Counterintelligence as Strategic Communications

One may just as well quip that the Kremlin’s strategic messaging boils down to the slogan: “We beat Hitler, we fly the Sputnik, and we excel at ballet.” Unless we re-learn the lessons hard learned and quickly forgotten after the Cold War, we shall be duped over and over again.

By Marek Jan Chodakiewicz | June 15, 2016


Virtually all Russian state operations are counterintelligence operations, including strategic messaging/communications. Counterintelligence means ferreting out spies; but in the Muscovite context it denotes neutralizing all opposition.  Russian strategic communications in all forms are simply propaganda deployed to best the enemy, real and imagined. Deception and denial are of the Kremlin’s standard modus operandi in this realm. The former falsifies reality and the latter conceals the truth.

Such understanding of counterintelligence grows out of Russia’s historical context. The most important seven ingredients of its past are, first, pre-modern eastern Slavdom’s legacy of collectivism (e.g., the mir with its common ownership of land) unmitigated by its western Slavic kin’s predilection for individualism (e.g., liberum veto with its vouchsafing minority rights of even one single person); second, the medieval Viking legal arrangements, which introduced a chasm between alien rulers and native subjects similar to that between the Normans and the Anglo-Saxons; third, Byzantine Orthodoxy, which ushered in caesaro-papism, which negates the division of the state and church and sets the former up as the master of the latter, thus eliminating an autonomous sphere of freedom that eventually blossomed in the West; fourth, the Mongol ways, which advanced the tyrant to the position of pre-eminence in the Muscovite state system with all and sundry subordinated to the master of the Kremlin; fifth, the autocracy of the Tsar which seamlessly combined all the previous ingredients that were, sixth, largely absorbed by the totalitarian ideological state of Marxism-Leninism; and, finally, seventh, post-Communism which is a continuation of the dialectical modus operandi of the previous system complete with its re-branded institutions and personnel.

Armed with such ruthless historical legacy, the Russian Federation suavely deploys its various tools of statecraft, including its strategic communications, to achieve desired ends. While scrutinizing continuities and discontinuities of the Muscovite messaging operations, it is obvious that their nature is integrated and complementary. They serve a general strategy of Russia achieved through statecraft, where all tools of wielding power are coordinated. The objective is to keep the master of the Kremlin in power. The target of strategic messaging is both domestic and foreign audiences.  There is naturally a degree of overlap but also differentiation between various leitmotifs of official propaganda depending on the topic, circumstances, needs, and nature of the audience to be influenced.

The ideas behind Moscow’s strategic communications freely mix dogmatism and pragmatism.  When hard pressed by the armies of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Ivan the Terrible turned to the Pope for help promising to convert to Roman Catholicism, and the Roman Pontiff prevailed on King Stephan Bathory to desist his offensive thus allowing the Muscovite ruler promptly to renege on his promise and strike westward.  In a similar vein, “Uncle Joe” Stalin worked his churlish magic on FDR duping him into supporting the allegedly “democratic” Soviet Union against the Third Reich in an enduring Wilsonian quest to “make the world safe for democracy.” As soon as the Nazi threat receded, the Communists set out to enslave Central and Eastern Europe and as much of the world as they could. Thus, pragmatism is dialectically deployed to achieve dogmatic ends.

There are a number of persistent themes in Russian propaganda. The main one is that Russia is always right. By extension, Moscow’s “Main Enemy,” the United States, is always wrong unless it does what the Kremlin says. But a plethora of false notes supports the mendacious main message. The most important are as follows:

  • All is Russia (“All the Russias”) (hence, Siberia is Russia; Ukraine is Russia, and so is the “near abroad,” that means the Baltics, Caucasus, and Central Asia);
  • Russia is peace (i.e., all Russia does is to expedite peace; so called “peace offensive”);
  • Russia is always the victim (everyone wants to harm Russia);
  • Russia is always invaded (never mind that there have been only perhaps four major invasions of the Muscovite state in the past 400 years);
  • Russia is surrounded (hence, all its moves are defensive in nature);
  • Russia is special (Third Rome, “Holy Russia,” Slavophilism, Pan-Slavism, Communism, and now “sovereign democracy.”)
  • Russia is different and needs order, otherwise anarchy breaks out (again: “sovereign democracy.” Therefore, Western norms apply not to Moscow);
  • Russia is the guardian of civilization (Orthodoxy, Christianity; now decent civilization vs. the Sodom and Gomorrah of San Francisco). Thus, Russia has become a beacon of hope and decency to many right-wingers, nationalist radicals, and even some conservatives (from Pat Buchanan to Marine Le Pen). Incidentally, this narrative assists in Moscow’s influence operations, e.g. funding of Europe’s political parties;
  • Russia is the pivot of stability (this originated in the Concert of Europe and the Holy Alliance after 1815 and was explicated geopolitically by Sir Halford Mackinder, becoming eventually the State Department mantra); and,
  • Russia always fights fascism (e.g., a reoccurring narrative deployed in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, and resurrected in Ukraine in 2014-now).

One may just as well quip that the Kremlin’s strategic messaging boils down to the slogan: “We beat Hitler, we fly the Sputnik, and we excel at ballet.”

Unless we re-learn the lessons hard learned and quickly forgotten after the Cold War, we shall be duped over and over again.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is a Professor of History at the Institute of World Politics, A Graduate School of National Security and International Affairs in Washington, DC, where he also holds the Kościuszko Chair in Polish Studies. Professor Chodakiewicz is author of Intermarium: The Land between the Black and Baltic Seas and teaches a seminar on the history of the Muslim world at Patrick Henry College. He is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.