Pat Buchanan, that relic of days gone by, penned an article as to whether alt-right god and emperor Donald Trump can avoid Cold War II. The article, besides being a huge running apology for everything Putin has done, misses the point entirely. We are already in another Cold War with Russia and have been since Putin assumed power in Russia. Ironically, he may have inadvertently stumbled upon something, but his reasoning is wrong.
Putin has engaged in a strategy called “non-linear war,” which was first espoused by one of his leading advisers- Vladislav Surkov. This is a war to be won decisively with no bargaining or negotiation. The conflicts in the Ukraine, Georgia, the Balkans, Syria and Turkey all are part of this war. The United States views these as different conflicts when, to Putin, they are all part of a single war.
And Russia is using everything at its disposal- the military, technology, information and disinformation, propaganda, political power, economic power where feasible and even the apparatus of the Russian criminal system- to achieve its goals. Unlike the old Cold War, the goal is not to install pro-Russian regimes, but to replace Western-style democracies with populist or nationalist regimes. Hence, this is not about manipulating traditional political alliances, but merely to create political outcomes conducive to the Kremlin. It is cheaper and easier than outright military action in achieving its goals.
In Europe, the problem is particularly acute since NATO is designed to address a tank-led invasion with the specter of nuclear weapons always lurking in the background. Instead, Putin’s Russia has embarked on a program of political warfare which focuses on weaknesses in the perceived enemy and exploits them. This form of guerrilla geopolitics is designed by the Kremlin to address a world order that Russia views as irksome to their desires and interests.
The most important tool in this new model is informational warfare. But Russia has transformed the old propaganda paradigm into something completely different. Formerly, their propaganda was designed to create an alternate truth- the propaganda of the old Cold War. In the new one, the “propaganda” is designed to erode an ability to distinguish truth at all. They call it “active measures” and “reflexive control.” The goal, unlike the old Cold War, is not the destruction of a perceived “enemy,” but an eroding of values and principles. Viewed in this light, Russian strategy under Putin makes sense in the fact that whether talking about the annexation of the Crimea, Russian dalliance in eastern Ukraine, destabilization in Moldova, Syria and the European refugee crisis, this is a single unified war using a variety of tactics and very little use of hard military power.
In reflexive theory, control can be asserted by eliciting reflexive, unconscious reactions from the targeted group. Hence, Putin’s actions in the Ukraine, Moldova and Syria, for example, appear to have no rhyme or reason unless we take a different view of his true target. He is not targeting a pro-Western government in the Ukraine or insurgents in Syria. The real target is the West itself and thus far the West has responded exactly as reflexive control theory would suggest. Putin’s greatest impediment is the Western security architecture with the United States being the bedrock of that architecture.
The best way to attack and weaken that architecture is not to form some new pro-Russian diplomatic and military bloc of power. Instead, the goal is to undermine the strength of Western institutions by creating alternate, temporary and limited centers of power. Instead of a stable world order with the United States and its allies providing the framework, the goal is a new unstable world order where “all against all” instead of “us against them” is the rule. This is done by either inflaming crises (such as the refugee crisis in Europe), or settling crises much as they have done in Syria. It is all done with the goal of demonstrating that they- Russia, not the West- can solve these crises. It is not the Western alliances that can impose stability; it is Putin’s Russia.
And in the end, they have proven that hard military action is also part of the new Cold War. Despite a weakened economy, Russia still has a formidable military that they have updated. They used it in 2008 in Georgia to disrupt NATO expansion, they used it in the Ukraine to thwart a pro-Western government, and they are certainly using it in Syria to prove they, unlike Obama and his fake “red lines,” is willing to back up their rhetoric. If Russia’s economy was stronger and more closely linked to the world financial structure, they would be more vulnerable to diplomatic pressure. But under Putin, their bunker style mentality that recognizes they are in a war whereas the West refuses to see a new Cold War has largely immunized Russia.
Part of the blame goes back to 2001 and the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Russia offered a helping hand in fighting terrorism which the Bush administration rebuffed given Russia’s brutal actions in Chechnya. There is no denying that this infuriated Putin. This was the best opportunity to squelch the flames of a new Cold War. Whatever the reasons for the rebuff (many have said it was for the right reasons), the world has not been the same since.
After 2001, Putin and Russia embarked on a campaign to undermine the beliefs that define America- our rights and freedoms we feel essential to democracy. It is a campaign of information and disinformation to prove these ideals do not exist. Putin is the ultimate disruptor defined as “hacker,” “mercenary,” “rule breaker,” “liar,” and “thief.” In fact, he is all these things by design. As a result, he ensures that Russia is not excluded as a global power.
It is no coincidence that Putin and Russia remained relatively quiet from 2001 to 2008 as he consolidated power domestically. The second opportunity to thwart Russian designs was in 2008-2009 with the invasion of Georgia and the non-response from the United States. The recent controversy over Russian hacking is designed to portray Trump as a dupe of Putin when, in fact, the Obama administration and their non-reactions to Russian aggression- predicted by Russian reflex control theory- makes Obama, Clinton and Kerry the real dupes of Russian geopolitical strategy whether they realize it or not.
The old paradigm is that the world order was built on the backs of American sweat and ingenuity, blood and sacrifice. It was built on American exceptionalism. Putin’s design is to erase that history. Putin’s design is not to project some aspirational national character, but to keep Russia unique and distinct. In effect, Putin has deftly ushered in a new era of uncertainty and upheaval. In 2016, that mood reached American shores and was adopted and used by Donald Trump. In effect, he stole a trick from the Putin playbook and used it to win the Presidency.
Putin has shrewdly spent 15 years saying the West wants a new Cold War. The result is predictable under reflex control theory. We have so denied it (the Clinton reset) that we now take it as gospel. Losing the ideological war without a fight- something that defines the Obama administration- reveals an important lesson: it ruins you as a nation on the international stage. When we stop fighting for American ideals and exceptionalism abroad, we stop fighting for them domestically.
Russia and Putin realize that economically and militarily, the old world order thinking of us against them will leave them in the dust. But if it is an “all against all” world of instability and shifting alliances, they keep their seat at the table.
And the Russian people? Appealing to their “better” instincts will not depose Putin. In the past 400 years of Russian history, 375 of them have been spent under authoritarian rule- first by the Romanov dynasty followed by 75 years of Communism. Pumping disinformation into Russia will do little to thwart Putin and cause an uprising against him.
Instead, the best strategy is to develop a comprehensive plan to thwart his ambitions on the world stage. And the Left has been complicit in Putin’s strategy. For years they have been advocating for world governance, for limiting Judeo-Christian values, and suppressing assimilation in favor of a multicultural policy. All of these in Putin’s view are weaknesses to be exploited.
Although this writer doubts that Donald Trump has the foresight and intelligence, perhaps he is the person who actually can start to win this new Cold War. If anything, his rise to the Presidency has been asymmetric. Whether cognizant of the fact or not, he took advantage of the very things that Putin wishes to project himself as being the protector of- assimilation, a nationalist agenda and character, rejection of world governance, and getting back to basic values.
During the campaign, foreign affairs experts said the only thing predictable about a Trump foreign policy was its unpredictability. To some this was written off as naivete, stupidity or worse. Not a fan of Trump, it probably is a combination of both and more. But ironically, the unpredictability may be the biggest strength in fighting an asymmetrical war. How Trump deals with Putin and Russia deserves to be watched closely if America is destined to remain a world leader and the ultimate protector of Western values.