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A Troll With A Cause

  • Brian Whitmore

A troll invasion, on multiple fronts.

A troll invasion, on multiple fronts.

One story made global headlines. One only made it onto the radar of the most obsessive Kremlin-watchers.

The solidifying consensus that Kremlin-backed Russian hackers broke into the Democratic National Committee's server -- and the subsequent data dump of embarrassing e-mails last week -- led to an avalanche of speculation that Vladimir Putin's regime was attempting to influence, or sabotage, the U.S. presidential election.

Meanwhile, the recent announcement that Moscow was planning to host a Kremlin-sponsored conference of separatists, and separatist wannabes, from Europe and the United States largely met with snickers and derision -- by those who even noticed it.

One story was Huge with a big capital H and sparked an FBI investigation. Slate magazine's Franklin Foer went so far as to compare the DNC hack and leak to Watergate.

The other was a footnote. Not many people were all that worried about some Texas and California separatists getting an all-expenses-paid trip to Moscow.

But despite the differences in magnitude, both are examples of the how the Putin regime is trolling the West in ways big and small.

The Kremlin has long been using what it calls "active measures" in Europe and the United States to undermine faith in Western values and democratic institutions. It has long had a strategy of sowing chaos, division, and confusion in the West. And it has long sought to propagate nihilism.

Putin is a "wily opportunist who knows how to seize and exploit openings when they present themselves," said Jason Willick in The American Interest

"He does what he can to move democratic opinion in Western countries whenever possible towards the forces that are most divisive, in a bid to divide Western allies and weaken Western institutions."

But this is not just trolling for trolling's sake. It's trolling with a cause.

I Know You Are But What Am I?

At one level, the Putin regime is doing what it believes the West is doing.

Russian officials say -- and appear to truly believe -- that the the West has been meddling in its internal affairs, sponsoring and provoking anti-Kremlin street protests, and backing separatism.

Putin has said -- and appears to truly believe -- that the massive street protests that erupted in late 2011 and early 2012 were the result of a "signal" from Hillary Clinton, then the U.S. Secretary of State.

The mainstream view among Kremlin officials is that the Panama Papers revelations and the Olympic doping scandal were parts of a Western plot to weaken and discredit Russia.

Several Russian officials, including most recently Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, have repeated a bizarre and erroneous claim that former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said Russia should not be allowed to have control over Siberia's natural resources.

And of course, it is an article of faith in Moscow that Ukraine's Euromaidan revolution was a Western-backed coup.

It's easy to dismiss all this as cynical propaganda. But it appears to be more than that. Putin's Kremlin appears to believe its own hype.

"In the eyes of Russian elites, Western aggression must be met with a response," Eugene Rumer, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Russia and Eurasia Program and a former national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the U.S. National Intelligence Council wrote in Foreign Affairs.

"Hacking into DNC computers and releasing information on the Democrats’ fundraising practices is simply payback for Western media reports about elite corruption in Russia. It helps boost the Russian narrative that money and politics go hand in hand everywhere and that Russia is no different from the United States or other Western countries whose governments are critical of Russia."

The same could be said for Moscow's tacit support for Brexit, its backing of Marine Le Pen's National Front in France, and its courtship of separatists and extremists in the United States and Europe.

But there is more at work here than just payback.

A Cyber Psy-Op?

One of the things that really jumps out about the DNC hacking case was that the perpetrators apparently wanted to be identified.

According to a report by Reuters, U.S. intelligence officials suspect that Russian hackers deliberately left behind obvious digital fingerprints, including Cyrillic characters.

"Either these guys were incredibly sloppy, in which case it’s not clear that they could have gotten as far as they did without being detected, or they wanted us to know they were Russian," an unidentified U.S. intelligence official told Reuters.

Another described the hack as 'the cyber equivalent of buzzing NATO ships and planes using fighters with Russian flags on their tails."

In this sense, Russia's most brazen cyberattack was something of a cyber psy-op.

And at least one of Moscow's goals is apparently to force the United States to treat it as an equal superpower.

"The Russians are messing with the United States," Olga Oliker wrote recently in The National Interest.

"Russia’s actions are meant to center U.S. policy on itself, to recreate a bipolar global structure reminiscent of that during the Cold War."

And, if it was a big psy-op, it appears to have worked.

Suddenly, for the first time since the Cold War, Russia occupies center stage in a U.S. election.

Suddenly, there are global headlines about the threat of Russian hackers.

Suddenly, there are alarmist reports in the media claiming that the Kremlin could hack voting machines and alter the results of elections in Western countries.

But even if the Kremlin's trolling is one part head game, it is also a security threat that is impossible to ignore.

"Russia’s activities...are elements of an openly stated doctrine -- a resurrection of Soviet-style political warfare, in which intelligence agencies seek to amplify divisions among their enemies, weakening the Western front by sowing discord and dissent whenever the opportunity presents itself," Eerik-Niiles Kross, a member of Estonia's parliament and a former intelligence chief, wrote in Poliitco.

"The political warfare of the Cold War is back -- in updated form, with meaner, more modern tools, including a vast state media empire in Western languages, hackers, spies, agents, useful idiots, compatriot groups, and hordes of internet trolls."

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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