How to Counter the Putin Playbook

Michael McFaul served as Ambassador to Russia from 2012-2014 in the Obama administration.  His article points out the tactics used by Putin to influence the public perception of other governments and to undermine their policies. He also outlines potential methods for countering these tactics.

A quarter-century ago, at the end of the Cold War, it seemed that only democracies promoted their values abroad. Today, autocracies have entered the arena again, exporting their ideas and methods — even to the United States.

Everywhere, autocrats are pushing back against democrats, and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia is the de facto leader of this global movement.

Since returning to the Kremlin in 2012, Mr. Putin has consolidated his hold on power in Russia. With renewed vigor, he’s weakened civil society, undermined independent media, suppressed any opposition and scared off big business from supporting government critics. And he made the United States and its senior officials unwitting elements of his malign strategy.

While I was the United States ambassador to Russia, Mr. Putin accused President Obama’s administration of seeking to foment revolution against him — as, allegedly, we had done in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria during the Arab Spring. Russia’s state-controlled media portrayed Russian protesters as traitors, puppets of the United States, who took money and orders from Washington. Mr. Putin took special offense to Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state , claiming her criticism of the fairness of the 2011 Russian parliamentary election was a “signal” to Russian demonstrators.

While chastising us for supposedly meddling in his internal affairs, Mr. Putin expanded his campaign to weaken democracy abroad. Kremlin-aligned media like the TV station RT have championed his policies internationally, while challenging the legitimacy of democratic leaders, including our own president. Around the world, but especially in Europe, the Russian government supports — by both rhetorical and financial means — political parties and organizations with illiberal, nationalist agendas. Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and its intervention in eastern Ukraine in support of separatists, as well as the invasion of Georgia in 2008, were violent efforts to destabilize new democracies.

Many are impressed and aim to copy the Putin playbook. Autocrats in Asia, the Middle East and Africa have emulated Mr. Putin’s draconian laws restricting civil society groups. The leader of France’s far-right National Front, Marine Le Pen, has praised Mr. Putin and his policies; her party has taken a $10 million loan from a Russian bank and seeks another $30 million for next year’s presidential election. Two champions of the Brexit campaign — Nigel Farage, the former leader of the anti-immigrant U.K. Independence Party, and Boris Johnson, a Conservative member of Parliament and now Britain’s foreign minister — have spoken fondly of Mr. Putin. So, too, does Hungary’s increasingly authoritarian prime minister, Viktor Orban. The Republican Party nominee for president, Donald J. Trump, has frequently praised Mr. Putin. “He’s a strong leader,” Mr. Trump said in December.

As well as overt means, Mr. Putin has deployed cyber methods of subversion. This week, WikiLeaks released emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee. This action by a foreign agent prompted the resignation of the Democratic National Committee chairwoman and raised new electoral challenges for the Democrats’ presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. American intelligence agencies have “high confidence” that the Russian government stole the data — and likely also hacked into the Clinton campaign’s computer systems. While we can’t be certain yet whether its agents passed the data directly to WikiLeaks, the circumstantial evidence points overwhelmingly to Russia. Who else?

We also know that Russia’s use of signals intelligence to advance an antidemocratic agenda is not a new tactic. I have firsthand experience. During my stint as ambassador, Russian agents secretly recorded a conversation I had with American business executives at a Moscow hotel and published my remarks in a way to make it sound as if the United States was plotting against the Russian government. In 2014, an intercepted phone call between America’s ambassador in Ukraine and Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland was leaked to suggest that Washington was choosing the new government in Kiev. Against Russian opposition leaders, the Kremlin deploys such tactics all the time.

Mr. Putin may be the boldest but he is not alone in this growing movement. China’s economic success challenges democracy’s appeal. Iranian theocrats hold on to power at home and defend autocrats like President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. Elsewhere in the Middle East, strongmen like President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt are ascendant, forcing their citizens and foreign allies to accept their repressions as supposed protection from Islamist extremists. Saudi Arabia intervened in Bahrain to crush a democratic movement there in 2011, while private Arab foundations continue to promote illiberal ideas throughout the region and beyond.

Mr. Putin is expanding his playbook just when America is roiled by strong isolationist currents and aggravated by demagogy that would have us disengage from multilateral institutions like NATO, cut our overseas security commitments and stop defending human rights abroad. This is Mr. Trump’s argument. “When it comes to civil liberties, our country has a lot of problems,” he said this month, “and I think it’s very hard for us to get involved in other countries when we don’t know what we are doing and we can’t see straight in our own country.”

To inspire democracy abroad, we must of course practice it better at home. But we should reject the moral relativism that says because our own union is not perfect, we are no different from the despots.

We will not find security in isolationism. No missile defense shield, cybersecurity program, tariff or border wall can protect us if we disengage. Menacing autocracies, illiberal ideas, and antidemocratic and terrorist movements will not just leave us alone or wither away. The threats will grow and eventually endanger our peace, as we saw in Europe and Japan in the 1930s, and Afghanistan in the 1990s.

Conversely, the growth of democracy around the world serves American interests. Democracies do not threaten us; autocracies do. Democratic allies also vote with us at the United Nations, go to war with us, support international treaties and norms, and stand with us against tyranny.

So we must push back, in new ways. Just as the Kremlin has become more sophisticated at exporting its ideas and supporting its friends, so must we.

We should think of advancing democratic ideas abroad primarily as an educational project, almost never as a military campaign. Universities, books and websites are the best tools, not the 82nd Airborne. The United States can expand resources for learning about democracy.

Direct financial assistance to democrats is problematic: A check from an American embassy can taint its recipients. America’s next president should privatize such aid and help seed new independent foundations. Internet access and the free flow of information, the lifeblood of independent media and civil society, should be universal rights we champion.

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