In the context of the distinction between the hegemony of the liberal international order and the dominion of the Atlantic power system, both Russia and China reaffirm their commitment to the normative principles underlying the international system as it developed after the Second World War. These include the primacy of state sovereignty, territorial integrity, the significance of international law and the centrality of the United Nations (Wilson 2019). However, both are challenger powers in two respects: first, in questioning the assertive universalism that was radicalised at the end of the Cold War, including various practices of humanitarian intervention and democracy promotion, accompanied by regime change strategies; and second, dissatisfaction with the existing distribution of power in the international system, hence challenge American primacy and hegemonic practices. This combination of commitment to the international system but challenges to the pre-eminence of a particular order in that system is what renders the two states neo-revisionist rather than outright revisionist powers. To label them as such is a category error, with grave and dangerous policy consequences.
This error has now become enshrined doctrinally. The US National Security Strategy (2015) already warned that Washington ‘will continue to impose significant costs on Russia through sanctions’ and would ‘deter Russian aggression’. Trump’s proclaimed intention of improving relations with Russia provoked a storm of hostility in which Republican neo-conservatives and Democrat liberal internationalists united to stymie moves in that direction. This is why the US National Security Strategy (2017, p. 25), at the end of Trump’s first year in power, warned against the ‘revisionist powers of China and Russia’, ranked alongside the ‘rogue powers of Iran and North Korea’ and the ‘transnational threat organisations, particularly jihadist groups’. The National Defense Strategy (2018, p. 2) also identified Russia and China as revisionist states, seeking ‘to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model—gaining veto authority over other nation’s economic, diplomatic and security decisions’. The emergence of challengers undoubtedly came as a shock for a power and normative system that had enjoyed largely unquestioned pre-eminence. Responses to that shock range from intensified neo-conservative militarism, democratic internationalist intensification of ideological struggle to delegitimise Russia’s aspirations, as well as an increasingly vocal ‘realist’ call for a return to the diplomatic practices of pre-Cold War sovereign internationalism.
The first two responses make common cause against Russia’s perceived revisionist challenge and have mobilised a network of think tanks and strategies against Russia’s instruments of subversion. The far from exhaustive list presented here indicates the scope of Moscow’s armoury of subversion, as well as the methodological and practical problems in assessing their scale, motivation and effect. The first is support for insurgent populist movements in the West. Russia rides the wave of populist and nationalist insurgency, but it does not mean either that Russia is the main instigator or beneficiary. The Russian leadership has long complained about the ‘hermetic’ character of the Atlantic power system and thus welcomes the breach in the impregnable walls of rectitude created from within by the various national populisms of left and right. In other words, Moscow perceives national populist insurgency as a struggle for ideational pluralism within the liberal international order, but above all as allies in the struggle for geostrategic pluralism against the monism of the Atlantic power system. Russia supports some of these movements, but not to the extent of jeopardising the existing structures of the international system. Once again, the tempered challenge of neo-revisionism predominates over the insurrectionary behaviour that would characterise a genuinely revisionist power.
The Alliance for Securing Democracy identified at least 60 instances of Russia funding political campaigns beyond its borders, although many of the cases are circumstantial (Foer 2020). In his notorious interview with the Financial Times on the eve of the Osaka G20 summit in June 2019, Putin asserted that ‘the liberal idea’ has ‘outlived its purpose’ as publics turned against immigration, open borders and multiculturalism, but he immediately brought in the structural context: ‘[Liberals] cannot simply dictate anything to anyone just like they have been attempting to do over recent decades’ (Barber and Foy 2019, p. 1). The Kremlin has gone out of its way to identify with right wing (and occasionally left wing) ‘populists’ who argue for a revision of the EU’s relations with Russia, including a dismantling of the sanctions regime. Thus, in the 2017 French presidential election Putin welcomed the head of National Rally (formerly the Front National) Marine Le Pen to Moscow, a move that still attracts widespread condemnation in France. Earlier, a Russian bank had made a €9.4 million loan to her party. Even this needs to be seen in context. Putin’s favoured candidate in the 2017 French presidential election was not Le Pen but the more conventional social conservative François Fillon. When the latter’s campaign as the nominee of the traditional Gaullist party imploded, Moscow was left bereft of a mainstream candidate calling for a revision of the post-Cold War dominion strategy. As for the funding for Le Pen, the loan was called in prematurely, and the bank was closed down as part of the Central Bank of Russia’s attempt to clean up the financial sector.
As for Italy, the leader of the Lega (formerly Lega Nord) party, Matteo Salvini, was one of the strongest advocates of resetting relations with Russia as he entered government following the March 2018 elections as part of the coalition with the Five Star Movement. The relationship was no more than a ‘marriage of convenience’, with Moscow only engaged to the extent that it could advance the goal of weakening the EU’s sanctions regime (Makarychev and Terry 2020). In a subsequent scandal, one of Salvini’s closest associates and the president of Lombardy Russia, Gianluca Savoini, was taped talking in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow about an illicit scheme to funnel funds through oil sales to support the League’s electoral campaigns (Nardelli 2019). On his visit to the Vatican in July 2019 Putin met with the national populists, or otherwise put, the geopolitical revisionists. This was his third meeting with Pope Francis, and Putin sounded more Catholic than the Pope: ‘Sometimes I get the feeling that these liberal circles are beginning to use certain elements and problems of the Catholic Church as a tool for destroying the Church itself’ (Horowitz 2019).
The substantive issue remains. National populists in the West repudiate much of the social liberalism that has now become mainstream, but most also reject the geopolitical orthodoxy that in their view has provoked the Second Cold War with Russia. On that basis there is clearly common cause between the populist insurgency in Europe and the Kremlin. For defenders of the liberal order, this commonality turns the populists into a Moscow-inspired fifth column. The old division between capitalist democracy and communism after the Cold War has given way to a new binary, between liberal democracy and authoritarianism. The fundamental divide shifts on to new ground, which can variously be seen as one between patriotism and cosmopolitanism, which is a variant of the tension between revived nationalist movements opposed to the erosion of state efficacy by neoliberalism within the framework of globalisation. Many share concerns about the influx of refugees and fear even greater flows of migrants in the future, which in their view will erode the civic and cultural bonds of Western societies. National populists challenge cosmopolitan liberalism (Eatwell and Goodwin 2018) and thus align with the cultural conservatism that characterises the neo-revisionist period in Russian foreign policy (Robinson 2017). In this new political spectrum, Russia emerges as an ally of the patriots and the anti-globalisers and is condemned for funding and variously supporting the anti-liberal insurgency in the West. Whole institutes (such as the Political Capital Institute in Hungary headed by Péter Krekó and the Henry Jackson Society in London) are devoted to exposing these links and the various alleged illicit cash flows and networks. There are certainly plenty of lurid tales and examples of European politicians who have been supported by factions in Russia without being transparent about these links.
However, the common anti-liberal platform with Moscow is only part of the story. The geopolitical factor is no less important, with both left and right populists rejecting elements of US dominion in the Atlantic security system, and question the wisdom of the inexorable drive to the East that inevitably alienates Russia. Here they make common cause with international relations realists as well as pragmatists like George Kennan, who in 1998 warned of the deleterious effects on European security of Moscow’s inevitable response to NATO enlargement (Friedman 1998). Today these groups are in the vanguard in calling for an end to the sanctions regime, which in their view misses the point—that Russia’s actions in Ukraine and elsewhere after 2014 was a response to the provocative actions of the Atlantic power system in the first place. In other words, anti-liberalism is only one dimension of the putative alliance between national populism in Europe and Moscow. Geopolitical revisionism is perhaps the most important one, and thus national populist movements incur the wrath of the national security establishments. In the UK this led to the creation of the Integrity Initiative and its various European and American affiliates, sponsored by the shadowy so-called Institute of Statecraft, funded by the British state.
There is a third dimension—in addition to geopolitical revisionism and anti-cosmopolitanism—in the putative alignment of national populism with Moscow, and that is the question of pluralism. Post-Cold War liberalism entered a paradoxical turn that in the end forswore the fundamental principles on which it is based—tolerance and pluralism (Horsfield 2017). In a situation where the liberal idea faced no serious domestic or geopolitical opposition, it became radicalised and thus eroded its own values. The US-led liberal international order, as suggested above, posed as synonymous with order itself. There could be no legitimate outside to its own expansive ambitions. The counterpart to universalism is monism, which eroded the coherence of liberalism in domestic and foreign policy (Sakwa 2017b, 2018b). This helps explain why relations with the EU deteriorated so drastically after 2004. The influx of East European countries accentuated monism by embracing the security guarantees offered by American dominion. Extreme partisans of this view have little time for the hegemonic normative agenda and view the EU as just part of the Atlantic alliance system, and not necessarily the most important one. They radically repudiate Gorbachevian ideas about a common European home or a greater Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok and condemn those who suggest rapprochement with Moscow as ‘Trojan horses’ (Orenstein and Keleman 2017), the name of a series of Atlantic Council reports exposing Russian contacts in the West. For them, security guarantees from Washington are the priority. Thus, pan-continental ideas gave way to an intensified Atlanticism, and dominion prevailed over hegemony. One manifestation of this was the Polish-inspired Eastern Partnership, which in the end became an instrument for the expansion of the EU’s geopolitical influence in its neighbourhood, provoking the Ukraine crisis in 2014 (Mearsheimer 2014). The European Neighbourhood Policy thereafter became more differentiated and thus accepted the pluralism that it had earlier been in danger of repudiating.
In short, geopolitical revisionist forces are at play in Europe and the USA, and Russian neo-revisionism makes common cause with them to the degree that they offer more pluralist perspectives on international politics and challenge the monist dominion of the Atlantic power system, but the degree to which Moscow supports let alone sponsors this challenge to the post-Cold War order is questionable. This links to a second form of Russian subversion, namely collusion with anti-establishment figures. The most spectacular case of this is the charge that Moscow colluded with Trump to steal the 2016 presidential election. After nearly two years of work, in March 2019 the Robert Mueller Special Counsel Report into Russiagate boldly asserted that ‘The Russian government interfered in the 2016 election in sweeping and systematic fashion’ (Mueller 2019, Vol. 1, p. 1). However, it then rather lamely conceded that ‘the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities’ (Mueller 2019, Vol. 1, pp. 5 and 173). Once again reinforcing the geopolitical concerns underlying charges of Russian subversion, the instigators of Russiagate became the heart of the ‘resistance’ to the president. Alongside credible concerns about his impact on American democratic institutions, they also opposed the rapprochement with Russia that Trump had proclaimed as one of his campaign goals. In his major foreign policy speech delivered at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington on 27 April 2016, Trump argued that ‘I believe an easing of tensions and improved relations with Russia—from a position of strength—is possible. … Common sense says this cycle of hostility must end. Some say the Russians won’t be reasonable. I intend to find out’. Trump promised that America would get ‘out of the nation-building business and instead [focus] on creating stability in the world’ (Transcript 2016). This represented a radical rethinking of foreign policy priorities, and although some of the themes had sounded before, together they challenged the foundations of the post-Cold War international order. They also suited Russia, since the expansive Atlantic system had increasingly become a matter of concern in the Kremlin. This geopolitical coincidence of interests intersected with domestic US political conflicts to create Russiagate, which stymied putative moves towards a new détente.
The third subversive strategy imputed to Russia is cyber-warfare in various forms. There are plenty of cases of Russian hacking, including the attack on the German parliament in 2015, which the German chancellor Angela Merkel condemned as ‘outrageous’, noting that it impeded her attempts ‘to have a better relationship with Russia’ (Bennhold 2020). She had been equally outraged when she discovered that her office had been bugged by the NSA. In France, 2 days before the second-round presidential vote on 7 May 2017 20,000 campaign emails from the Emmanuel Macron campaign were uploaded to Pastebin, a file-sharing site, and then posted on 4chan, an anonymous message board. The Macron team denounced Russia for a ‘high level attack’, but even the Atlantic Council reported that the relevant French security agency ‘declared that no conclusive evidence pointed to Russian groups’, and ‘that the simplicity of the attacks pointed toward an actor with lower capabilities’ (Galante and Ee 2018, p. 12). The regulation of hostile cyber activity is crucial, especially when accurate attribution is so difficult and ‘false flag’ attacks so easy.
This applies to the key Russiagate charge that Russian military intelligence (the GRU) ‘hacked’ into the server of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Democratic Campaign Congressional Committee (DCCC) and released embarrassing materials to WikiLeaks, the web-based investigative site founded by Julian Assange in 2006. The publication of the emails was allegedly coordinated in some way with the Trump team. The material revealed that the DNC opposed the campaign of the independent left-leaning senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, to ensure Clinton’s nomination. The hackers also gained access to the emails of Clinton’s campaign director, John Podesta, following a successful spearphishing email sent on 19 March 2016. The 50,000 Podesta emails exposed Clinton’s ties with Wall Street bankers, high speaking fees and apparent hypocrisy in condemning privilege while enjoying its benefits. The Russian hackers undoubtedly sought to mine political intelligence, but whether they intended specifically to help Trump is more questionable. The Mueller report detailed the specific GRU cyber-warfare units which hacked the Clinton campaign and the DNC and then released the emails through Russian-sponsored cut-outs, Guccifer 2.0 and DCLeaks, as well as WikiLeaks. These were ‘designed and timed to interfere with the 2016 US presidential election and undermine the Clinton Campaign’ (Mueller 2019, Vol. 1, p. 36).
Strikingly, the FBI or Mueller never conducted forensic examinations of their own and instead relied on CrowdStrike, a private contractor hired by the Democrats to examine their servers. The material was then published, according to the report, through DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0, ‘fictitious online personas’ created by the GRU, and later through WikiLeaks. Mueller argues that Guccifer 2.0 was the source of the emails and that he was a persona managed by Russian operators (Mueller 2019, Vol. 1, p. 47). Mueller alleges that Assange worked for or conspired with Russian agencies, but Assange states unequivocally that the Russian government was not the source of the emails, and (surprisingly), he was never questioned by Mueller. The Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) group argues that the DNC emails were physically downloaded and then transferred (by unknown persons) to WikiLeaks rather than being extruded via an electronic download (Binney and McGovern 2017). In Congressional testimony in December 2017 CrowdStrike president Shawn Henry (2017) admitted that he could not confirm that material had actually been exfiltrated from the DNC servers.
The fourth major subversive strategy is disinformation as well as media manipulation. The Internet Research Agency (IRA) based in St Petersburg deployed sock puppet accounts (trolls) and their automated versions (bots) to influence public debate by sharing accounts and voicing divisive opinions. These allegedly shaped voter preferences and depressed turnout among some key constituencies, above all people of colour, in the 2016 US election. The US Intelligence Community Assessment (2017, p. 1) on 6 January 2017 accused Russia of trying to undermine American democracy and charged with ‘high confidence’ that Putin personally ordered ‘an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election, the consistent goals of which were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency’. The ICA was issued in the name of 17 intelligence agencies, although later it became clear that it had been prepared by a ‘hand-picked’ group selected by Office of the DNI head, James Clapper (Full Transcript 2017). The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (2020, Vol. 4, p. 6) in April 2020 issued its fourth report in its Russia investigation arguing that ‘the ICA presents a coherent and well-constructed basis for the case of unprecedented Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election’, a view that is at odds with most commentary on what is usually considered a slipshod and poorly sourced document (for a summary of critiques, see McCarthy 2019, 2020; Gessen 2017).
The coronavirus pandemic in 2020 prompted a new wave of criticism of Russia’s disinformation efforts. The Strategic Communications and Analysis division of the European External Action Service, colloquially known as EUvsDisinfo, identified a ‘trilateral convergence of disinformation narratives’ being promoted by China, Iran and Russia (Jozwiak 2020). The work of EUvsDisinfo work was examined by the Reframing Russia group at the University of Manchester (Hutchings and Tolz 2020). They examined the specific stories that had been identified as disinformation, and took a broader look at reportage of the pandemic on Russian television, in particular on Channel 1. They found that ‘there was little sign here of the coordinated pro-Kremlin “conspiracy theory propaganda” flagged by EUvsDisinfo’. They went further to note that its misrepresentation of Russian Covid-19 coverage was ‘troubling’ in two respects. First, through ‘omission’, with sentences taken out of context and ‘rephrased in the form of summaries and headlines which make them sound particularly outrageous’. The second way is through ‘blatant distortion’. For example, EUvsDisinfo claimed that Sputnik Latvia stated that ‘Covid-19 had been designed specifically to kill elderly people’, whereas in fact the article had ridiculed such conspiracy theories and highlighted ‘their idiocy’. Reframing Russia questioned EUvsDisinfo’s methodology, assuming that ‘random websites without any traceable links to Russian state structures’ were analogous to state-funded media agencies, and that all were part of a coordinated Kremlin-run campaign. It even included ‘conspirological, far-right websites which are actually critical of Putin’. They conclude that ‘EUvsDisinfo’s headlines and summaries border on disinformation’. Examination of the source material ‘cited by EUvsDisinfo demonstrates that the Russian state is, in fact, not targeting Western countries with an organised campaign around the current public health crisis’. They ask how a situation was created in which ‘an EU-funded body set up to fight disinformation ends up producing it’. Reframing Russia advances two hypotheses to explain how things could be got so wrong. The first is ‘a profound misunderstanding of how the media in neo-authoritarian systems such as Russia’s work’, with not everything managed by the Kremlin. Second, ‘The outsourcing of services by state institutions to third parties without a proper assessment of their qualifications to do the required work’, In the case of EUvsDisinfo, research is outsourced to some 400 volunteers, who are ‘operating in a post-Soviet space saturated … by anti-Russian attitudes’.
It is in this context that a burgeoning literature examines possible responses. An article in Foreign Policy in July 2019 argued that ‘Moscow now acts regularly against US interests with impunity’. The question, in the view of the author, was how to rebuild deterrence—‘how to get Putin to start fearing the United States again’. The problem was defined in broad terms: ‘how to convince Putin that he can’t afford to keep trying to disrupt the global order and undermine the United States, the West, and democracy itself’. The charge list was a long one:
Over the last decade, Putin has provoked Washington again and again: by invading Georgia, annexing Crimea, attacking Ukraine, assassinating opponents at home and abroad, and interfering in elections throughout the West. In each case the underwhelming US response helped convince Putin that he could get away with more such behaviour.
To ‘get Putin to start respecting the United States again’ such measures as toughening sanctions, strengthening military alliances, and conducting more assertive diplomacy were recommended (Geltser 2019). Simpson and Fritsch (2019), former Wall Street Journal writers who founded Fusion GPS, the agency that in 2016 hired Christopher Steele to prepare the infamous dossier on Trump’s links with Russia, insisted that Britain needed its own Mueller report to investigate Russia’s role in the Brexit vote. They argued that such an enquiry was ‘essential to halt Russia’s attack on Britain’s democracy’ (Simpson and Fritsch 2019). The Kremlin Watch Program (2019) of the Prague-based European Values Center for Security Policy suggested 20 measures to counter ‘hostile Russian interference’.
A Pentagon assessment in June 2019 argued that the USA was ill-equipped to counter ‘the increasingly brazen political warfare Russia is waging to undermine democracies’ (Bender 2019). A 150-page study prepared for the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff argued that the USA was still underestimating the scope of Russia’s aggression, including the use of propaganda and disinformation to sway public opinion in Europe and across the globe. The study also warned against the growing alignment of Russia and China, which were opposed to America’s system of international alliances and shared a proclivity for ‘authoritarian stability’. The authors argued that domestic disarray impeded the USA’s ability to respond (Department of Defense 2019). Natalia Arno, the head of the Free Russia Foundation, agreed with the report’s finding and argued that ‘Russia is attacking Western institutions in ways more shrewd and strategically discreet than many realize’ (Bender 2019). The Pentagon report recommended that the State Department should take the lead in devising more aggressive ‘influence operations’, including sowing division between Russia and China. The study analysed what it called ‘gray zone’ activities, the attempt by Putin’s regime to undermine democratic nations, in particular those on Russia’s periphery, through ‘hybrid’ measures, falling short of direct military action. However, although warning of Moscow’s alignment with Beijing, the report recommended cooperation with Russia in key areas such as strategic nuclear weapons. One of the authors, John Arquilla of the Naval Postgraduate School, argued that Ronald Reagan’s offer in the 1980s to share research on ballistic missile defence (BMD) should be revisited. The report suggested that while elites and the people broadly supported Putin’s foreign policy and the striving for great power status, this was liable to weaken when faced by socio-economic problems.
Inevitably, forces seeking to break the liberal hegemony at home will make common cause with an external power that is also interested in breaking that expansive hegemony. Russia looks for friends wherever it can find them, and seeks a way out of the impasse of the post-Cold War security order. However, it is important to stress the limits to that alignment. If Russia were a genuinely revisionist power, then it would make sense to ally with any force destructive of the old order; but as argued above, Russia is a neo-revisionist power—concerned with changing the monist practices of post-Cold War liberalism, but not with changing the international system in its entirety. This means that Russia is quite happy to work within existing structures as long as monism can be kept in check. The struggle against ‘fake news’ and ‘Russian disinformation’ threatens the pluralism at the heart of traditional liberalism. That is why the investigation into the alleged collusion between the Trump camp and Russia in the 2016 presidential election was more damaging than the putative original offence. When policy differences and divergences in value preferences are delegitimated and couched in binary Cold War terms, then the Atlantic power system is in danger of becoming dangerously hermetic. Immunity to new ideas, even if they come from a traditional adversary, weakens resistance to domestic degradation.