When Putin Shattered His Wilderness of Mirrors
So much for 'hybrid war'
The following is based on an article that originally appeared at CrooksAndLiars.com in May 2018. Written for a highly partisan audience, that old post has been dated by events as well, and deserves an update and revision on different lines for a new audience. However, this revised and updated version still acknowledges the existence of political figures and controversies. Reader discretion is advised.
Propaganda works best when it uses both sides. This is PSYOPS 101.
For example, about half of all the Facebook material put out by the Kremlin-backed "troll farm" in St. Petersburg during 2016 was aimed at stoking racial animus from opposing sides.
"Separate ads, launched simultaneously, would stoke suspicion about how police treat black people in one ad, while another encouraged support for pro-police groups," USA Today reported.
Then after the election, the "Internet Research Agency" tried to organize simultaneous pro- and anti-Trump rallies in New York City. Clearly, the goal of all this was to discredit American democracy, not simply elect a president.
For Putin, Trump was at best a forlorn hope in November 2016, just one part of a larger plan of attack.
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To no small extent, lingering doubts about the health of American democracy today are the scar tissues of 2016 and everything after. Today, all things Trump and Russia have receded from the news, yet serious unresolved questions remain on every side of the issue.
Trump was received on the American center-left as an emergency, and speculation about the nature of his relationship to all things Russia blew up after he was forced to fire Michael Flynn in the first week of his presidency.
As Trump fulfilled conservative culture war ambitions on the Supreme Court — with consequences that will last for generations — and his support base was highly activated, Republicans defended Trump at every turn. They are happy to let sleeping dogs lie now.
No matter how much President Trump wanted a good relationship with Vladimir, he did not want his presidency perceived by history as a Kremlin propaganda project, either. Knowing his predicament, Putin used both sides of Donald Trump to achieve his own ends as much as possible.
A few Twitter grifters made out big from all of this. Every one of of them has moved on to other things now, like the war in Ukraine, or January 6, or Roe v Wade. The audience for Trump-Russia disappeared as soon as the urgency of his presidency was over.
By then, Americans of every description were exhausted from trying to figure out what was true, or demanding that the truth be as they wished it to be, and never getting what they wanted, because the only truth was self-reflection on every side.
America was right where Putin wanted us, in a wilderness of mirrors, until he shattered it in a blast of shrapnel.
I first became aware of this "both sides" propaganda rule while serving in the US Army. Although my job did not directly involve PSYOPS, some of my co-workers had specialized in it. One particular Cold War veteran showed me his personal collection of propaganda leaflets from the 1991 Gulf War.
As part of the 4th Psychological Operations Group, he had helped produce and print more than 29 million leaflets that were released over Kuwait and Iraq by every available means, fluttering to the desert floor. According to Psywarrior.com, their operations succeeded in "preparation of the psychological battlefield:"
The Coalition forces packed M129E1 leaflet bombs with up to 54,000 machine-rolled leaflets, which were dropped over Iraqi concentrations by F-16, F/A-18, B-52, and MC-130 aircraft. Other leaflets were delivered by balloons. Before the war started, 12,000 leaflets were floated onto the beaches of Kuwait by bottle. Interrogation of Iraqi prisoners revealed that 98% had seen Coalition leaflets.
When Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf finally started his ground attack, most of the Iraqi Army did exactly what all this propaganda had told them to do. Importantly, the political propaganda was far less effective than the instructions to surrender.
The major PSYOP themes were Surrender (12.4 million leaflets), Inevitability of defeat (6.6 million), Abandon Equipment and Flee (1.9 million), Saddam is to Blame for the war (4.7 million) and other (3.5 million).
Those detailed instructions on how to surrender safely probably saved thousands of American and Iraqi lives. But that lesson was not what I remember best about the leaflet scrapbook.
Instead, "you always want to print on both sides of the leaflet," my teacher explained, pointing out how all the coalition leaflets were printed that way. "If you leave one side blank, then the enemy can repurpose your leaflets against you."
This had happened to the Iraqis, he told me. Saddam's military failed to observe this both-sides rule in their feeble attempts to drop leaflets on the coalition. His team was then able to collect the propaganda, print counter-propaganda on the reverse sides, and then drop the mocking leaflets back on the Iraqi troops with images portraying allied command of the skies.
While we cannot say that all this leafleting was decisive in the outcome of the conflict, we can say with certainty that it helped shape the behavior of Iraqis. As soon as the bombing campaign began, "several groups of Iraqi soldiers carried the flyers with them and followed instructions precisely as they crossed in recent days into U.S. lines," according to contemporary reporting.
It worked so well that the Pentagon used leaflet drops once more in 2003, again printing on both sides of the paper.
As explained to me, this rule of propaganda — "cover both sides" — is so basic that one can find diverse applications all across the universe of disinformation.
Russian Twitter trolls did not simply attack Hillary Clinton from the right on behalf of Trump in 2016, but also through support for Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein on the left.
Set aside arguments over people and blame. Note how the Kremlin positioned itself relative to everyone opposed to Hillary Clinton, for whatever reason, from every perspective except the political center.
Despite Moscow's cultural conservatism and outreach to American evangelicalism, Russia Today and Sputnik spent years cultivating leftist voices before Putin resumed his invasion of Ukraine this year.
Without belaboring the point, note that the lovely new terms in our lexicon of political scandal -- kompromat, active measures, etc. -- are all intrinsically entwined with this principle, too.
Putin had no interest in Trump as person, or even an ally, but as a means. Information that served Putin did not necessarily serve Trump, especially when it was true.
For example, Natalia Veselnitskaya met with Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort at Trump Tower during June 2016 in order to simply compromise the Trump Organization. It did not matter that no one shook hands over a quid pro quo, only that the terms of that potential exchange got communicated.
Nearly two years after the meeting, with America in the grip of Russomania, Veselnitskaya admitted to being a "Kremlin informant" in an interview with NBC's Richard Engel about the Trump Tower meeting. She would not have said this without Kremlin approval, and Putin would not approve the disclosure of kompromat unless he saw an advantage in it.
Why would Putin let that particular dime drop? Well, Trump never actually did rid Russia of those pesky Magnitsky sanctions. Did he?
If the quid was protecting Trump kompromat — such as a pee tape, or an affair with a porn star, or some other disgusting mess — then mob boss Putin was still largely waiting for his quo two years into the Trump presidency.
Then there is the curious way that all Trump-Putin interactions were always disclosed to the American people by Putin's state media instead of the White House. It made Trump look weak and furtive where the Russian leader appeared stoic and forthright.
If the reader objects that Trump was perhaps just desperate to avoid feeding collusion narratives, I can accept this argument, because it does not disprove my point. Believe whatever you like about Trump and Russia: for four years, Putin always seemed the wiser, more robust leader by comparison.
No doubt this fed his ego and served to validate political apathy in the minds of Russians. Putin simply wanted to make the world safe for his mafia state. Trump was never more than a means to that end.
Only by setting aside our feelings for the man can we perceive how he has been used against us all. How all of us have been used against one another.
Polarization, dysfunction, and paralysis in democracies are good for Putin, so whatever works to create polarization, dysfunction, and paralysis in democracies will also work for Putin. This seemed to work for a time.
Inasmuch as his “hybrid war” infrastructure was able to spew forth a sudden torrent of concern-trolling about “neo-Nazis” in Ukraine, that country was in fact a vibrant, centrist democracy in February, as evidenced by their Jewish president.
Contrary to all this noise about Azov battalions, Putin does not care where any neighboring country’s government lies on some simplistic left-right political axis. What matters to him is that any state touching on Russia should be subordinate to Russia and a mirror image of his Russian mafia state.
Had Zelenskyy been a corrupt leftist dictator, or a corrupt right-wing dictator, Putin would have been just as happy to continue letting Ukraine exist in peace as an imperial satellite. But Ukrainians made a mistake in his eyes by trying to be too different from his Russia, electing a comedian reformer.
Putin could not allow a Slavic state on his borders to give Russians any funny ideas about transparency and democracy, so he tried literally attacking them from all sides. One element of this renewed invasion was a propaganda campaign targeted at softening liberal sympathies in the west for “neo-Nazis” supposedly running Ukraine.
Invoking Soviet resistance to Nazism served both domestic and foreign policy objectives. It is understandable that Putin thought such an obvious disinformation campaign might succeed on Americans.
His wilderness of mirrors had disconnected Americans from one another and helped us reduce ourselves in the eyes of the world for four overlong years. With so many Americans still in states of reflexive “resistance” against incipient fascism, real or perceived, chaos and confusion were realistic prospects.
Turns out that these strategies have their limits, though. Societies can galvanize against foreign information intrusions and fight them off without resorting to the creation of new, totalitarian-sounding government agencies. Dubious conspiracy narratives can fail to gain traction, especially on a population that has learned to expect the worst out of Russia.
American democracy is still having its own problems, but they are not what Putin wanted. Chaos and confusion have not deterred Americans or Europeans from unifying against him in Ukraine. Many years of patient effort are wasted. The wizard has broken his own spell.
Putin undid the work of a generation in February. Casting aside finesse, he chose brute force, giving up on any chance of ever succeeding at “hybrid war” — or any other 21st Century geopolitical distillation of bog-standard Russian imperialist propaganda — in our time.
Of course, I am not giving an all-clear signal. Quite the opposite. Distrust in media is more general than ever in America. We are still affected by both the actions of the previous regime and the overreactions it inspired, shock and counter-shock.
Russia is neither the first foreign power that ever set out to influence American public opinion, nor will they be the last, nor should we count Putin as any more “foreign” to the public interest than corporations waving dollars under politicians’ noses.
What Putin unleashed in 2016, that should still worry us, is a new kind of internet. Tools that were supposed to serve the masses and bring us closer together turned out to be excellent for dividing and driving us apart, too.
Just because Putin has lost his touch does not mean this is over. Innumerable actors have an interest in destroying truth, inspiring apathy, and promoting disconnection by pretending to represent all sides of an issue. They saw how Russia used these tools, took notes, and learned from it. We will see their like again soon enough.
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