Putin’s Asymmetric War with Western Democracies

Russians yearn for a Russia ‘that made the world tremble’, an image that Russia had during the Cold War. Just as Turkey hypnotises its people with Ottoman propaganda, Putin uses Russians’ dream of a ‘Great Russia’. The difference is that while the former is an imaginary and self-aggrandising glory to save one man, the latter is very realistic to the extent that it is disturbing.

Putin’s Russia gives the impression with his actions in the last few years that we are returning to a bipolar world of the Cold War. Putin does not only use its military power but also by using asymmetric warfare methods to intimidate and keep the world and especially democratic Western countries in check. Putin is a statesman who has a past of being trained by the KGB and with a particular history and knowledge of intelligence methods. He was on duty in the KGB during the Cold War and his mind and worldview were shaped with the combat methods of that era. For this reason, he still acts with a Cold War mentality both in domestic and foreign politics and insists on using KGB methods. In this sense, he is more like an intelligence agent than a statesman.

He has his enemies killed in cold blood in the metropolises of the safest countries in the world, makes companies that gain power and that are out of his sphere of control pay large fines and confiscates their properties. No political or social critic against him has any chance of staying alive in Russia. They are either arrested, jailed, subjected to a suspicious accident; or killed in any other way. He doesn’t let go of his critics who escaped abroad either. He had tens of Chechen leaders killed in Istanbul. He had a political dissident killed in a hotel in London, and recently it is suspected that he had an ex-KGB member and his daughter poisoned in Salisbury, England.

Russia, which had returned to its shell in the early 1990 and had disbanded the Red Army, has returned to the military and intelligence race and using its Cold War tactics once again with Putin, who uses the money earned from petrol and gas to primarily increase his political influence and to make Russia an effective military power again. He has already succeeded in the former. As such, it invaded Georgia and entered Ukraine with its military forces and annexed Crimea in front of the world. It used the same discourse used by many Western countries, the means of using ‘struggle with ISIS’ as an excuse to bring its military forces into the Middle East. It obtained a naval base on the Mediterranean and the Syrian coast, which has an aircraft carrier and engages in open warfare in Syria. Turkey was only able to conduct its military operation in Afrin with Russia’s permission as the region’s aerial control is in Russia’s hands. Russia became a de-facto actor in the Middle East by developing close relations with Iran and Bashar al Assad. Today neither regional powers nor Western nations can make any political-military plans in the Middle East without taking Russia into consideration. Because they encounter Russia on the ground with its army and its aerial forces. Like in the Soviet era, Russia is the most feared and rivaled country by NATO, US, EU and other Western countries in terms of military competence.

It is also widely reported that Russia has been for some time organising state-sponsored cyber attacks with its professional personnel against Western countries. Western media outlets debate how these teams reportedly manipulate elections in the West and shape public opinion. This is to such extent that it is argued that Putin’s trolls ((The Kremlin’s Troll Army, The Atlantic, Available at https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/08/the-kremlins-troll-army/375932/ )) may have had some influence on most European and US elections in the last 4-5 years ((The Russian troll factory at the heart of the meddling allegations, The Guardian, Available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/apr/02/putin-kremlin-inside-russian-troll-house )). There are investigations into Trump’s possible winning of elections thanks to an alleged collusion with Russia. Robert Mueller, ex-director of FBI, was given special authorisation to investigate the allegation of collusion, including Michael Flynn’s, ex-advisor of Donald Trump, links with Russia. Recently The Economist published two articles ((Russian disinformation distorts American and European democracy, The Economist, Available at https://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21737297-mueller-indictment-reveals-some-kremlins-tactics-russian-disinformation-distorts )) ((How Putin meddles in Western democracies, The Economist, Available at https://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21737276-and-why-wests-response-inadequate-how-putin-meddles-western-democracies )) discussing the digital manipulations and interruptions of Putin’s Russia. Putin’s and his trolls’ manipulations are discussed regarding a wide range of political events, from the elections in Italy and Hungary to the Catalan independence movement in Spain, finally to the Brexit issue in the UK. Russia’s ‘troll factories’ and interviews with people working in these factories have been the talk of Western media for some time.

Putin and Russia: What are they doing?

They create several fake social media accounts with a large following and they manipulate the electoral base through these accounts. There are considerable data on the possible manipulation of Blacks and Muslims in the US through fake accounts to make Hillary Clinton lose against Trump. There are some findings that point towards serious work done in Florida, a state that changed the fate of the elections. In the elections, activists and groups with large following were manipulated to influence the elections, positively or negatively. Fake accounts were identified that used photos of real people. Facebook was the medium used that was most effective on the middle and lower classes of society. Deutsche Welle reports ((Facebook: 126 million users exposed to Russian political posts in US election, Deutsche Welle, Available at http://p.dw.com/p/2mmlf )) that Russia reached 126 million Americans before the elections with its manipulations. There are serious claims that Russian hackers may have intercepted the election process in the US.

One of the aims of the Putin’s troll army and Russia’s state-sponsored cyber attacks is to fuel racism in the West, to securitise minorities and migrants, to divide western democracies and to render them dysfunctional. Russia, with its leftist and communist political parties, have been developing arguments to manipulate public opinion to bring high amounts of votes to far-right parties, to damage the people’s trust in democracy, rule of law and pluralism. Furthermore, companies financed by wealthy Putin supporters work towards supporting certain parties financially and to donate large sums to preferred politicians. Russia, therefore, harnesses the power of social media and fault lines in western societies to damage the democratic process and rule of law.

Russia brings parties and groups that are anti-UN to the forefront, uses KGB methods to spread disinformation, and strengthens movements that are prone to be divided. Putin does these through both social media and conventional media; Macron and Angela Merken both warned Putin for Russia Today and Sputnik’s certain broadcasts. What’s more, they also expose important emails to create a sensation in the West, and by doing so political actors who do not agree with Russian strategies are made to lose their integrity in the public’s eye. Through social media, racist and Islamist groups were mobilised and brought together in the same place thanks to Russian manipulation, and a huge conflict between the two groups was suppressed with serious difficulty. Many Western countries have been investing in cyber protection and similar areas to protect themselves from Russia’s propaganda and hacker teams.

Why do Russia and Putin act this way?

Russia has been following its New Eurasian strategy, whose mastermind was Alexander Dugin. This strategy’s main goal is to divide Europe in itself, to bring these countries out of NATO’s protection, to break the US’ influence in the region and to create a new sphere of influence in the New Eurasia with Moscow as its centre. To this end, a weak and divided Europe with little regard for democracy, rule of law and trust in leaders, is needed. These comprise the strategy of asymmetric war headed by Putin against the West.

With the above strategies, Putin remains in the public psyche as a ‘strong leader’, and this allows his actions to go unchecked. Putin’s athletic poses and confrontational speeches all work towards satisfying this perception of a strong leader in Russian society. Russians yearn for a Russia ‘that made the world tremble’, an image that Russia had during the Cold War. Just as Turkey hypnotises its people with Ottoman propaganda, Putin uses Russians’ dream of a ‘Great Russia’. The difference is that while the former is an imaginary and self-aggrandising glory to save one man, the latter is very realistic to the extent that it is disturbing.

Where does Turkey stand?

Erdogan and Davutoğlu challenged Russia after the downing of the Russian jet; however, they later apologised to Russia and were forced to bow down to it. One of Russia’s historical aims is to have a dominant position in the Middle East. To be able to do that and to break UN and NATO’s influence, Russia needs Turkey to align itself next to Russia and Russia needs to use Turkey against the West. Therefore, Erdogan chose to align with Putin to be freed from the feeling of being trapped.

The suspicious coup attempt was the most important fruit of the Erdogan-Puting agreement. 15 July coup attempt was a ‘grace of God’ for Erdogan in his own words, and thanks to the coup attempt Erdogan managed to get rid of all the barriers in front of him against his one-man rule. After 15 July, NATO elements were distanced from Turkish Armed Forces and ultra-nationalist teams of Dogu Perincek, a man who is a partner and contact of Dugin, became dominant in the army. Putin-Dugin-Erdogan triangle and agreement set up after the 15 July coup attempt neutralised the Turkish Armed Forces, one of NATO’s strongest armies in the south, and forced Turkey to be indebted and dependent on Russia. By giving Turkey the green light for the Afrin operation, Putin chose to use Turkey against NATO and the Western powers as part of its Eurasian strategy.

It is not possible anymore for Erdogan to return to democracy and the rule of law. This is because serious claims regarding himself and his close circle cannot be buried under the sand in a democratic atmosphere with rule of law in place. This situation at hand causes Erdogan to turn to authoritarianism and annihilation of the rule of law inside the country, while abroad it causes him to approach the authoritarian bloc, to Russia and China.

Russia, reading this helpless situation of Erdogan very well, causes Turkey through Erdogan to become more dependent on Russia, and forces it to cut its ties with NATO, UN, and the democratic world. If NATO and UN countries continue to ignore Erdogan and the frictions caused by his failings and watch the authoritarianism and lack of rule of law in Turkey continue to unfold, Turkey, NATO’s important ally in the southern wing would finally join the league of completely authoritarian countries.

After cutting ties with the West and with strong ties with Russia, Turkey may turn into a serious security problem for Europe. Turkey could become a weapon that Putin can use against the West. Erdogan could do more than mobilise Turkish speaking populations in Europe in that kind of scenario. He may use the immigrant card more. He may use radical and armed Islamist groups that have good relations with him against the West for threatening and blackmailing Europe. A Turkey that is similar to an authoritarian and Islamist Iran has the potential to harm Western democracies even more than Iran.

© 2017 Turkey Institute