Russian Subversion of Western Democracies is Old News

The media hullabaloo notwithstanding, the alleged “revelations” about the Russian hacking of the US presidential election have revealed precious little that is substantively new. Which is precisely why we should be concerned.

The hacking of the DNC was part of a cyberwarfare operation against Western democracies that Russia has been pursuing for at least a decade.  Among many other assaults, it has included the 2007 cyberattack that paralyzed the Estonian government; the cyberattacks that presaged Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008; the crashing of Ukraine’s power grid in 2015; the cyberattacks that wreaked havoc on Bulgarian elections in 2015; and the preparations for hacking the German parliamentary election this year.

“Fake news,” too, is a long-standing and very well-documented strategy. Like hacking, it is aimed at eroding the legitimacy of democratic institutions and procedures. During the Soviet Union, disinformatsia was one of the KGB’s key “active measures” against the West. In August 1987, the State Department even issued a report on the issue. On its cover was a cartoon from a Soviet publication depicting a Pentagon general buying the AIDS virus.

As a student in the KGB’s post-graduate Yuri Adropov Red Banner Institute, Vladimir Putin undoubtedly studied these techniques. An ardent Soviet patriot, he has simply adapted the disinformatsia to new conditions, skillfully exploiting both the dizzying multiplicity of venues offered by the Internet, and the “post-modern” attitudes in the West, especially among elite media and intellectuals – the erosion of the moral certitudes of “right” and “wrong” as well as of the very notion of factually verifiable “truth,” as opposed to allegedly “value-laden interpretations.”

The DNC hack, and other possible involvement in the US election, undoubtedly started as a just another instance of a broad assault on Western democratic institutions. It was not until later that a more precise targeting of Hillary Clinton emerged: not only was she more hawkish on Russia than Donald Trump, who is strangely enamored of  Putin, but the Kremlin bore a grudge against her for allegedly organizing the anti-Putin demonstrations in the winter of 2011-2012.

Yet it is precisely the routine nature of the larger operation that ought to bother us far more than its current “American” instance. Facing very uncertain economic prospects, the Putin regime is basing its legitimacy on three pillars of the monopolistic propaganda: the defense of the motherland against alleged Western plots against Russia’s sovereignty, the brilliance of Putin’s foreign policy successes, and the relentless besmirching of Western democracies  In this latter narrative,  Russia is a separate civilization-state whose values are different – and superior– to those of the “barren and neutered” West.

Americans tend to take notice of broader social, political, and economic phenomena sweeping the world only when they begin to affect them directly. Alas, there is nothing sensational about the Russian election hack. It’s just that the film, made by the Putin Universal Studios, has begun playing at a theater near you.

This piece originally appeared at AEI.

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