its coherence and consistency, the Soviet revolutionary message was struggling to get through to the unconvinced masses around the globe. It was a paradox, of sorts. The Stalinist incarnation of Marxist ideology and party control assured that few Soviet journalists, writers, artists or musicians wrote “off message” (or played off-beat), as compared to the party line. But that same ideology and centralised control stifled, not strengthened, the Soviet efforts to remake the world one film frame, one news article at a time.
The most vivid example of that failure was the efforts of the Soviet Information Bureau to plant articles in the foreign press in the late 1940s and 1950s. Pieces on outlandishly efficient Soviet factories, brilliant yet unknown Russian inventors and happy collective farmers went off to news agencies across the world, but few wanted to publish them because they were poorly written, unbelievably boring and patently untrue. Soviet attempts to sway failed on other fronts; characteristically, in 1947, officials at the Soviet Embassy who wanted to compete with Americans and organised film viewings complained to Moscow that they had no movies to show.
So, to Western readers and viewers, Soviet propaganda often stood out. If hard-line East European communists tried to get out of accepting socialist culture exported by the USSR, you know it could not have been good. And if you read a Soviet book or watched a film during the Cold War, you pretty much knew where it was made. But the US government actively countered all these ridiculous claims, using government institutions, public-private sector hybrids and even abstract art, often to promote half-truths and deceptions of its own. Indeed, perhaps the fact that the Soviet hype and hyperbole were so easy to figure out, made a systematic struggle against it less complicated as well. In 1947, Stalin’s spokesman publicly divided the world into two hostile camps: the US-led “imperialist and anti-democratic camp,” and the “anti-imperialist and democratic camp,” spearheaded by the USSR. The US-Soviet relations waxed and waned, but that basic Cold-War cosmology also made it easier for the US to counter the Soviet claims with a clear ideological message of its own.
And then America lost its focus on Russia because Moscow lost the Cold War and its vast empire, both at once. As Russia plunged into the chaos of post-communist transition, the US government found its new ideological enemy in radical Islam. That loss of territory, American attention and respect profoundly hurt the Russian people and the elite. When Putin declared, in 2005, the collapse of the USSR to be “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century,” what we really heard was a howl of an ex-Soviet apparatchik’s wounded soul.
Putin wants to turn Russia into a great power again, and in a way that conflicts directly with the interest of the United States. The Pax Americana relied on the co-operation of international institutions, defence of democracy, open societies and market exchange. It did not always work that way, and when it did, arguably it often failed to advance progressive goals. But what Russia has to offer is certainly far worse: autocratic rule, ethnic nationalism and international security understood, as it was by Stalin or Nicholas I, in military-territorial terms. Power, for the Kremlin, is a zero-sum game. Russia’s rulers have no desire to cooperate with the West on democratic terms. Nor do they have a chance of challenging the West through force of genuine appeal. Putin’s optimal strategy, therefore, is to exploit and exacerbate the weaknesses of the United States and its allies. He can only win when the others lose.
Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, support for Bashar al Assad in Syria and interference in US elections are only recent and most brazen attempts to recover Russia’s great power status and prestige. And to some extent it works: Americans pay more heed, and many in the West even talk of the New Cold War.
Yet when it comes to Russia’s international media messaging, all too many people in the United States seem surprisingly ready to disregard the Kremlin’s role. And I do not mean just Donald Trump, whose ties to Russia remain suspect and who trusts Vladimir Putin more than his own intelligence chiefs; a president that, far from enabling those who battle the Kremlin’s lies, gleefully amplifies Russian fake news. It is not even about Rex Tillerson’s reluctance to use the funds for fighting disinformation which the Congress has already approved. Russia’s true success are the millions of Americans who cannot tell Russian propaganda when they see it, and who use the ballot box to mandate the conflict-of-interest-ridden insouciance at the top.
Why is that so? Under Putin, Russia has been carrying out a massive global disinformation campaign meant to mould public opinion in favour of Russia’s ambitious geopolitical goals. But its form, scale and effects differ from the Kremlin’s propaganda efforts in the Cold War. Remember the train engineer Blinov? Well, that silly Soviet ostentation is gone; ideology no longer really divides the US and the USSR and the “made in Russia” label no longer screams off a front page or screen in quite the same way. Under Putin, the Russian media gained unprecedented power to spread globally lies as news. Free from the Marxist-Leninist logic and turn of phrase, they get to question proven facts in a language Western publics respect and understand. With the chains of centralised planning torn asunder, they gained access to the market and the riches of the Russian kleptocratic state. The “RT” (formerly “Russia Today”) newscasters dress smart, argue and schmooze with a panache that their Soviet predecessors could have never matched; RT itself broadcasts in multiple languages while its page claims to have a billion views per day. No longer hostage to the hammer and the sickle, the Russian government harnessed the hashtag to sway publics around the globe. And unlike just a couple of decades ago, the Russian disinformation, freed from the onerous chain of Soviet production and distribution, arrives instantly to the computer screens of millions of people who see malicious attempts to mislead as just another point of view.
The Kremlin exploits the real weaknesses of the liberal order by supporting financially the extreme right in the West. Analogously, in its global messaging the Russian government’s influence networks target liberal institutions, personalities and perspectives, while assiduously amplifying the claims of the right and its disruptive fringe.
In the new “hybrid warfare” that the Kremlin champions, anything goes: war need not be declared, intervention should be deniable, all government and private resources can be mobilised to advance Russia’s goals. Technology plays a key role: for instance, Moscow uses hired trolls and algorithms known as “bots” to replicate its message to the world. The news they spread challenge the status quo directly or associate it with near-apocalyptic calamity, semantically not unlike Trump’s “American carnage” did. The Alliance for Securing Democracy, a bipartisan advisory council, developed a website Hamilton68 [hypelink] which tracks the activities of six hundred Twitter accounts associated with Russian government disinformation activities. The top hashtags Russia promoted on August 8th were: #MAGA, #northkorea, #syria, #trump, #russia; all highlight America’s present vulnerabilities and amplify the restorative potential of Donald Trump, a divisive leadership figure if there ever was one.
Sometimes Russia recycles propagandistic scenarios from the recent past, but thanks to new technology it can reach the mass foreign audiences it has never had. E.g., throughout the Cold War, Soviet propaganda zoomed in on the real problem of racism in the United States. The glitch was that each time a Soviet official tried to silence American criticisms with references to Jim Crow, he did so to deflect from the human rights abuses in the USSR. Now, one of the two trending stories on Hamilton68 has been the firing of the Google engineer who had sent out the internal memo suggesting biological reasons for low numbers of women in the tech industry. That merits of his argument are questionable, but the firing of the googler was controversial too. The point is that Russia amplifies that story in order to show the hypocrisy and intolerance of Western liberals. Ultimately it is also a way of telling America: how dare you to censure us for restricting speech? You have censorship, too!
During the Cold War, the Soviet government could never expect millions of patriotic Americans to pick up a copy of Soviet Life or Pravda to shape their opinion about the health of democracy in the United States or of its international ties. Now, the Kremlin needs not entertain similar unrealistic hopes; it relies on global information circuits to undermine the values and cohesion of the West. In the United States, in particular, liberal-loathing conservatives created a natural echo chamber for Russian news; how ironic that the hugely popular Fox News, with its right-wing, historically hawkish, anti-Soviet audience, now so eagerly replicates the Russian point of view. That strategy works brilliantly, too. Evidence: for months, Fox and Russia denied and questioned reports about meetings between the Trump team and Russian officials; a recent poll revealed that one-third of Trump voters do not believe that Trump Jr. ever met with the Russians, even though he himself had admitted to doing so. The US used to be the chief spokesman against Russian authoritarianism; through Fox and under Trump, it morphed into Russia’s mass-media Trojan horse.
So the danger is that, since Russia’s global messaging today is nimbler, subtler and better funded, Americans more vulnerable to it. Because they often do not see it, they are also more ready to shrug it off. It may also be that the last accords of the Soviet anthem in 1991 left many Americans permanently comforted and confused. In the absence of Kremlin’s grandstanding pronouncements about “burying America” or igniting revolution throughout the world, some on the right have gradually opened up to the Trump-Hannity view that the New York Times, not Russia, is the great propagandistic problem of our age. Many on the left, too, see concerns about Russia as a mere distraction from Trump’s domestic mess. True, the Soviet anthem as we knew it is no more. But that just means that the lyrics got an update and should it not make us pause that the tune remained exactly the same?
Surely, there is no instant, magic solution to the problem of Russian manipulation of Western news. Still, some things can be done. First, we have to think with one eye on the Cold War. Particularly the elected officials from both parties must pressure the Trump administration to get more involved in aggressive countermeasures, such as internet literacy initiatives and efforts to flag Russian propaganda, disinformation and fake news. The State Department accepting the funds earmarked by the Congress for that purpose would be a good start.
Second, let us take the Cold War analogy with a grain of salt, as it may be hampering us from grasping what is at stake today. In 1914, many enthused about the outbreak of First World War, because they expected a familiar kind of war. Thinking that cavalry charges and glorious battles would be in store, they ended up fighting an unglamorous war of attrition in a disease-ridden muddy, stinking trench. So it is with “the New Cold War.” The big players are the same – undemocratic Russia sees itself and behaves as an enemy of the West, but unlike then, now the Kremlin can easily mould public opinion in more surreptitious ways. So we should not dismiss a priori Russia’s efforts to reinterpret the world, just because the familiar signposts of Russian meddling are gone.
Russia is no “nothing burger.” It is far more than a distraction from Trump’s real woes at home. The United States won the Cold War against the sickly Soviet state, but the reincarnated Russia poses a different kind of threat. Under Putin, Moscow’s effort to undermine moral authorities and credible news sources will only get more intense. Russia overcame key limitations of the Soviet state’s propaganda machine; at least when it comes to shaping a global information strategy, its leaders are learning from the past. In the US, the challenge is perhaps the opposite, to snap out of the historical frame of mind, not just the Cold War but the post-Cold War, and to understand clearly Russia’s new disinformation strategies of today.
Patryk Babiracki is an Associate Professor in Russian and East European history at the University of Texas at Arlington and Alexander von Humboldt Fellow at the Berlin Center for Cold War Studies. He is also an editor of the University of the Edinburgh-based journal Cultural History and the author of Soviet Soft Power in Poland: Culture and the Making of Stalin’s New Empire, 1943-1957.