If we don’t resist Russian political warfare, very soon, Putin will win.
It was a year of profound, indeed systemic crisis. Across the West, friends of the Kremlin were surging in democratic elections, playing on legitimate fears of voters about economic anxiety and societal erosion. Moscow’s agents infiltrated Western politics at all levels, corrupting media and public discourse, while several European countries were poised to fall to parties overtly under Kremlin control—via the ballot box, not a coup. For Westerners who treasured freedom, it was all a nightmare coming true.
The year was 1947.
It’s important to note that while 2016, the year ending today, has been a dreadful one for Westerners who treasure freedom, with Vladimir Putin’s minions clandestinely subverting our politics, even in the United States, we’ve been here before. Indeed, we’ve been through much worse not all that long ago.
Moreover, the political threat currently emanating from Moscow is nothing new. Indeed, the parallels with the conditions the West faced at the dawn of the last Cold War are astonishing and ought to be recalled as Westerners ponder how to get it right in 2017—which may be the last chance to prevent the complete collapse of the American-led global order which, for all its faults, has worked well at preventing all-out global war for more than 70 years.
To start, we must not seek to downplay how grave the current crisis really is. Since the end of the first Cold War in 1991, a generation of neoliberal economics has raised Western prosperity, albeit not very evenly—rising tides turn out to lift some boats much more than others—while the angry legions of those who cannot compete in the 21st century economy grow daily. Many of them seek refuge in empty lives of online escapism, drink and drugs to numb their sense of displacement. Their frustrations also include a nagging sense that, between declining native demographics and uncontrolled migration, they are literally losing their countries—in too many cases, to foreigners who plainly hate the locals and sometimes seek to kill them.
What makes all this so politically toxic is a pervasive feeling that, despite having regular elections, nothing much ever changes. Certainly, the big questions—Is our economy fundamentally just? Do we really want so much immigration?—never seem to be on the ballot. The system appears rigged by upscale mandarins in places like Brussels and Washington who make no effort to hide their distaste for the “deplorables” they seek to govern. Behind them stand the big-money-men, the super-wealthy globalists who call the real shots, and they’re not really in the shadows anymore.
To top it off, the mainstream media serves as a tool of the ruling elite, seeking to quash key questions they don’t want asked, much less answered. They flatter that elite, with whom they share a worldview: economically neoliberal, socially radical, and professionally self-absorbed. Dissenters are stifled with accusations of racism, xenophobia and “hate speech.” Guilt is customarily assumed, and in several Western countries those who step out of line wind up in jail for their heresy from the received wisdom of our ruling elites.
Here is where Putin stands ready to win big, conquering without all-out war.
This goes a long way to explaining why the political earthquakes of 2016 were so difficult for our elites to explain. First, Britain votes to leave the European Union, leaving stunned Eurocrats gasping for breath, then America elects Donald Trump, sending all decent Westerners into paroxysms of rage, howling gigantic curses against fellow citizens who are obviously fools addled with racism. Such electoral milestones were literally unthinkable for the West’s ruling class, so they never thought about them before they happened, and many of them still cannot seem to process what has occurred.
Whatever one thinks of BREXIT and President-elect Trump—and there’s ample cause for skepticism on both counts—their victories in 2016 have changed the West’s political game. When asked to choose between despised globalist elites and almost anything else, voters opted for the unknown latter. Make no mistake, the coming year promises to bring more of the same. France and Germany will be electing new governments in 2017, and radical shifts are poised to happen.
Here is where Putin stands ready to win big, conquering without all-out war. The coming French presidential election offers two likely choices: Marine LePen and her nationalist National Front, which openly takes money from Moscow, or François Fillon, a center-right politician who wants close ties with the Kremlin too. Both view Putin as an ally against the globalists and the EU, so no matter who takes France’s 2017 election, Moscow wins. Since France is an important middle-weight power possessing nuclear weapons, this will be a big win for Russia.
Things don’t look much better in Germany, where beleaguered Chancellor Angela Merkel faces a country furious at her opening the floodgates in 2015 to millions of migrants, mainly Muslim and unskilled, who have little to contribute to Germany’s very modern economy. This has engendered political chaos, and although Germany’s political system is designed to stifle far-right parties, thanks to the lessons learned from the Third Reich, nationalists are back in German politics in a serious way for the first time since the Hitler era.
Merkel’s nemesis is the Alternative for Germany (AfD), which is rising fast at the local level and shows signs of finally getting traction in 2017 national elections, thanks to the anger at Merkel and her center-right coalition which has exposed the country to domestic terrorism in a serious way. The AfD makes little effort to hide its Kremlin ties, while Russian flags have a curious way of showing up at their demonstrations. Any progress by the AfD in the new year will be warmly greeted in Moscow, with good reason.
None of this is welcome news, and Western elites need to accept their share of the blame for this sad situation. By stifling legitimate feelings of anger and frustration at the neoliberal globalist order with accusations of racism and xenophobia, they have given Putin and his intelligence services a golden opportunity to exploit Westerners who feel ignored, despised, and disenfranchised. Kremlin spies in recent years have disseminated large amounts of cash to Western political parties they consider useful, on both the left and right, while passing weapons to the truly radical fringe. Putin wants a West that’s politically divided and increasingly unstable, and he’s getting what he wants.
Himself a figure of the anti-globalist right, Donald Trump may be just the man to turn to the political tables on the Kremlin.
How to stop this Russian semi-clandestine political juggernaut? Here looking back to 1947 helps. As the Cold War dawned, President Harry Truman eventually accepted that American power had to be used to prevent a Kremlin takeover of Western Europe. Thus was NATO born and American troops returned to Europe to prevent a Soviet invasion. Military power still matters, and the limited efforts made by the Obama administration to bolster deterrence in Europe may not be sufficient.
Yet it’s the political aspect that’s most intriguing. In the late 1940s, to prevent friends of the Kremlin from taking over via the ballot box, especially in key countries like Italy and France, Truman unleashed American intelligence to secretly support anti-Soviet parties of the democratic left. Aid, in cash and kind, was provided to European socialists to undercut the appeal of Communism by offering a robust reform program inside the democratic, Western system. This worked astonishingly well, and throughout the Cold War, the CIA and others quietly backed the European democratic left, politically undercutting the appeal of Moscow’s stooges.
The same must be done today. We must learn to work with moderate nationalists and anti-globalists, who are rising politically across the West. Stop denouncing them as racists and xenophobes, listen to their legitimate concerns, and start cooperating with the reasonable ones against Moscow. Seventy years ago, Washington successfully forged a quiet alliance with the moderate left to fight the Kremlin, and today we must do the same with the West’s moderate right. If we refuse to do so, they will gravitate to the only force which welcomes them, and his name is Vladimir Putin.
For more than three years, President Obama steadfastly refused to admit that we’re in Cold War 2.0 with Russia, which Putin de facto declared with his annexation of Crimea and subsequent invasion of eastern Ukraine. However, Obama’s belated entry into the SpyWar with Moscow this week makes unmistakably clear that a new Cold War is in fact underway.
It shows no sign of stopping either, despite President-elect Trump’s fawning over the Kremlin on social media. Once in office, he will learn all the ways that Moscow clandestinely works to harm the West, and it is to be hoped that Trump takes appropriate action. Himself a figure of the anti-globalist right, Donald Trump may be just the man to turn to the political tables on the Kremlin. The entire West should hope he does, soon.
Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, the publisher of Observer Media.
John Schindler is a security expert and former National Security Agency analyst and counterintelligence officer. A specialist in espionage and terrorism, he’s also been a Navy officer and a War College professor. He’s published four books and is on Twitter at @20committee.