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Putin's Perfect Storm

Waging a guerrilla war
Waging a guerrilla war

One announcement came from Berlin. Another came from Washington. And they came weeks apart.

German intelligence warned in late November that Russia had launched a campaign to meddle in upcoming elections to the Bundestag. And in early December, the CIA said it concluded that Moscow had already interfered in the U.S. presidential election.

In any other year, either of these claims would probably have been astonishing, sensational, and even mind-blowing.

Not in 2016.

This was the year such things became routine as the Kremlin took the gloves off in its nonkinetic guerrilla war against the West.

It was the year Russia's long-standing latent support for the xenophobic and Euroskeptic far right became manifest, open, and increasingly brazen.

It was the year cyberattacks moved beyond trolling and disruption and toward achieving specific political goals.

It was the year long-cultivated networks of influence across the West were activated.

It was the year the Kremlin expanded its disinformation campaign beyond Ukraine and the former Soviet space and aimed it at destabilizing the West itself.

It was the year Moscow turned Western democracy into a weapon -- against Western democracy.

And most importantly, with the West suffering from one of its worst crises of confidence in generations, 2016 was the year Moscow began to see results.

It was the year of the perfect storm, when the Western angst and malaise from the 2008 financial crisis, the eurozone crisis, and the migrant crisis crested and dovetailed with a concerted Kremlin campaign to undermine Western institutions.

And with the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, with the election of Donald Trump in the United States, with one pro-Moscow candidate or another likely to win the presidency in France, and with antiestablishment populism on the rise throughout Europe, this perfect storm has produced a markedly more favorable environment for the goals of Vladimir Putin's autocratic regime.

It has left the independence of countries seeking to escape Moscow's orbit -- like Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova -- more precarious than at any moment since the Soviet collapse.

Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, wrote recently in The Atlantic that the Kremlin has launched "an opportunistic but sophisticated campaign to sabotage democracy and bend it toward his interests, not just in some marginal, fragile places but at the very core of the liberal democratic order, Europe and the United States."

"We stand now at the most dangerous moment for liberal democracy since the end of World War II," Diamond added.

An Early Harbinger

The warnings that 2016 would be different came early, in January, when Moscow escalated its information war against the West with the infamous case of Lisa F. in Germany.

By relentlessly pushing a false story that an ethnic-Russian teenage girl was sexually assaulted by migrants in Berlin at a time when Germans were getting increasingly nervous about the mounting migrant crisis, the Kremlin appeared to be actively attempting to undermine the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Incited by Russian-language media reports, thousands of Russian-speaking protesters took to the streets carrying banners with slogans like "Our Children Are In Danger."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gave the "scandal" an official stamp, accusing the German authorities of "sweeping problems under the rug."

The story was soon proven false, but the damage was done -- and a message was sent that the Kremlin intended to play hardball.

And play hardball it did, with a dizzying and almost nonstop barrage of hacking, doxing, fake news, support for fringe political forces, and other mischief.

The most high-profile example of this, of course, was the emerging consensus that Russia hacked the U.S. presidential election with the apparent goal of harming Hillary Clinton and/or helping Trump.

But while the hacking of the U.S. election garnered the most attention and headlines, it was far from the only case of Russia seeking to destabilize Western democracies.

"Putin is not done yet. He seeks to promote anti-establishment candidates in next year’s elections in the Netherlands, France, Italy and Germany," Michael Khodarkovsky, a professor at Loyola University Chicago and author of the forthcoming book Russia’s Twentieth Century, wrote in The New York Times.

And Then We Take Berlin

In a letter to EU foreign-relations chief Federica Mogherini, 51 lawmakers from the European Parliament warned that more than $200 million of Russian black cash has been laundered through Europe and "there is information that shows that the money has been used to influence European politics, media, and civil society."

In the United Kingdom, Russia's propaganda machine worked overtime to cheerlead for the Brexit campaign and its leader Nigel Farage.

In Italy, Kremlin-funded news outlets RT and Sputnik fed a barrage of fake news to a network of websites run by the far left Five Star Movement, spreading Euroskepticism, and anti-Americanism, and undermining a constitutional referendum that led to Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's resignation.

The Kremlin also continued to support Marine Le Pen, leader of the anti-immigrant National Front in France which was granted a 9 million euro loan from a Russian bank in 2015.

And Le Pen's likely opponent in the second round of next year's presidential elections, former prime minister Francois Fillon, is also openly pro-Moscow.

And in December, the ruling United Russia party signed a cooperation agreement with Austria's far-right Freedom Party.

"Despite being much weaker than the Soviet Union, Russia today nevertheless has a greater ability to provoke mischief than the communist empire ever did, while western debates on how to contain (or engage) Russia have an air of helplessness," political analyst Lilia Shevtsova wrote in The Financial Times.

The legacy of 2016 is a weakened, divided, and disillusioned West; and an emboldened Kremlin.

"If December 7, 1941, is a date which will live in infamy," Brian Frydenborg wrote on the blog War Is Boring, in reference to the attack on Pearl Harbor that brought the United States into World War II, "then 2016 is a year which will live in infamy."

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL

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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