While post-election media coverage of Russian involvement in U.S. politics focused on a Democratic Party belief that Russian President Vladimir Putin somehow tipped the scales against Hillary Clinton’s billion dollar presidential campaign, detailed studies show that the Kremlin has a greater interest in potential challenges to Gazprom’s profitability and has focused its propaganda efforts on influencing American policy makers to reject fracking and thus promote the dominance of Russia’s natural gas industry.
The Cold War was a confrontation of ideas that were vigorously transmitted by a propaganda machine that was well funded, effective and often covert. This was an apparatus which worked assiduously to spread disinformation such as the claim that AIDs was a disease created by the Pentagon.
Yet, the Soviet-era propaganda effort pales in comparison with the endeavors of contemporary Russia to use not only Radio Moscow but an array of social media outlets to vilify Russia’s East European adversaries and their Western supporters. In the postmortem of Clinton’s second failed presidential campaign, Moscow has been given credit for creation of six months of “fake news” stories that presumably turned voters against the former Secretary of State. Even more elaborate claims are made that perhaps Putin himself tailored a subtle campaign that swayed millions of voters to embrace Donald Trump over Clinton for the American presidency.
Although millions of dollars are devoted to the crafting of appeals for various candidates, it is unlikely that the Kremlin propaganda apparatus is so effective as to outmaneuver a presidential campaign bolstered with over a billion dollars. However, without a doubt, Putin’s propaganda machine can certainly outpace the traditional tools of Soviet disinformation.
In Putin’s Propaganda Machine: Soft Power and Russian Foreign Policy, Marcel H. Van Herpen provides a comprehensive outline of current Russian efforts that are more elaborate and effective than any of Moscow’s Cold War-era campaigns. The book is structured around three basic themes. The first is an examination of Russian soft power and its incorporation of this concept as part of Russia’s official rhetoric. The notion of soft power is not new and is certainly a fundamental part of Western political discourse but the Russian version is redefined as “hard power in a velvet glove.”
Van Herpen identifies three components of this soft power concept.
The first of these – “nimesis” – is the copying of Western public diplomacy; the second – “rollback” – is an effort to challenge Western initiatives such as the U.S. Department of State’s declarations about Syria; and, the final one – “invention” – is the duplication of Western approaches to propaganda by actually hiring Western public relations firms and purchasing failing newspapers such as UK’s Independent and the Parisian France-Soir. This endeavor also includes the cultivation of Russian social media, financing foreign political parties, and, in sharp contrast to Western notions of soft power, the utilization of espionage.
The second theme is developed around Putin’s creation of a “new ideology” for advancement of Russian interests. During its socialist phase Marxism-Leninism poorly served Moscow’s interests and always represented an alien presence in the political, social, and cultural environment. By contrast, the Russian Orthodox Church blends a traditional Russian cultural value with Moscow’s state policy and serves as a reminder of the extent to which the Orthodox Church now, as during World War Two, is subordinate to the Kremlin. As a new state ideology, Orthodoxy taps into consistent Russian homophobic, anti-democratic and anti-Western sentiments. With this, the Kremlin advances the Orthodox Church as a global church that can spread Russian influence beyond its traditional borders. Much of the funding for this effort comes from Russian oligarchs, who actively sponsor the church by building impressive cathedrals in relatively out of the way places such as Tiraspol in Moldova’s secessionist Dniester Moldovan Republic. The Orthodox Church is a major beneficiary of Kremlin policies such as the suppression of “non-Russian” denominations.
As his third theme, “invention,” Van Herpen explores Putin’s strategic efforts to undermine the Atlantic alliance by embracing Germany and France in opposition to U.S. policy. He credits Putin’s information war with advancing the Kremlin’s “Two Triangles” strategy, which aims at creation of two alliance patterns: first, Moscow-Beijing-New Delhi and, second, Moscow-Berlin-Paris. Explicit Russian programs have developed two themes. The first exploits Russian admiration for traditional German “virtues,” while the second encourages a dismissal of the Soviet-era denigration of Germans as brutal aggressors and calls attention to the historical era in which Bismarck’s Germany cooperated with Tsarist Russia. Russian admiration for all things German has been cultivated by the Eurasianist scholar Alexander Dugin who is noted for his “fascist” views, advocacy of Russian military moves into the “Near Abroad,” and a growing recognition of the two nations’ economic interdependence. Germany has reciprocated by its formation of an influential pro-Russian business lobby.
The French response to the Russian initiative has been reflected in the 2010 proclamation of a “Russian Year” in France and the French sale of its “Mistral” helicopter to Russia. This exchange was the most important Russian defense purchase ever from a NATO member. With arrangements completed for the building of a Russian Orthodox seminary near the Eiffel Tower and growing speculation about an exclusive EU-Russia security committee, there is little doubt about the success of Putin’s strategic initiative. Even France’s once reliably anti-Russian extreme right has been surprisingly sanguine about these developments.
Equally illuminating is Van Herpen’s treatment of Russian success in what he refers to as “reputation laundering,” a process which involves the Kremlin’s utilization of Western companies that would never have worked for the Soviet Union. With the end of the Cold War, Russia’s apparent rejection of Marxism-Leninism and its self-proclaimed entry into the community of Western-style democracies, the Russian government now has access to lobbying firms normally used by American interest groups. Van Herpen observes that “in the ‘normalized’ post-Soviet world, the Kremlin gained access to the most prestigious lobbying and communications firms.” (Page 48) Such firms employ former politicians and officials who have routine and comfortable access to current officials who formulate policy for the United States and other Western democracies.
Russian interests enjoy the services of prominent individuals, such as former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger, James Baker and George Schultz, who are untroubled by concerns about Russian human rights policies, military aggression against former Soviet republics, or even the attempted assassination of Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko. Over the years Kissinger has been effusive about Putin himself and repeatedly expressed his preference for the stability of a repressive empire over any prospects for democratic change in the former communist party states. There is no doubt that the Russians have gotten the lobbying services for which they have paid. One especially valuable benefit came in 2013 when a Russian employed lobby arranged for Putin to place an Op-ed in the New York Times, wherein Putin could make the case against American intervention in Syria. Even former Republican Senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole has been enlisted as a highly paid lobbyist for a Russian oligarch seeking a visa to visit the U.S.
The objectives of the Kremlin propaganda campaign are remarkably transparent and effective. The essence of soft power, as Van Herpen notes, is the power of attraction and Russia’s leadership must employ Western communications firms to create a good reputation among foreign investors. Given the current poor view of Russia as an investment opportunity, there is considerable room for improvement and the wealth that investments will bring to Russia. Profit rather than morality motivates such firms in their services to enable dubious clients to more effectively sell dubious policies.
Following Donald Trump’s surprising victory over Hillary Clinton, liberal pundits and politicians raised the specter of alleged Russian involvement in the presidential election. They could not, of course, demonstrate how this might have been done. Van Herpen, however, provides details about Russian intrusion into the U.S. policy making process and demonstrates the manner in which the Kremlin does this. His analysis is convincing, clarifies the explicit nature of the Kremlin’s actions and reveals a working methodology that has no relevance for electoral politics. The attraction of this methodology for the Kremlin bosses is obvious because these activities – unlike a presidential election campaign – are not apparent to the American public. The most effective manipulation of our politics is that which cannot be easily observed.
In the days following the election, we were treated to innumerable fanciful notions of Kremlin agents managing the campaign narrative and somehow manipulating vote totals in key blue states. While Putin’s Propaganda Machine demonstrates that Russian interference in U.S. politics is a grim fact of our political life, that interference has a completely different focus from that envisioned by the bitter losers of 2016, who hope to score partisan benefits by examining the Russian role in U.S. politics.
Stephen R. Bowers, Ph.D. is a professor of government in the Helms School of Government at Liberty University. Professor Bowers is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis of the conservative-online-journalism center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.