Not long after the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea, a Russian-speaking region in Ukraine. It was a textbook case of hybrid warfare, yet not widely understand as such at the time and, as it turned out, a test run for what was executed against the US two years later.
The terrain was seeded with persistent propaganda and social media-fueled disinformation, followed by a quiet invasion with unmarked and unidentified troops. Their existence was denied at first, while the mysterious forces seized the means of communication.
There had been demonstrations in Kiev since November 2013, culminating in the flight of pro-Russian President Yanukovych. That was not long before the Crimea invasion began. Pro-European Union protests deeply disturbed President Putin, who claimed that the US was behind them and other so-called “color revolutions.” Throughout this period, RT and other Russian media outlets echoed his accusations that some protesters were nazis and fascists. This type of disinformation was persistent and apparently persuasive for some on the American left.
On Feb. 27, 2014, troops in unmarked uniforms took over Crimea’s parliament, along with key locations like the airports, military bases, and TV stations. These “little green men” were actually Russian special operations forces. Of course, Putin denied it, and again, predictably, outlets like RT parroted the line. Along with them came a group of Internet trolls and bots to echo and amplify the disinformation campaign. A week later, at a press conference, Putin still denied that Russian troops were involved.
But not everyone sees what happened this way. “The US-NATO were licking their chops wishing to grab Crimea (and its Black Sea Russian naval base),” writes Bruce Gagnon, who recently visited Crimea on a Russia Study Tour. “But they were thwarted by the people of Crimea.”
“Licking their chops” is a provocative, revealing phrase. Equally provocative, and disputable, was a reference to Russia he employed: the people of Crimea wanted to be reunited with the “mother country,” he wrote.
In fact, the new pro-Russian government in Crimea was installed within days, and promptly declared the Republic of Crimea to be independent. Then a referendum was called for March 15, just two weeks after the invasion. The choice was whether or not to join the Russian Federation. Although the vote was overwhelmingly in favor, it was clearly taken under duress. It’s also important to keep in mind that 65 percent of Crimea’s population is ethnically Russian, while in Ukraine generally only 17 percent are Russian.
A few weeks later, Putin finally admitted that Russian soldiers were involved. That way he could take credit at home.
The UN rejected the annexation and referendum, and passed a resolution defending the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Russia was also suspended from the G-8, and a planned summit in Sochi was cancelled. Putin was slightly embarrassed. But in Russia, the annexation was quite popular.
Most Russians see both Crimea and Ukraine as part of their nation. Annexation made them proud, suggesting a potential return to great nation status. But taking over the whole of Ukraine through invasion wasn’t possible, at least not in the same way; it’s too large, diverse and European. So, the fallback has been to make it dysfunctional, gradually persuading people that turning back East is the preferable outcome. This is known in Russian intelligence as a “frozen” conflict strategy. The objective is to make Ukraine vulnerable, and, if necessary, ungovernable, a failed state.
Nevertheless, local email lists circulating on the left, in Vermont and elsewhere, continue to claim that RT, clearly a tool in Russia’s hybrid warfare, is more truthful than US “corporate media.” Asked what they think of the evidence emerging in the Trump impeachment hearing, too many left-leaning activists also claim they aren’t paying attention. Yet they argue that Russia is being scapegoated, Ukraine may still be infested with fascists, and is really part of Russia anyway. Stop picking on Putin, they charge. He’s no worse than the US capitalist establishment.
In the old days, this kind of response was called appeasement or even collaboration. Today, it is a reason that, despite the ascendance of national progressives like Bernie Sanders, the left remains largely silent or equivocal about Russia’s information warfare.
On NBC one analyst recently described the Putin regime as “gangster capitalism.” It’s not “Russia-phobic” to make such a critique. You could even argue that this tragic development is a result of Western neglect and opportunism, even the humiliation of Russia, after the USSR crumbled. A fateful missed opportunity. But such a sympathetic motive, plus delusions and paranoia, do not excuse the crimes of Putin, or those of the emerging league of tyrants taking shape.
In short, it’s no surprise Russia’s “strongman” is popular at home. The simple comeback to that is, “So was Hitler.” He’s not Hitler, obviously. But like Trump, he has used racial and ethnic prejudice, homophobia, and christian fundamentalism, along with brute force and sometimes murder, to hold onto power.
On the other hand, the claim that Democrats are eager to restart the Cold War is also false, a way of changing the subject. The main threat to freedom worldwide is an authoritarian surge, which is advancing largely through the use of disinformation — manipulation of mass consciousness. This puts many people in the position of defending highly flawed institutions and people because they represent the remaining “guardrails” and moderating influences.
That can feel uncomfortable. But when you see barbarians at the gates, the cops look a bit better. This cuts through traditional ideological lines, creates moral quandaries, and challenges deeply held beliefs.
Trump cannot currently get away with jailing and murdering his critics. But there’s a palpable sense that he would if he could, creating the kind of “soft” fascism that he sees in other places. He often describes elements of it with envy. And he may yet succeed in having Supreme Court radically expand the powers of the President.
I certainly don’t blame that on Putin. But it is useful to understand what has happened in Russia, Crimea and Ukraine, especially since it may point to some of what may yet occur here — even if Trump is impeached and Elizabeth Warren becomes president.
Ironically, Republican Barry Goldwater saw this coming more than half a century ago. In The Conscience of a Conservative, he predicted that over time the US and USSR would become more like each other, perhaps even passing one another on the political pendulum. Well, he was at least half right.