In a new book, Timothy Snyder explains how Russia revolutionized information warfare—and presages its consequences for democracies in Europe and the United States.
When Westerners first began to hear of Vladimir Putin’s troll army—now some five years ago—the project sounded absurd. President Obama in March 2014 had dismissed Russia as merely a weak “regional power.” And Putin’s plan to strike back was to hire himself a bunch of internet commenters? Seriously?
.. historian Timothy Snyder observed that Russia’s annual budget for cyberwarfare is less than the price of a single American F-35 jet. Snyder challenged his audience to consider: Which weapon has done more to shape world events?.. Amid the collapse of the Soviet state, canny survivors of the old regime seized valuable assets. Yeltsin secured their new wealth; they secured Yeltsin’s power... Yeltsin elevated Putin as his deputy, then resigned in his favor. Putin faced the electorate in 2000 supported by all the power and money commanded by a Russian incumbent. Public opinion was consolidated by a conveniently timed series of murderous terrorist bombings. Number Snyder among those Western experts who strongly suspect that the bombings were organized by the Russian authorities themselves to legitimate Putin’s accession... He promoted ideologies that Snyder inventively describes as schizo-fascism: “actual fascists calling their opponents ‘fascists,’ blaming the Holocaust on the Jews, treating the Second World War as an argument for more violence.” Putin’s favored ideologist, Alexander Dugin, “could celebrate the victory of fascist in fascist language while condemning as ‘fascist’ his opponents.”.. In this new schizo-fascism, homosexuals played the part assigned to Jews by the fascists of earlier eras. Democratic societies were branded by Russian TV as “homodictatorships.”.. When Ukrainians protested against faked elections and the murder of protesters, Russian TV told viewers, “The fact that the first and most zealous integrators [with the European Union] in Ukraine are sexual perverts has long been known.”.. Putin himself struck more macho poses and wore outfits more butch than all the stars of the Village People combined... “Putin was offering masculinity as an argument against democracy.”.. it all started with the August 2012 law outlawing advocacy of gay rights... Even as Russian troops in Russian uniforms seized the peninsula, Putin denied anything was happening at all. Anyone could buy a uniform in a military surplus store. Russia was the victim, not the aggressor. “The war was not taking place; but were it taking place, America was to be blamed.”.. Snyder identifies a new style of rhetoric: implausible deniability. “According to Russian propaganda,
- Ukrainian society was full of nationalists but not a nation;
- the Ukrainian state was repressive but did not exist;
- Russians were forced to speak Ukrainian though there was no such language.”
Russian TV told wild lies. It invented a fake atrocity story of a child crucified by Ukrainian neo-Nazis—while blaming upon Ukrainians the actual atrocity of the shooting down of a Malaysian civilian airliner by a Russian ground-to-air missile.
Russia’s most important weapon in its war on factuality was less old-fashioned official mendacity than the creation of an alternative reality (or more exactly, many contradictory alternatives, all of them Putin-serving). “Russia generated tropes targeted at what cyberwar professionals called ‘susceptibilities’: what people seem likely to believe given their utterances and behavior.
.. “The Russian economy did not have to produce anything of material value, and did not. Russian politicians had to use technologies created by others to alter mental states, and did.”
.. Snyder cites repeated examples of journalists in prominent platforms, trusted by left-of-center readerships, whose reporting seemed to support Russian claims that Ukraine had become a romper room for neo-Nazis—or alternatively to “the green flag of jihad.”
.. Many of these reports cited second- and third-hand sources, some of whom disappeared untraceably after depositing their testimonies on Facebook.
Hard-left and alt-right social-media trolls then tidied up after the reporters, belittling claims that the original sources were disinformation.
.. Trump in Snyder’s telling was not the successful businessman he performed in his TV non-reality series, The Apprentice, but an American loser who became a Russian tool. “Russian money had saved him from the fate that would normally await anyone with his record of failure.”
.. . His first big foreign-policy speech of the election campaign—viewed from a reserved front-row seat by the Russian ambassador to the United States—was reportedly ghostwritten in considerable part by Richard Burt, a former American diplomat then under contract to a Russian gas company. (Burt has denied this attribution).
.. Snyder sees Trump as very much a junior partner in a larger Russian project, less a cause, more an effect.
.. slowly before Trump—and rapidly after Trump—America is becoming like Russia: a country on a path to economic oligarchy and distorted information.
.. Trump’s attitude to truth again and again reminds Snyder of the Russian ruling elite: The Russian television network RT “wished to convey that all media lied, but that only RT was honest by not pretending to be truthful.”