Donald Trump may well be miscast as the “Manchurian Candidate”, but the Russian bear has been actively sticking its paws into politics in Europe and the USA – and it’s paying off.
Two long-term objectives of Russian foreign policy have been to destabilise and weaken the European Union and Nato.
Brexit has gone some way to achieving the first and if the Trump presidency delivers on his campaign rhetoric, then his election victory may well be the harbinger of the latter.
It certainly appears that a Trump presidency, with its “America First” mantra, is likely to be less engaged on the international stage, less actively supportive of traditional alliances and perhaps more inclined towards a return to a spheres of influence global perspective.
The European Union faces further potentially disruptive challenges, with a referendum in Italy and an Austrian presidential vote this week and elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany next year, all set against the backdrop of surging nationalist and populist parties.
Vladimir Putin must be quite pleased. Though not surprised, considering the extent of deliberate Russian interference designed to disrupt and destabilise.
Russia are past masters at using their intelligence networks to deploy dirty tricks and promote propaganda to wrong foot the west. Perhaps one of the more notorious being the Gorbachev era planting of news stories blaming HIV on American biological warfare experiments.
There are well documented hard-wired connections between Russia and members of the Trump campaign team and opaque financial links between Russia and Trump’s businesses. Seventeen US intelligence agencies have concluded Russia hacked Democrat emails to feed Wikileaks in an attempt to influence the US election. Russia swamped social media networks with fake news stories during the campaign.
Russia is bank rolling European nationalist and populist groups and populating their networks with misinformation.
Angela Merkel has accused Russia of instigating internet attacks and misinformation campaigns. The head of German intelligence has said Russia is seeking “to influence public opinion and decision making processes” prior to Germany’s elections.
However, it is sobering to consider whether the actions of Western governments and their overtures eastwards have been influential in provoking Putin into a more proactive poise in Russia’s destabilisation efforts.
In the optimistic afterglow of the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the former Soviet bloc the Cold War was declared won and the concept of spheres of influence overlooked, if not forgotten altogether, as the West started its eastwards influence grab. Indeed, one of the big geo-political stories of the last decade and a half has been the steady eastward expansion of both the European Union and Nato, as ever more former Warsaw Pact and Soviet bloc countries became members.
Not too long ago Ukraine and the EU shared a policy objective of their accession to EU membership. In 2008, Ukraine applied to join Nato. It is perhaps hardly surprising that Russia began to feel increasingly under siege.
The fact that Western leaders overlooked or chose to ignore Russia’s strategic concerns is testament either to a lack of strategic foresight among Western policy makers, or an overly-bombastic and triumphalist view of a post Berlin wall world where Russia has been seen as a busted flush.
Turning a blind eye to the effect on the Russian psyche has proven short sighted.
Ukraine’s re-positioning towards the West was always going to be deeply problematic for Putin. For a nation that since Peter the Great has been obsessed with access to warm water ports, the prospect of losing Sevastapol – home of the Black Sea fleet – and access to the oil and gas resources of Crimea was a non-starter.
For Putin, the annexation of the Crimea was a defensive play. As a former KGB agent, he has chosen to strike back using favoured weapons, straight out of that agency’s tradecraft and long embedded in Russian doctrine – Maskirovka; the art of deception and disinformation.
He has certainly been helped by the turmoil that followed the financial crisis of 2008, which left the political establishment in Europe and the USA floundering, struggling to grasp and grapple with the economic fallout.
The financial pain felt by the many contrasts starkly with the continuing financial gain of the few, who are seen culpable for the crash. It has created a large group of disaffected and disillusioned people, who feel increasingly ignored and disenfranchised. It has also prompted many to question the capability and capacity of elites to answer the fundamental inequalities and schisms the crisis has exposed.
Added to this, foreign policy failures across the Middle East have caused the cancer of jihadi extremism to metastasise, infecting Europe and the USA and deepened feelings of insecurity.
As a consequence, confidence in existing elites, organisations and structures has been undermined and exploited by populist and ultra-nationalist movements who proffer simplistic solutions.
For Putin, feeding rumour and misinformation to these groups and using them as channels to wider public networks is straight from the KGB playbook, spread via the pipeline of the internet and amplified through social media.
The West sees its open communication systems as one of its core values and strengths. For the Russian regime, which closely controls public communications channels, the internet and media, it is seen as a weakness – a chink in the armour – and is being ruthlessly targeted with planned precision to poison and pollute public debate.
The authority of traditional mainstream news and information channels has been undermined as they have become labelled creatures of the established elite and defenders of the status quo.
In such a pungent post truth, fake news world, facts, data, evidence and expertise have become the mistrusted, inconvenient and ignored counters to visceral emotion driven assertion and commentary. In such an environment, it is easy for planned, coordinated misinformation campaigns to hold sway.
It is time for Europe and the USA to wake up to the intensity and intent of Russia’s interference.
Mark Hastings is a Business and Political Commentator.