“But the biggest thing that has happened in the world in my life, in our lives, is this: By the grace of God, America won the cold war.” – President George Bush, January 27, 1992 The Russian government is actively pursuing a strategy of breaking up western alliances such as NATO and the EU, following a blueprint laid out in a 1997 book by Aleksandr Dugin. So far, their efforts have proved largely successful, in part because Americans are acting as Russia’s unwitting pawns. Through social media, Americans amplify and spread Russian propaganda designed to incite unrest and factionalism within our own borders.
The Threat of “Atlanticism”
In the aftermath of the Cold War, Russia experienced a crushing recession that left millions unemployed. The subsequent vacuum in the decades that followed saw the rapid expansion of the European Union and its single free market eastward. The EU now includes several former Soviet states, including some immediately bordering Russia (e.g., Estonia and Latvia.) More importantly, from a Russian security perspective, the NATO military alliance also expanded aggressively eastward after the Cold War, adding over a dozen European countries as members between 1999 and 2017. This expansion has put NATO allies, and NATO weapons, into countries immediately bordering Russia. The spread of western ideals such as free speech, free and open elections, and multiculturalism into eastern Europe are perceived as a threat to Russian culture and Russian influence. From the Russian point of view, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War was both a humiliating defeat and a harsh rebuke of Soviet-style Communism. A new post-Soviet, neo-fascist political philosophy rose from the ashes of Communism, and Russia is actively engaged in pursuing this philosophy. Their goal is nothing less than the creation of a new Eurasian Empire controlled by, and answering to, Russia.
A New Blueprint (or “Putin’s To-Do List”)
The Russian political elite could not tolerate the growing threat on their western border, but they needed a new geopolitical strategy – one that would establish goals and methods different from those that had failed the Soviet Union. In 1997, Aleksandr Dugin articulated and defined that new Russian strategy in a 600-page treatise entitled Foundations of Geopolitics. According to historian and Hoover Institution specialist John B. Dunlop, “There has probably not been another book published in Russia during the post-communist period which has exerted an influence on Russian military, police, and statist foreign policy elites comparable to that of Aleksandr Dugin’s 1997 neo-fascist treatise.” The Foundations of Geopolitics sold out in four editions, and continues to be assigned as a textbook at the General Staff Academy and other military universities in Russia. [source]
As espoused by Dugin, Russia’s ultimate goal should be nothing less than rule of the world by ethnic Russians, based on a Eurasian empire extending from “Dublin to Vladivostok.” The philosophical basis for this empire will include the rejection of “Atlanticism,” identification of America as a common enemy, and refusal to allow traditional liberal political ideals (e.g., freedom of the press, freedom of speech, free markets, civil rights, etc.,) to affect Russia’s society or political system. According to political scientist Andreas Umland, the Russian political elites, headed by Vladimir Putin, view Dugin’s new Eurasian Empire not as a restoration of an idealized Russian Empire, but as a replacement for the Soviet Union. Eurasianism provides an ideological basis for a new form of Russian imperialism. As for strategic stepping stones toward a new Russian empire, Dugin offers a long list objectives. I have listed just a few of these below:
- Separate the United Kingdom from Europe.
- Russian annexation of Ukraine.
- A strategic alliance between Russia and Iran.
- Create “geopolitical shocks” within Turkey.
- Russian annexation of Tibet, Mongolia, and Manchuria.
- Finland should be absorbed into Russia.
- Encourage Germany and France to cooperate with each other and isolate themselves from Europe.
- Dismember the nation of Georgia.
- Geopolitical defeat of the United States
Sound familiar? In terms of tactics, Foundations of Geopolitics recommends subversion of America and its alliances by encouraging and supporting separatism, isolationism, nationalism, and the creation of factions. It also calls for supporting radical separatist movements in western countries, including support for organizations that espouse extremist, racist, and sectarian ideals. Here is a passage taken directly from Dugin’s Foundations of Geopolitics (via Dunlop):
“It is especially important to introduce geopolitical disorder into internal American activity, encouraging all kinds of separatism and ethnic, social and racial conflicts, actively supporting all dissident movements — extremist, racist, and sectarian groups, thus destabilizing internal political processes in the U.S. It would also make sense simultaneously to support isolationist tendencies in American politics.”
Evidence Russia Is Actively Pursuing Dugin’s Strategy
Russia’s actions, both overt and covert, offer strong indications that her political and military leaders are actively pursuing the strategy described in Foundations. The overt actions include:
- Russian invasion of the nation of Georgia (2008.)
- Russian annexation of the Crimea region of Ukraine (2014.)
- Economic and military support for anti-western regimes in Syria and Iran.
As for covert (or disguised) actions by the Russian government in support of the Foundations strategy, consider these recent findings from western intelligence and news agencies:
- BREXIT: “More than 150,000 Russian-language Twitter accounts posted tens of thousands of messages in English urging Britain to leave the European Union in the days before last year’s referendum on the issue. … Most of the messages sought to inflame fears about Muslims and immigrants to help drive the vote.” – New York Times, 15-NOV-2017
- US ELECTIONS: “Posts that circulated to a targeted, swing-state audience on Facebook railed against illegal immigrants and claimed “the only viable option is to elect Trump.” They were shared by what looked like a grassroots American, anti-immigrant group called Secured Borders, but Congressional investigators say the group is actually a Russian fabrication designed to influence American voters during and after the presidential election.” – ABC News, 27-SEP-2017
- US ELECTIONS: “Russian agents intending to sow discord among American citizens disseminated inflammatory posts that reached 126 million users on Facebook, published more than 131,000 messages on Twitter and uploaded over 1,000 videos to Google’s YouTube service.” – New York Times, 30-OCT-2017
- US ELECTIONS: “In July 2015, Russian intelligence gained access to Democratic National Committee (DNC) networks and maintained that access until at least June 2016.” – Findings from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, 6-JAN-2017
- US SOCIAL UNREST: “Two Russian Facebook pages organized dueling rallies in front of the Islamic Da’wah Center of Houston. Heart of Texas, a Russian-controlled Facebook group that promoted Texas secession, leaned into an image of the state as a land of guns and barbecue and amassed hundreds of thousands of followers. One of their ads on Facebook announced a noon rally on May 21, 2016 to “Stop Islamification of Texas.” A separate Russian-sponsored group, United Muslims of America, advertised a “Save Islamic Knowledge” rally for the same place and time. – The Texas Tribune, 1-NOV-2017
- US SOCIAL UNREST: “A social media campaign calling itself “Blacktivist” and linked to the Russian government used both Facebook and Twitter in an apparent attempt to amplify racial tensions during the U.S. presidential election. Both Blacktivist accounts regularly shared content intended to stoke outrage. “Black people should wake up as soon as possible,” one post on the Twitter account read. “Black families are divided and destroyed by mass incarceration and death of black men,” another read. The accounts also posted videos of police violence against African Americans. These fake accounts provide further evidence that Russian-linked social media accounts saw racial tensions as something to be exploited in order to achieve the broader Russian goal of dividing Americans and creating chaos.” CNN, 28-SEP-2017
NOTE TO READERS: Even in light of the information above, I DO NOT necessarily believe that Hillary Clinton would have won the 2016 US Presidential election in the absence of Russian interference – I simply do not have enough data from which to draw that conclusion. I am however certain that Russia wanted Trump to win and spent millions of dollars on propaganda directed at Americans toward that end.
How We (Americans) Are Helping Russia Achieve Its Imperialistic Goals
Russian propaganda and incitements to separatism are spread through social media, and their success depends on our willingness to reflexively share stories that outrage us. As unwitting agents for Russia, each of us is helping spread the seeds of our own political and economic demise. Hundreds of fake Facebook accounts operating from within Russia purchased $100,000 worth of Facebook ads between mid-2015 and early 2017. These fake Facebook accounts managed to reach 126 million Facebook users during this time frame. Besides their sheer volume, one of the most striking aspects of the ads purchased by these fake accounts is their alignment with the strategy described in Foundations of Geopolitics, namely the creation of division and mistrust among Americans. Alex Stamos, the Chief Information Security Officer for Facebook, issued a statement about the ad placements on September 6, 2017. In it, he made these observations:
- The vast majority of ads run by these accounts didn’t specifically reference the US presidential election, voting or a particular candidate.
- Rather, the ads and accounts appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum — touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights.
Considering the success with which foreign actors have spread messages of division and mistrust during the campaigns for Brexit and the 2016 US Presidential election, you can assume those same actors will redouble their efforts during subsequent election cycles. We can only protect the integrity of our western institutions and electoral processes by remaining vigilant against the threat of divisive propaganda. The next time you see a hyperbolic social media post that confirms your worst fears about people of a particular race, gender, religion, or political affiliation, your first reaction should be, “nice try, Russian troll,” rather than “OMG I MUST REPOST THIS EVERYWHERE!!!” Learn to take a breath and pause before you immediately like, retweet, or share divisive messages from obscure sources. Be especially wary of emotional manipulation. Most importantly, fact check yourself before spreading information designed to foment outrage and factionalism. Remember that the phrase “Russian disinformation campaign” does not describe some outdated method from a bygone era, but instead represents an active, effective tool being used against you right now.
Fact Checking Tools
Here are some reputable sites you can use to help protect yourself against disinformation and propaganda:
- FactCheck.org – a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center
- Politifact – A Pulitzer Prize-winning site funded by The Tampa Bay Times
- Snopes – The venerable site focused on debunking urban legends for over twenty years
- Sunlight Foundation – a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for open government
- Poynter Institute – a school that helps working journalists improve their skills to the benefit of their communities.
- NewsGuard – uses journalism to fight false news, misinformation, and disinformation.
Further Reading & Sources Used In This Document
The list below identifies the sources I used for this document, as well as articles that affected my thinking on the subject. If you’re interested in this topic, I highly recommend reading them:
- Aleksandr Dugin’s Foundations of Geopolitics (PDF); Dunlop, John B.; Demokratizatsiya 12.1 (Jan 31, 2004)
- “Eurasian” Putin’s projects and Dugin – similarities and differences – Umland, Andreas (Jun 22, 2012); inosmi.ru (page is in Russian. Use Google Translate to convert it to English)
- Aleksandr Dugin’s Foundations of Geopolitics | The Fourth Political Theory – Dunlop, John.
- Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections (PDF) – the official combined report of the CIA, FBI, and NSA – Director of National Intelligence
- Russia’s New—and Frightening—“Ism” | Hoover Institution
- The Unlikely Origins of Russia’s Manifest Destiny – ForeignPolicy.com
- Aleksandr Dugin: Putin’s Rasputin? – Sean MacCormac, Center for Security Policy
- Eurasian Mission: An Introduction to Neo-Eurasianism – Arktos
- Twitter Offered Russian Television Network RT 15% Of Its Total Share Of US Elections Advertising – Buzzfeed
- Russia used hundreds of fake accounts to tweet about Brexit, data shows – The Guardian
- Putin: Russia manifesto outlining plans is coming true – news.com.au
- The Fake News Culprit No One Wants to Identify: You – Miranda Katz, Wired
- An Update On Information Operations On Facebook – Alex Stamos, Chief Information Security Officer, Facebook
- Our biggest mistake in the fight against fake news – Nina Jankowicz, The Washington Post