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The Year Of The Troll

The Troller in Chief (cartoon by Azerbaijani artist Gunduz Aghayev)
The Troller in Chief (cartoon by Azerbaijani artist Gunduz Aghayev)

For much of the year, Russian bombers, warships, and submarines played chicken with NATO with provocative incursions into member states' sea and airspace.

And as the year drew to a close, Moscow finally got burned when Turkey's air force shot down a Su-24 warplane.

The incident, which has led to a tense standoff between Moscow and Ankara, wasn't necessarily inevitable -- but it was pretty predictable. Moscow has been trolling the world on so many fronts for so long that sooner or later a proverbial flame war was bound to break out somewhere.

Indeed, as Kremlin-watcher Andrew Kornbluth noted in a recent commentary for the Atlantic Council, Putin's Russia is not so much a rogue state as a "troll state."

Its aim is to "needle the West and cheer Russians," while at the same time advancing the interests of the ruling clique.

Russia's trolling, which kicked into high gear in 2015, has taken on various forms.

In addition to the provocative overflights, there have been a wave of cyberattacks hitting a range of targets including a French television network, a German steelmaker, the Warsaw stock exchange, the White House, the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. State Department, and The New York Times.

Moreover, three foreign hostages, kidnapped from their home countries -- Estonian law enforcement officer Eston Kohver, Ukrainian Air Force pilot Nadia Savchenko, and Ukrainian filmmaker Oleh Sentsov -- were hauled before show trials in Russia, where they faced ridiculous charges.

Only Kohver has been released.

Russia this year also launched criminal cases against Lithuanian citizens who avoided serving in the Soviet Army -- and even asked the authorities in Vilnius to assist in locating and extraditing them.

The request was, of course, rejected.

And in Europe, the Kremlin has continued to court -- and back to various degrees -- all manner of extremists and troublemakers including separatists, neo-Nazis, and communists.

Andrew Wilson, author of the recently published The Ukraine Crisis: What It Means For The West, wrote recently that the Kremlin sees "no contradiction" in "seeking to influence both left and right, nationalists and separatists, traditionalists and postmodernists," as they all are disruptive for Europe.

"Despite now posing as a conservative power, the Kremlin no longer has a single ideology to promote. In fact it has no ideology. It is used to playing all sides," Wilson wrote.

And like any true troll, Moscow is a master of subterfuge, constantly pretending to be something that it is not.

As 2015 commenced, Russia was pretending to be a mediator in a war in Ukraine in which it was, in fact, the aggressor.

And the year ended with Moscow injecting itself into a conflict in Syria under the pretext of combatting terrorism, when its real aim was to prop up Kremlin ally Bashar al-Assad and complicate the West's efforts to end the civil war and combat Islamic State militants.

"To think of Russia as a troll state is not to assume that it has no real goals or that its targets are chosen purely on a whim. It does, however, help to explain a style of statecraft that might otherwise seem increasingly irrational and unpredictable," Kornbluth wrote.

Indeed, Russia's trolling is part of an ongoing effort to eat away bit by bit at Western resolve, European and transatlantic unity, and the post-Cold War international order.

And the unpredictability of Moscow's global trolling also serves to keep everybody off balance.

"We're all racking our brains asking: 'Have they drank their own Kool-Aid? Have they lost the plot? Are they going to do something really stupid? And this is us getting sucked into their dramaturgia. What they want to do is have us think they've drank the Kool-Aid," Peter Pomerantsev, author of the book Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible: Inside The Surreal Heart Of The New Russia, said on The Power Vertical Podcast in July.

But trolling -- like terrorism -- is a weapon of the weak.

"By tormenting others, trolls create the illusion of action and assuage their own nagging feelings of powerlessness," Kornbluth wrote.

Back in February on the sidelines of the Minsk peace talks, a live microphone picked up a conversation between Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka. The subject was Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin.

"He's playing a dishonest and dirty game," Poroshenko said.

Lukashenka nodded sympathetically, replying: "I know, I know. Everybody realizes this."

Everybody realizes it indeed. And the game continued all year.

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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