The rejuvenation of fascism in Russia, and its use of
corruption, should not have been ignored by the West – both are transforming western societies into autocracies with xenophobic populism
27 February 2014 marked the fifth anniversary of Russia’s seizure of Crimea.
The West subsequently expressed “concern”, assuming it could largely abandon Ukraine. Yet, five years later, Russia has launched Brexit and Trump while rejuvenating fascism. How did this happen and what must we do to make it stop?
The re-publication of leaked documents by the Distributed Denial of Secrets initiative, along with other sources, shows how Russian subversion was tested in Ukraine in 2014. It is only by using this material that we can comprehend Russia’s wider war.
Crimea’s annexation began with incognito Russian Spetsnaz seizing the Simferopol Parliament.
The crowds waving Russian flags nearby had been hired by Russian politician Konstantin Zatulin and Kremlin aide Sergey Glazyev. A faked referendum followed on 16 March 2014.
Surkov’s Theatre of War
The seizure of Donbas, in the east of Ukraine, was partially improvised and involved local Nazis linked to Russian political analyst Aleksandr Dugin and subsequently the Russian military.
However, later plans to seize additional territory detailed in the Surkov Leaks – a hack of email accounts linked to Putin aide Vladislav Surkov – failed. Russia had underestimated the strength both of Ukraine’s national identity and its military.
The West failed to study the tools Russia used and to assess its successes and failures in Ukraine.
It assumed that, as in the last century, conflicts were geographically defined. However, documents show how Putin’s regime reached across borders and displayed a world view unchanged since the Tsarist era.
Robert van Voren, an expert on Russia, believes we are witnessing a “repetition of history”.
“The West naively thought the Soviet Union was a genuine ally against the Nazis,” he said. However, the Soviets used this opportunity to infiltrate them. Similarly, the West believed Russia had changed after the USSR’s collapse. However it was preparing for a Hybrid War.”
The Rise of the Troll Army
The “hybrid war” tools Russia deployed in Ukraine, as detailed in the Surkov leaks, included hired mobs and political fronts. Links were formed with local oligarchs seeking to advance Russian interests. Whole armies of trolls were deployed to manipulate opinion on social media.
These techniques were subsequently utilised to break international resistance to the dismemberment of Ukraine.
The West was unprepared for this new war, in which it faced a society rather than a military. Oligarchs, ordinary Russians and Mafiosi sometimes voluntarily support Russia’s imperial ambitions. The search for a grand strategy underpinning Russia’s war is illusory. The unifying force is an imperialist mind-set. Russia’s variant of hybrid war is very different to the original concept.
A History of Deception
The subversion targeting the West is rooted in Russian history. The use of fakes and masked invasions dates back to the Russo-Ukrainian war of 1917-21. Trotsky denied Russian troops were in Ukraine with the same brazen dishonesty as Putin.
The Dutch referendum, like Brexit, was influenced by trolling from Russia. This occurred either directly or through frontsRobert Van Voren
The country has always operated on patronage and terror. Alexander Torshin, a former Russian politician who was a member of Putin’s United Russia party and is now deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia, may never have been instructed to launch Russian gun rights activist Maria Butina’s American adventure. He might have negotiated the idea in order to avoid prosecution for laundering funds partly looted from Parex bank. Similarly, mobster Semion Mogilevich, who groomed the future Hungarian president in the 1990s, probably offered Viktor Orban to Putin.
Another one of Russia’s tools from the past is the use of political fronts. The country’s links to the extreme right, which pre-dated the seizure of Crimea, have been used to rejuvenate fascism globally. There are similar links to the left which are used to distribute Russian narratives.
One of Russia’s first victories against the EU post-2014 was the Dutch referendum on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. The vote on 6 April 2016 was “won” by a ‘no’ campaign which spread Russian lies regarding MH17 – the Malaysia Airlines flight that was shut down by Russia while flying over eastern Ukraine, killing 298 people – on toilet paper.
From Dutch Referendum to Brexit
For Robert van Voren, “the Dutch referendum, like Brexit, was influenced by trolling from Russia. This occurred either directly or through fronts”.
The Brexit vote in the UK was, of course, affected by a combination of dark money and social media activity largely originating from Russia. The numerous links Putin formed with pro-Brexit British politicians have an eerie similarity to Ukraine.
In Britain, as in Ukraine, Putin found oligarchs and agencies such as Cambridge Analytica willing to facilitate splintering the EU.
Holland, like Britain, treated a compromised poll as a genuine mandate. It is arguable that the failure to address interventions in these votes assisted Trump.
Professor Sasha Talavera’s research shows that bot activity was used both in the Brexit vote and during the US presidential election. Similarly, if Viktor Orban’s recruitment by Mogilievich had been analysed, safeguards could have been developed.
Perhaps most crucially, Russia’s rejuvenation of fascism and its use of corruption should have been addressed. Both are transforming western societies into autocracies which secure popular support via xenophobia.
So, what can be done?
Ukraine’s success in resisting Russia should be evaluated, particularly with regards to its civic society initiatives and intelligence service. The country is facing an existential threat and is largely united.
The West similarly needs to recognise its foe and unite with Ukraine to win this war. However, there is little chance yet of that happening.
As Robert van Voren notes: “The West is no longer cohesive, but in moral crisis. Authoritarianism and neo-fascism in Europe and a psychopathic president in the United States have created a void. We are entering a period similar to that of the 1930s and should be very worried indeed.”