Sarah Martin is a recent graduate from George Mason University, where she received her Master of Science in Conflict Analysis and Resolution. Her thesis examined the motivations of Chechen foreign fighters in Syria fighting for the Islamic State. She can be found on Twitter @amerikitkatoreo. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Title: Assessment of the Security and Political Threat Posed by a “Post-Putin” Russia in 2040
Date Originally Written: June 5, 2018.
Date Originally Published: July 9, 2018.
Summary: In the upcoming decades, news feeds will probably continue to have a healthy stream of Russian meddling and Russian cyber attack articles. However, a reliance on cyber attacks may be indicative of deeper issues that threaten Russia’s stability.
Text: As Americans gear up for the midterm elections in November 2018, there have been a number of articles sounding the alarm on continuing disinformation campaigns from Russia. Vulnerabilities exposed in 2016 have not been adequately addressed, and worse yet, the Kremlin is making their tools and methods more sophisticated, jumping even more steps ahead of policymakers and prosecutors. However, in another 20 years, will the West be engaged in these same conversations, enmeshed in these same anxieties?
In short, yes.
In long—yes, but that might be an indicator of a much deeper problem.
Moscow has been deploying disinformation campaigns for decades, and when it knows the target population quite well, these operations can be quite successful. Barring some kind of world-altering catastrophe, there is little doubt that Russia will stop or even slow their course. Currently, disinformation stands as one of many tools the Russian Foreign Ministry can use to pursue its objectives. However, there are political and economic trends within the country that might make meddling one of Russia’s only diplomatic tool. Those trends are indicative of rather deep and dark issues that may contort the country to react in unpredictable ways, thus threatening its immediate neighbors, and spark trouble for the Transatlantic security apparatus.
Disinformation is a well-used tool in Russia’s foreign policy arsenal. Its current form is an inheritance from old Soviet tactics. Under the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB), Service A was responsible for meddling in the West’s public discourse by muddying the waters and sowing discord between constituents, ultimately to affect their decisions at the polling booth. These campaigns were known as “active measures.” Some of America’s most popular conspiracy theories—like the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) having a role in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy—actually originated as a Service A disinformation campaign. Russia has the institutional knowledge to keep the momentum rolling well into the future.
Not every campaign delivers a home run (see the French 2017 presidential elections). However, Russia has the capability to learn, adapt, and change. Perhaps the most appealing aspects of disinformation is its efficiency. Cyber active measures also have the added benefit of being incredibly cost-effective. A “regiment” of 1,000 operatives could cost as little as $300 million annually.
The economy is one of the trends that indicates a boggier underbelly of the Russian bear. Russia may have to rely on its cyber capabilities, simply because it cannot afford more aggressive measures on the physical plane.
Russia, for all of its size, population and oil reserves, has no right having an economy smaller than South Korea’s. Its economy is unhealthy, staggering and stagnating, showing no sign of any degree of sustained recovery. That Russia is a petrostate is one factor for its economic weakness. Politics—sanctions and counter-sanctions—also play a part in its weakness, though it is mostly self-inflicted. However, each of these factors belies responsibility from the true culprit—corruption. According to Transparency International, Russia is as corrupt as Honduras, Mexico and Kyrgyzstan.
Corruption in Russia isn’t simply a flaw to be identified and removed like a cancer; it is built into the very system itself. Those who participate in corruption are rewarded handsomely with a seat at the political table and funds so slushie, you could find them at 7-11. It is a corrupt system where the key players have no incentive of changing. Everyone who plays benefits. There has always been an element of corruption in Russia’s economy, especially during the Brezhnev years, but it only became systematic under Vladimir Putin. Corruption will remain after Putin leaves the presidency, because he may leave the Kremlin, but he will never leave power.
Many Kremlin observers speculate that Putin will simply stay in politics after his final term officially ends. If this does happen, taking into account that Putin is 65 years old, it is likely that he could reign for another 10-20 years. Physically and practically then, Putinism may continue because its creator is still alive and active. And even if Putin stepped back, the teeth of his policies are embedded so deeply within the establishment, that even with the most well-intentioned and capable executive leadership, it will take a long time to disentangle Putinism from domestic governance.
Another component of Putinism is how it approaches multilateralism. Putinism has no ideology. It is a methodology governed by ad hoc agreements and transactionalism. Russia under Putinism seeks not to build coalitions or to develop friendships. Russia under Putin is in pursuit of its former empire. Nowhere is this pursuit more evident than with its Eurasian Economic Union. While the European Union has its functional problems, it at least is trying to build a community of shared values. None of that exists in the EAEU.
Putinism, combined with a foreign policy designed to alienate potential allies and to disincentivize others from helping in times of crisis, connotes fundamental and systematic failures, that in turn, indicate weakness. The tea leaves are muddy, but the signs for “weak” and “failing state” are starting to form, and weak states are erratic.
Weakness is what pressed Putin into Crimea and the Donbass in 2014, when the possibility of a Western-embracing Ukraine looked more probable than speculative. Weakness is what pushed Russian troops into Georgia in 2008. Russia had no other means of advancing their foreign policy objectives than by coercion and force. One must wonder then what “Crimea, But Worse” might look like.
Russia will continue to use disinformation campaigns to pursue its foreign policy goals, and currently, this is one of many ways it can interact with other countries. However, disinformation may be the only tool Moscow can afford to keep around. This lack of other tools would indicate a rotting and faulty economic and political structure, which Russia currently has no incentive to change and may not have the ability to change after President Putin. A sick Russia is already challenging for the world. A failing Russia could be absolutely disastrous.
 Rasmussen, A. F., & Chertoff, M. (2018, June 5). The West Still Isn’t Prepared to Stop Russia Meddling in Our Elections. Politico Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2018/06/05/russia-election-meddling-prepared-218594
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