There is no mystery about what Vladimir Putin’s Russia seeks to achieve through its propaganda. It doesn’t want to make you love Russia. It wants to make you distrust America. And thanks to the panic about Russia’s influence in the 2016 election, it’s enjoying brilliant success.
Long before last November, experts who followed Russia’s propaganda efforts had come to a consensus about the goal of its campaign. Back in the days of the USSR, Soviet propaganda spread lies about the United States, but it also tried to make gullible Westerners admire Soviet Communism.
Incredibly, this sometimes worked. It helped that there was nothing particularly Russian about Communism: It was an ideology that could appeal anywhere. Throw in the USSR’s vital role in winning World War II, and Moscow had something to work with.
That’s not true now. Putin’s Russia is narrowly nationalist. It has no appeal to anyone who isn’t Russian. Today’s Russia is also poor, brutally oppressive, and wildly corrupt — and while it loves to call its enemies fascists, we’re well past the point when Putin can reliably dine out on 1945.
So the Russian strategy now is simple. As the Center for European Policy Analysis put it in 2015, Russian information warfare today is “calibrated to confuse, befuddle and distract.”
Russia aims not to provide answers, but to “provoke doubt, disagreement and, ultimately, paralysis.” Its propaganda is not pro-Russian; it’s anti-Western. It wants to make us distrust our government, our society and ourselves, so that we lack the clarity to focus on what Russia is: an aggressive tyranny.
The tactics have succeeded. Look at what’s happening in the United States. President Donald Trump’s opponents — not all of them liberals — have leapt to condemn him for colluding with Russia. Hillary Clinton’s opponents say the same thing about her.
It’s clear there were contacts between individuals involved in Trump’s campaign and the Russians. It’s also clear that Clinton spent her four years as secretary of state promoting the Obama administration’s Russia reset, and urging us to regard Putin as a trustworthy partner.
And it seems very likely that Russia was involved in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee. But the point of this, as the Russians saw it, was not to help anyone win. It was to divide the Democratic Party and create problems for Clinton after her (supposedly) inevitable victory.
It was a page from the Russian playbook: Provoke disagreement and paralysis, in this case by fueling the feud between Clinton’s supporters and those of Sen. Bernie Sanders. But then Trump went and upset the script by winning.
Yet the Russians did Trump no favors. Almost immediately, U.S. media outlets published the so-called Trump dossier, based on allegations about Trump drawn from Russian sources. The Russians have no consistent line, and that’s the point; they just want to cause as much trouble as possible.
But now the U.S. political system is being consumed by accusations that the other side is in league with the Russians. And not just that. Yale historian Timothy Snyder has spent months on The New York Times bestseller list with his “On Tyranny.” No prizes for guessing who the tyrant is.
All of this suits the Russians just fine. By focusing relentlessly on the evil within, by proclaiming the dawn of tyranny in the United States, Americans are playing the Russian game. In practice, if not in law, they are colluding with Russia by encouraging us to distrust ourselves.
I welcome anyone who sincerely recognizes Putin’s Russia as a malign force. I have argued that case since Russia attacked the nation of Georgia in 2008. But too many of today’s worriers about Russia are not actually talking about what’s wrong with Russia. They are talking about what’s wrong with America.
They are doing exactly what Putin wants them to do.
This piece originally appeared in Newsday