To understand the motivation behind the seemingly indiscriminate nature of Russia’s cyber-meddling operations, it is essential to contextualise them within the evolution of Russia’s grand strategy.
In 1989, Vladimir Putin, a young KGB officer stationed in East Germany, witnessed first-hand the power of popular uprising and the infectious nature of chaos as a destabilising agent against established authority. Putin’s lesson in the destructive power of general disarray and the communicability of popular dissent represents the genesis of Russia’s contemporary grand strategy. However, to fully understand the rise of Putin’s Russia, discussion of a man by the name of Aleksandr Dugin is essential.
At first glance, Aleksandr Dugin, an occult fascist, seems an unlikely ally of a former KGB operative such as Putin. However, Dugin’s philosophical influence on Putin would further crystallise Russia’s contemporary approach to foreign policy.
In 1997, Dugin published Foundations of Geopolitics. The book draws heavily on the work of Halford Mackinder’s who recognised the strategic advantages of occupying the Heartland of Russia and that whoever controlled it would control the world. However, Dugin revises Mackinder’s work and reframes it into a strategy of perpetual conflict as an enduring foreign policy strategy.
Dugin’s influence on Putin’s strategy also comes from their shared belief that popular chaos and instability are as potent as military force in the game of power. For Dugin, maintaining a permanent condition of conflict with the West is essential to Russian political power, and the key to this play is the ceaseless subversion of its heartland by sewing internal chaos.
In George Orwell’s 1984, the world exists in a state of perpetual and unwinnable conflict within a tripolar global divide. In Dugin’s theory, Eurasia, a name that Orwell borrowed from Mackinder, is at war not with Oceania, but the Atlanticist alliance led by the United States. According to Dugin: “The Eurasian Empire will be constructed on the fundamental principle of the common enemy: the rejection of Atlanticism, the strategic control of the USA.”
Understanding that Putin’s Russia is not pursuing the unlikely goal of singular world domination, rather the maintenance of a constant condition of Cold War-style tension, so that Russia can hold on to its relative power is key to understanding contemporary its foreign policy. So too is the practical operative strategy to foment domestic imbalance within the Atlanticist heartland in order to realise and maintain a global equilibrium.
Echoing 1984, Russia seeks an enduring conflict to divide and contain, rather than one to divide and conquer. This Machiavellian strategy is grounded in the subversion of their enemy’s core through infecting them with domestic disorder. By introducing a virus that attacks the social and political values of its foe, Russia hopes to unleash an epidemic of internal suspicion and agitation that will weaken interior power structures and, in turn, deteriorate their external strength. According to Dugin, for Russia to maintain its power globally, it must continuously erode America’s role as a superpower from within. In doing so, Russia is enacting Dugin’s argument that, “it is important to provoke all forms of instability and separatism within the borders of the United States.”
Considering the power held by America and its Atlanticist allies, and the rising might of China, which anchors the globe’s third tripolar sphere, it makes sense Russia has developed its grand strategy around relatively inexpensive arms-length cyber destabilisation campaigns. By focusing on remote subversion, Russia can punch far above its military and economic weight to maintain its position as a global power. Cyberwarfare, hacking, leaks, trolling, and bot-spread disinformation operations represent Moscow’s frontline tactics in its drive to weaken Atlanticist democratic society by influencing its citizens’ thought and warping perspectives.
Russia’s most infamous cyberattack to influence the result of the 2016 presidential election was a mission designed to infect the United States with the disease of internal division, suspicion, and chaotic paranoia. To Russia, President Trump is a useful idiot, an unwitting dupe in fulfilling Dugin’s plan to energise “extremist, racist, and sectarian groups, thus destabilising internal political processes in the U.S.” Even Trump’s America First policy affirms Dugin’s desire “to support isolationist tendencies in American politics.”
Contextualising Russia’s wide range of targets within the narrative of its grand strategy connects the dots between the seemingly unrelated actions being directed by Moscow. Each headline issue that includes Russian cyber-meddling demonstrates the relatively inexpensive yet massively effective techniques Moscow is employing to destabilise its enemies and maintain global influence. Unlike the costly version of permanent military warfare in Orwell’s 1984, Russia’s cynical approach to ensuring a perpetual global stalemate is being waged by contaminating the hearts and minds of its enemy’s population. And so far, the plan to sustain an enduring condition of septic chaos within the West appears to be meeting little meaningful resistance.