Russia’s master plan to undermine western democracies — Myth or Reality?

written by Domonkos D. Kovacs, University of Cambridge

Published as part of European Horizons’ Spring 2021 policy priority series on Defending Democracy Against Cyber Threats and the Northern Chapters Publications Initiative on Interference in Elections.

TechCrunch/Bryce Durbin

A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of Russian election meddling. Anyone following the recent trends in geopolitical discourse will have noticed that a new political cliché has emerged in the Western democratic world, from the United States to Catalonia: the Russians are here to destroy democracy. The idea of a Russian cyber-expansionist master plan has turned from allegation and hearsay into an unquestionable consensus in Western political dialogue, particularly on the left. The 2014 Crimean crisis entrenched the notion of Russian imperial endeavours in public discourse. It demonstrated that Russia is willing to and capable of utilising its cyber armament to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs and that it is not reluctant to do so as a prelude to military action. The events of the 2016 US election and Brexit referendum further bolstered the claims that a Russian master plan for undermining democracies was unfolding in front of our eyes.

In the early years and months of such concerns, evidence of the actual effects and nature of Russian cyber interference was scarce. Nowadays, as a result of state-supported inquiries, probes, and swathes of research, we have a growing body of evidence on what the Russians are actually up to. It increasingly appears that the Russian state is not out to destroy our democracies, but to do something equally damaging and much more subtle: meddle, interfere, finance, and disinform in order to support their geopolitical interest.

The claim that Russia possesses a master plan to weaken the Western democratic world, its implied ideological and political rival, severely overstates Russian state capacity and intent. Despite its omnipotent appearance, the Russian government very rarely has a master plan. As Mikhail Zygar revealed in his 2016 book, the Russian government’s policymaking process is opportunistic, pragmatic, reactive, and decentralised. It has very little capacity to formulate or execute any sort of master plan. Furthermore, the existence of a master plan to dismantle democracy implies that Russian policymakers understand foreign policy in solely realist terms — as a zero sum game where hurting others necessarily benefits them. However, Russia’s approach to foreign policy is likely to be much more nuanced.

What does Russia want?

Rather than unleashing destruction and hoping for the downfall of the West in general, Russian foreign policy aims to promote specific geopolitical interests of the Russian state. The Russian government is pragmatic and thus supports causes, organisations, and politicians who promote their interests, albeit via illicit means.

The 2016 US election is especially notable in this regard. Following the Mueller report, it is now widely accepted that the Russian military intelligence agency, GRU, made substantial efforts to aid Donald Trump’s election. But why would Russia help Trump win an election? Simply because it was in Russia’s best interest to do so. Trump explicitly championed measures and made declarations which not just aligned with, but outright endorsed the Russian foreign policy agenda. Trump openly criticises the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, which at its core was founded to be an anti-Soviet, anti-Russian military alliance. The eastward expansion of the 1990s and 2000s ensured that Russia understandably continues to regard it as a potential threat. The weakening of NATO under Trump has benefited Russia. Trump has initiated the withdrawal of 12,000 American troops from Germany and has withdrawn from the Open Skies Treaty, which has shielded former Soviet states from Russian aggression since its ratification in 2002. Trump also allegedly voiced support for the annexation of Crimea, frequently downplayed the significance of the Russian conquest, and stalled $391 million’s worth of military aid to Ukraine. For Russian policymakers it was a choice between such a pro-Russia candidate and Hillary Clinton, a candidate who they alleged to have supported mass anti-government protests in Russia in 2011–2012, and who had openly condemned Putin’s re-election in 2012. When viewing the stakes from a Russian perspective, it would have been surprising if they had not supported Trump.

Commentators often cite the Brexit referendum as another example of Russian interference in Western democracies. Many observers argued that Russia interfered to tilt the vote towards Leave because they understood that Brexit would weaken Russian adversaries (both the United Kingdom and the European Union). However, it is unlikely that Russia’s motivations were so straightforward as to simply hurt the EU or the UK. As Alexander Baunov of Carnegie Centre writes: “That doesn’t mean, however, that Russians want Europe to be hurt. If they hated Europe, they would want more migrants to enter Europe and undesirable members to join the EU, which they do not. Nor do they want to have to get multiple visas and remember multiple exchange rates before taking their next trip West”. Instead, Russia may have intended to distance the EU from the US in order to push for sanctions relief. Sanctions were first adopted by the EU in the wake of the 2014 Crimean crisis, and have been periodically renewed ever since, causing great harm to the Russian economy. The UK is America’s closest ally within the EU and the most vocal and most powerful Russia-sceptic in the bloc. Its opposition to sanctions relief contrasts to the positions of the French, German, and Italian governments in 2016. Russia did not interfere on behalf of Brexit to corrupt democracy, but to make the EU more pro-Russian by aiding the removal of its strongest critic.

Why does this matter?

This interest-based understanding of Russian cyber interference does not in any way suggest that the Russians would never interfere for the sake of weakening other states. Instead, it aims to replace the abstract fear of the evil Russian empire coming to sabotage our democracies with a more rational, analytical approach. Russian interference and cyber warfare have been misinterpreted numerous times, resulting in flawed understanding and media hysteria. A compelling example for this trend is the conception and the withdrawal of the Gerasimov doctrine by Western analysts. The term, which has acquired a mythical significance in foreign policy circles, was coined by Mark Galeotti in 2013, and as the author describes: “[it] has since acquired a destructive life of its own, lumbering clumsily into the world to spread fear and loathing in its wake.” The Gerasimov doctrine, intended to showcase the Russian state’s new insidious approach to foreign policy was revealed to be based on a serious misinterpretation of the words of a Russian general, Valery Gerasimov.

Understanding the interests behind Russian interference allows us to produce a more nuanced and more precise picture of why, how, where, and when the Russians will meddle. This approach serves as a basis for a series of recommendations on how to foretell, detect, and counter Russia’s attempts to meddle in democratic processes. These findings and recommendations are to be published in a journal article in the near future.

Domonkos D. Kovacs is a student at the University of Cambridge reading History and Russian. He is studying to be a policy and political communications advisor, and is passionate about strengthening European democracies and the EU’s foreign relations.

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