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"Is Russia Undermining Democracy in the West?" Panelist Essays

Robert E. Hamilton

Outside of some dark and often kooky corners of the internet, there is broad consensus in Western societies that Russia is attempting to undermine democracy. In the past several years, Western publics have become aware of Russian attempts to sow societal division and undermine electoral processes throughout the Western world. These Russian efforts are having an effect, but that doesn’t mean they are succeeding.  Indeed, there is ample evidence to suggest that - due to the backlash they have engendered - Russia’s efforts have caused more damage to Russia than to any Western state. Today, Russia is less popular in the West, its economic prospects are poorer, and its security situation is more tenuous than was the case only a few years ago.

Public perceptions of Russia in the West are now overwhelmingly negative. Some 66% of people surveyed in the latest Pew Research Center study on global views of Russia see it in a negative light.  Only 27% express a positive view of Russia, a gap of almost 40%. This represents a steep decline: as recently as 2011 Russia’s popularity in most Western countries was around 50%. Putin’s standing among Western publics is even worse, with 77% expressing no confidence in him to do the right thing in world affairs, versus only 21% who believe he can be trusted.

Russia has also taken a severe economic hit in the last several years, a result of Western sanctions, a flat oil price and an unreformed economy that struggles to attract Western capital. Russia’s economic growth over the period 2008-2017 averaged only 1.2%; the World Bank forecasts only moderately better growth of 1.9% this year. The U.S. (2.5%) and China (6.2%) – larger and more developed economies than Russia’s – are forecast to outpace it.  The recent arrest in Russia of widely-respected U.S. investor Michael Calvey, which seems to have been motivated by a commercial dispute between his company and one headed by a businessman with strong Kremlin connections, sent shock waves through the foreign investment community there. Calvey’s arrest will almost certainly cause an accelerated flight of Western capital from Russia, which is why former finance minister Alexey Kudrin called it an “emergency for the economy.”

Russia’s security situation has also deteriorated in the past several years. Its seizure of Crimea, military intervention in eastern Ukraine and attempts to destabilize perceived enemies throughout the West have galvanized wills in western capitals. On its western border, Russia now faces a NATO force of 4000 troops representing 22 NATO members. While this force is not strong enough to pose an offensive military threat to Russia, its presence ensures that in the event of war in the Baltics Russia will fight 22 countries, including the U.S., UK and Germany. 

Western states have also taken a greater interest in the security of Russia’s neighbors Ukraine and Georgia. The U.S., which had since 2008 declined to provide lethal military aid to Georgia, recently sold it and Ukraine advanced anti-tank missiles. France is poised to provide Georgia advanced air defense missiles. And Western militaries have undertaken training missions in both Georgia and Ukraine designed to improve their capabilities to resist external military aggression. Taken together, the deployment of NATO forces to the Baltics and increased assistance to Georgia and Ukraine represent a significant militarization of Russia’s western borders that makes Russia less secure.

Despite the fact that they have damaged Russia’s reputation in the West, its economic prospects, and its security, Russia’s actions are broadly popular with the Russian people.  There are two reasons for this counterintuitive conclusion. First, Russia would always prefer to be a problem for the West than to be irrelevant to it. It is ironic but instructive that the same Pew surveys that showed a steady decline for Russia’s popularity in the West registered an uptick in Russians’ perceptions of their country in the same period. This reflects a feeling among many Russians that the West could no longer ignore Russia, but instead had to reckon with it.

Next, many Russians argue that Russia’s attempts to erode societal cohesion and destabilize governments in the West are a defensive measure, not a new form of Russian aggression. Indeed, many in the Russian government argue that the West has been doing these things to Russia and its allies for years, and that Russia only belatedly recognized this and responded to it. In the West, Russian Chief of the General Staff Valeriy Gerasimov’s 2013 article in Russia’s Military Industrial Courier is widely – and inaccurately – seen as the unveiling of a new doctrine of “hybrid war” against Russia’s adversaries. While Gerasimov’s article did note that states are increasingly using non-military instruments to achieve strategic effects against adversaries, the article was actually intended as a rallying cry to refocus the Russian military establishment on the challenges of future conflict.[i] Instead of unveiling a new hybrid war doctrine against the West, Gerasimov was warning that the West was already engaged in a hybrid war against Russia, using its favorite tool, the “Color Revolution.”

For Gerasimov and many others in the Russian government, including Putin, the uprisings that toppled governments in Georgia, Ukraine and other places over the last fifteen-plus years were not popular movements resisting corrupt authoritarian regimes, but coups undertaken by the U.S. intelligence services with local support. And as preposterous as it seems to many in the West, Putin and his inner circle seem to believe the ultimate goal of U.S. intelligence services is to sponsor a “Color Revolution” in Russia itself. Putin’s obsession with preventing this outcome led him to use against the West the tactics it was allegedly using against Russia. As the old adage goes, “the best defense is a good offense.”

Many in the West will certainly – and correctly - argue that Western efforts to develop robust civil societies, assist in the organization of representative political parties, and build functioning democratic political institutions in the former Communist bloc are a far cry from Russia’s attempts to sow societal division, increase political polarization and erode trust in and the efficacy of political institutions in the West. These arguments will almost certainly fall on deaf ears in Moscow, where there is a widespread perception that Western governments have no real commitment to concepts like human rights and rule of law, but are instead cynically using them to undermine and destabilize Russia.

In the current environment, it is pointless to try to convince Russians they are mistaken about this. It is also pointless to point out that Russia’s international behavior undermines its own interests.  Russia would rather be less popular, less affluent and less secure than be irrelevant. To Putin and his inner circle, ensuring that the West has to reckon with Russia not only in Europe and the Middle East but in its own elections is worth that price. As Stephen Kotkin has noted, until Russia’s leaders come to understand the costs of making adversaries of the West and trying to dominate Eurasia, “Russia will remain not another necessary crusade to be won but a problem to be managed.” 

Instead of trying to “fix” Russia, we need to look inward. We need to eliminate the societal divisions that Russia exploits rather than trying to convince Russia not to exploit them. That requires eliminating from our information space false information deliberately designed to sow discord and division, and making ourselves more discerning consumers of information. We also need to learn to think critically and be comfortable with ambiguity and complex causality rather than searching for the simpler, more comforting solution that aligns with our preconceived notions about how the world works. If we can accomplish these things, we will deny Russia fertile ground on which to scatter its seeds of disinformation and propaganda designed to undermine our societies. Only then will we solve the “Russia problem.”

[i] Roger N. McDermott, “Does Russia Have a Gerasimov Doctrine?” Parameters 46(1), Spring 2016, 97-105.