Putin’s Russia uses postmodern methods to uphold pre-modern myths.
For years, Americans and Europeans have been warned of the growing power and reach of Russian information warfare. From the Brexit referendum to the election of Donald Trump, there was hardly an important election Putin hadn’t hacked. Western experts had warned for years about hybrid warfare, blending disinformation, astroturfed campaigns, economic leverage, FSB-sponsored corruption, and special operations.
And so, as Russian forces massed on Ukraine’s borders in early 2022, intelligence analysts and national security officials braced for the worst. The anticipated Russian invasion would not only represent the largest use of military force in Europe since the Second World War, but would also employ Russia’s characteristic skills in distorting and controlling the information environment.
That the Russians got smoked on the battlefield once fighting began has its own explanations: inexperience, incompetence, corruption, lack of initiative, poor equipment, unrealistic assumptions. But the fearsome Russians performed even worse in the battle to control information and shape the narrative, beginning with the Biden administration’s public revelation of Russian military plans in the lead-up to the war. If the Kremlin is such an expert and wily puppetmaster, why did it fail so badly?
The Mythic Screen
The destiny of the Russian state has always been bound up with information warfare.
The great Russianist Edward Keenan observed that, since the “Gathering of Russian Lands” and overthrow of the “Mongol Yoke” in the fifteenth century, Russian political culture has been essentially characterized by secrecy. Because Russia is so large and difficult to defend, any apparent division within the elite threatened the collapse of the whole system by enemies within and without (as has, indeed, occurred several times in Russian history). And so this elite (variously called the boyars, the aristocracy, the nomenklatura, the oligarchs, etc.) contests behind closed doors. To the outside world, this elite presents an image of complete unity and surrender to the power and authority of the Tsar.
But this image is false, a “mythic screen” behind which real politics can occur. That there is a belief system or an ideology justifying the (apparent) total power of the center is essential: what it is is a matter of taste. Orthodoxy, Enlightened Despotism, Panslavism, Communism, Democracy: they have all fit the bill at one point or another.
Ideology is not a structure or a philosophy but a function for the Russian state. At one point, Peter the Great made the Russian Orthodox Church just another government ministry. To rule Russia is to construct and maintain a “mythic screen.” Malevich’s revolutionary, abstract expressionist Black Square can replace the ikon, but it cannot replace the ikon corner itself. When the Red Army was formed, Bolshevik commissars replaced Orthodox chaplains almost one-for-one. After the fall of the Soviet Union, they just swapped back.
Because the destruction of the mythic screen threatened Russia with chaos, the Russian state paid attention to ideas and the rails they rode on – communications technologies – almost from the beginning.
Gutenberg’s printing press, which set off a century of violent conflict in Europe, barely roiled unlettered Russia, which was and remained an oral society. Russian language printing remained by the business of the state and the church: even the first newspaper was set up with Peter the Great’s direct assistance.
But Russia’s porous borders meant that revolutionary ideas percolating in Central Europe might find their way into anarchist cells in St. Petersburg. And so the Okhrana, the Tsarist secret police, infiltrated political movements all over Europe and invented many of the techniques of “black propaganda.”
It was the Bolsheviks, though, who really grasped how to use mass production of media to gain power. During the Russian Civil War, they developed the agit-train and later agit-streetcar and agit-boat. These contained a mobile printing press for distributing agit-propaganda leaflets and posters, a darkroom for developing photographs, loudspeakers for outdoor rallies, and even film projectors.
After the Russian Revolution, the Soviet Union married the Russian tradition of narrative control with the emerging sciences of behavioral psychology (led by Ivan Pavlov), information theory, and cybernetics. The Soviet general Tukhachevsky, the “Red Napoleon” of the Russian Civil War, had developed a theory of battle centered on the disruption of the enemy’s system of command: a blow to the right nerve center could paralyze the enemy and defeat him, even if the body of his forces was never destroyed.
Later Soviet military theorists realized they could generalize the principle: there was no reason this blow needed to be physical in nature. If one understood the enemy’s decision function and had the ability to influence his information flows and feedback loops, one could achieve the same effect, or could otherwise manipulate him to one’s own advantage. Information warfare as a doctrine was born.
When the Soviet Union began to collapse, Russians believed that the culprit was some combination of the inherent contradictions of a sclerotic Communist regime and the zealous reformism of Gorbachev.
But another view emerged after the intervening 1990s, which saw the Russian state hollowed out, the Russian economy looted, and Russian society unmoored. The West had won the Cold War, as leaders like Bill Clinton now proclaimed, not through the superiority of liberal democracy or capitalism but by another means: subversion-war.
The concept came from a reactionary émigré military officer, Evgeny Messner (1891–1974), who had fought for the Whites in the civil war and later led Russian nationalist forces under Nazi command against the Soviets, before moving to Argentina after World War II. Messner saw the USA and USSR as merely the slow and quick flanks of an ongoing World Revolution that would sweep away traditional societies in favor of globalization(s) that divided all of humanity along class, ideology, economic, or religious lines. Ongoing “socio-cultural–political-military ‘earthquakes’” weaponized changing sexual norms, secularization, technological change, with the goal of the “dissolution of the spirit of the enemy public,” the defeat of their will to resist the World Revolution, and the creation of an air of inevitability about the new order.
In Messner’s time, the Soviet Union had been the chief wager of subversion-war, but Russian security apparatchiks thought the analysis fit the United States even better. They came to agree with the liberals that it had been blue jeans, Coca-Cola, and rock-and-roll that had defeated the Soviet Union, except not as organic social developments but as weapons of Western subversion-war.
Beginning in the 1990s, would-be Russian media, business, and political gurus began adopting the techniques of American advertising, marketing, and political communications with gusto. When they applied their skill to the public sphere, they came to be called “political technologists.” If a political scientist is someone who sees the politics and policy as domains about which one can gain empirical expertise and objective answers, a political technologist is someone who seeks to apply techniques of public opinion, communications, advertising, party organization, and lawfare as tools to achieve whatever ends are required. And there was never a more skilled political technologist than Vladislav Surkov.
A half-Chechen theater director cum ad man, Surkov was able to translate Western advertising methods, postmodernist theory, and theater techniques into a politics of spectacle, producing a mythic screen of multi-party “sovereign democracy” even as Putin consolidated power. He also displayed a tremendous skill in knowing where the wind was blowing, working as a Russian Don Draper for the powerful oligarch Mikhael Khodorkovsky in the 1990s before jumping ship to the Putin administration just as his old boss was sent to the gulag.
Many observers credit Surkov for developing a sophisticated, even ironic, approach to authoritarianism that replaced the lonely authoritarian Voice of Moscow (unworkable in the digital age) with a cacophonous astroturfed public sphere in which “nothing was true and everything was permitted” – except overthrowing the regime. Surkov’s mythic screen was not an iconostasis or a single-channel television but the infinite feed of the smartphone; where every movement has its place and every taste is met, the ideological power of the medium working perfectly in the invisible background.
But at the same time that “disinformation researchers” across the West were sounding the alarm about the spread of Surkov’s methods to authoritarian governments around the world and the spread of Russian influence operations, Surkov and others began to notice something.
The old theories of information warfare dated to the world of print and broadcast. They envisioned a world of competing messages and myriad speakers in covert campaigns across multiple channels, a political mirroring of the physical effects of signal, noise, bandwidth, and jamming. And, at first blush, this appears to be what Russian actors achieved: it was certainly what Western counterintelligence experts warned of.
And yet, look again. What might have been achieved in the past via manipulating newspaper journalists, bribing TV producers, and astroturfing a protest campaign was now achieved solely via the Internet. That the Internet can mirror and simulate each element of a traditional information campaign conceals the most foundational difference: that the United States for all intents and purposes owns the terrain of the medium itself, especially in terms of the large platforms providing the vast majority of Internet infrastructure and access.
From Surkov’s perspective, netizens increasingly found themselves trapped not in a “beautiful anarchy” but in a “digital concentration camp,” readily policed by American allies around the world. “For some reason, it is forgotten that the customer and creator of the Internet is the Pentagon.”
But this result also generalizes. In finance and supply chains, as well as on the Internet, national or regional systems have given way to global networks: on closer inspection, these global networks turn out to run key infrastructure through the United States. And, until recently, it was nearly impossible to fully grasp how much of Russia’s economy and media empire did not really have its own existence, instead running on an American emulator.
And so, when it came time for a Russian information campaign, for the first time, the infrastructure of today’s Internet was weaponized against Russia. Accounts were blocked, networks were filtered, messages were fact-checked. In many cases, Russian propaganda was simply not permitted on Western networks, while Ukrainian government propaganda was not only allowed but seemingly encouraged. Even the cruder, older technique of jamming the enemy signal was disallowed: the U.S. ran Starlink terminals to ensure that Ukrainian citizens remained connected and informed.
It turns out that, at least for the United States, supposed Russian cunning at information warfare was largely a smokescreen for Western actors whom that narrative served.
Surkov himself had anticipated this. In “Without Sky,” a piece of science fiction published shortly after the 2014 invasion of Ukraine, he imagines a world where Russians (by analogy) have lost the ability to see the sky. They can only view it now through the munificence of the big city (the West), against whom they plot their revenge.
The propaganda campaign centered on a letter not even in one’s alphabet, the very online and combative diplomats, even Putin’s fulminations against “wokeness”: these are the evidences of a society that has lost its own sky.
Paradoxically, the war in Ukraine might be the first real step towards regaining Russia’s sovereignty. Even though Russia’s leaders understood themselves to be caught in the Western Web – the internet, the global supply chain, the financial network – they could not muster the will to sever their ties, nor figure out how to build alternatives. Throughout last twenty years they repeatedly tried, only for each project to collapse in on elite infighting, corruption, and incompetence. The only way they could escape is if they were cast out.
It will come at a cost. Since the invasion of Crimea in 2014, Putin and his representatives have adopted increasingly imperial, Eurasianist rhetoric. It is completely irrelevant whether this turn is sincere or cynical. One must see the ideology behind the cynicism. The Russian state will have, must have, a mythic screen. And in the global media environment created by ubiquitous broadband internet, the only ideology powerful enough to justify what the Russian state will demand of its citizens may prove to be a recovery and modernization of an older imperial idea.
Russians understand the stakes to be high. For almost a decade, Russia tried the “non-linear” subversion-war approach they associate with the West, and failed to secure their power over Ukraine. Now they have retrieved an older mode. Surkov himself seemed to recognize this latent possibility, for he concluded “Without Sky” with this: “We will come tomorrow. We will conquer or perish. There is no third way.”