Alphen, Netherlands. 17 February. Seventy year ago today the US Chargé d’Affaires at the Moscow Embassy was putting the final touches to a diplomatic despatch that would change the world. Known as the ‘Long Telegram’ George Kennan’s 8000 word missive to Washington warned that Stalin’s Soviet Union rejected the idea of “permanent peaceful coexistence” with the West, that Moscow would seek to “expand its sphere of influence”, and that all possible means would be used to destabilise not just Western powers, but other states vital to the Soviet interest. If George Kennan were around today he would probably write a very similar telegram back to Washington. Indeed, President Putin’s use of hybrid warfare bears a ghostly resemblance to the tactics of Stalin’s Russia.
The conventional wisdom of the Western Kommentariat is that, through its applied use for strategic ends of destabilisation, disinformation, and deception, Moscow has pioneered a new form of warfare. War that falls short of war, and which was applied to effect to seize Crimea from Ukraine. There is also a fear that Russia might be contemplating the use of such tactics against the Baltic States. What is not commonly understood is that Moscow is already engaged in such ‘warfare’ against major European Powers.
Moscow is clearly endeavouring to influence the Brexit debate in favour of Britain quitting the EU. Whilst there is no suggestion leading Brexiteers are subject to Russian influence, there is some serious suspicion that some extremist groups in both Britain are receiving funds from Moscow. Moreover, one has only to watch the coverage of the Brexit debate on RT and Sputnik, Russia’s main external media channels, to see a clear bias to influence the debate in favour of Britain’s leaving the EU. For example, the coverage of the Tusk proposals on Britain’s ‘reformed’ membership of the EU was uniformly negative. One could argue that RT and Sputnik’s coverage had much in common with most of Britain’s print media. And, whilst Sputnik is clearly pushing a pro-Brexit line, RT’s coverage has been more sophisticated in that it simply gives more air time to Euro-sceptic views. Equally, the editorial bias is clear.
However, it is Chancellor Merkel’s Germany that has been most targeted by Russian disinformation. On January 16, Russia’s state-run Channel One reported an alleged abduction and assault by a migrant of a thirteen year-old member of Germany’s sizeable Russian-speaking minority who holds both German and Russian citizenship. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov even referred to “our girl Lisa” at the time of the story. The story has since turned out to be a patent fabrication, leading Chancellor Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert to warn against the “political instrumentalisation” of the case. Even pro-Russian German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has said that the use of a vulnerable thirteen year-old girl for “political propaganda” cannot be justified.
What is Moscow’s strategic objective? The ‘Lisa case’ fits into a now well-established pattern of Russian propaganda. Indeed, warning Ukraine’s Russia-speakers about ‘fascist’ gangs, stoking fear amongst Russia’s diaspora, reinforcing the cynicism large numbers of Western Europeans feel about their leaders, or simply trying to divide Europeans further are all part of Moscow’s hybrid war strategy. The aim is clear; to exploit and widen seams in Western Europe’s complex multicultural societies to undermine the capacity of leaders to act in concert against Russian expansionism.
What is Moscow’s strategic method? There are two strands to Russia’s strategy. George Kennan wrote in the “Long Telegram” that whilst Moscow was impervious to the logic of reason it was highly sensitive to the fact of force. In effect, Russia is using Kennan’s own insight against contemporary Europe. Moscow employs a barrage of false ‘facts’ to suggest to an already mistrustful public that their leaders are either utterly incompetent, engaged in an almighty conspiracy, or both; and then using force to change facts on the ground around Europe and imply that Russia’s message is backed by might. Both strands are false in fact.
What is Moscow’s next gambit? Last weekend, Western diplomats warned that one reason for Russia’s savage bombing of Aleppo in northern Syria was to push another wave of wretched people towards Europe. Moscow clearly believes that the migration crisis is not only de-stabilising and dividing Europeans, it is also cleaving a wedge between leaders and led and, in effect, rendering European powers strategically incapable. In Moscow’s zero sum culture about which Kennan warned, and in which Putin clearly believes, if ‘Europe’ loses, Russia wins.
George Kennan’s Long Telegram mattered because it awoke a resistant Washington establishment to the nature and indeed the ambitions of Stalin’s Moscow. The Soviet Union of February 1946 was in a far stronger strategic position than Putin’s Russia of 2016. However, unless Europeans begin together to contest the information space in which Russia is waging a relentless war then it might well be that Moscow succeeds. Russia is playing dirty…and will get dirtier still.