A year ago, the stars’ alignment seemed perfect for Mr. Putin’s plans to subdue the West, scoring media coups and consecutive foreign policy successes. He rejoiced with the image of a strong and omnipotent leader, profiting from the intentionally blurred difference between his real and perceived power, while enjoying the privilege of operational surprise over his opponents. The dominant perception was that he is capable of penetrating the most intimate political and social fabrics of Western democracies. The refugee wave in Europe acted as a catalyst to the stun policy – the EU was on the brink of being overwhelmed by the Kremlin’s multi-layered hybrid war machine.
Putin’s campaigns of influence ridiculed the few sobering voices in the West, easily dismissing warnings of an all-out assault against the West, as conspiracy theories and hysteria.
Western intelligence and analytical centers seemed baffled as the Kremlin was operating with ease not only from its psycho war launching pads in Russia, but from locations within Western societies that made Russian interference not solely an issue of foreign, but domestic policy.
There has never been a formal declaration of war but the Third World Hybrid War is in full swing – virtual and real casualties and losses accounted for.
President Putin kept all the cards of this elaborate game plan to his chest – using the Kremlin and its Security Council to coordinate the different aspects of his war strategy. He ordered the Russian Institute for strategic studies (RISI), the former analytical arm of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service to prepare a Masterplan for Russia’s subversive influence targeted national campaigns in key EU states and the US.
The Kremlin and Putin himself retained the ultimate control and coordination joystick of the various channels and levers – both the open and official – diplomatic, but mostly hidden webs of influence knitted by his intelligence services, Russian oligarchs’ business networks, media and the digital war machine.
The Chairman of RISI until January 2017 – Leonid Reshetnikov – publicly admitted in an interview for Russia’s infamous ‘Orthodox’ oligarch Konstantin Malofeev’s Tsargrad TV that whilst his institute is on the ball of parts of the operations, the details and the overall command rests with the president. RISI has hardly any role in the hacking operations, which are coordinated mainly by the military intelligence, GRU, for local military command units (Fancy Bear – Prikolnyui Medved) and foreign-based non-state actors or “leakers” – Wikileaks and hackers-to-rent (Russia’s Foreign Intelligence plays a lesser role) and the Federal Security Service, FSB, for Russian-based hacking groups (the Shatai Boltai – linked with Anonymous International).
President Putin had been pumping up his geopolitical muscles for more than ten years, ever since the inflow of petrodollars overwhelmed the absorption capacity rates of the Russian state budget and he had to take urgent steps to sterilize the monetary mass, setting aside two rainy day reserve funds. With the money in hand and a lenient and intellectually drowsy West – slow to grasp the lethal threat of the explosive mix of blending old Soviet and Russian imperial arrogance with the new technological tools and methods at hand – the odds seemed totally in his favor. A Crimea type of hybrid operation beyond opponents’ defense lines transpired in the Kremlin’s conduct on the international scene.
Everything seemed to work Putin’s way – Russia invaded defenseless Georgia in 2008 and forced peace on its own terms in the five-day war, thus effectively setting the ground for the replacement of President Saakashvili. A massive and targeted influence campaign not only changed perceptions but also shifted public mood and electoral preferences in favor of pro-Russian candidates.
More pages in the “How to wage and win and hybrid campaign’ playbook were written during the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions in Ukraine. To cut a long story short, Putin was riding the waves – seemed invincible and omnipotent.
Although the Russian president impressed the international public with his political and military endeavors, he was perfectly aware of the fact that Russia stands no chance of redressing key strategic balances by open military means or via economic or technologically superior force.
He sent in his troops to Syria against the backdrop of a wavering and soul-searching West, without any intent either to resolve the internal conflicts or to win the war for President Assad.
His main task was to impress the West. Where military hardware fell short on target, the new hybrid warfare tactics came in to fill the void.
The Brexit referendum shattered the EU’s self-confidence and complacency. Until quite recently the Western public opinion did not seem to relate the results of the vote in the UK to the invisible hand of Mr. Putin. Britain was the testing ground for the new grey zone operations of the Kremlin. Ever since Roman Abramovich moved his billions to London and Russian oligarchs started buying media, soccer clubs, high-tech firms, and residential and commercial real estate in the UK on a scale that started to impact trends and moods in the market, the Kremlin has been patiently assembling the different pieces of the overall hybrid war machine puzzle. With political risk at home too high, the Russian economy too weak or risky even for domestic investors and Russia unable to offer Western living standards, Putin’s entourage decided to embark on a concise strategy of innovatively using Russia’s newborn wealth, integrating state and private asset bases abroad into a complex web of interests, dependencies and influence, that could be exploited to achieve Russia’s foreign policy goals.
The deal President Putin offered to Russia’s oligarchs after Khodorkovsky’s disciplinary show case was simple – you depend on me to sustain the sources of your richesse. Without the Russian state behind your back, you might end up as the next Khodorkovsky. However, if you agree to play ball and allow your business networks abroad to be infiltrated and used by Russian intelligence and secret services in their work, your home base is safe.
With the Kremlin’s nod and support, Russian oligarchs and banks operating within the framework of the Kremlin’s grand strategy, started acquiring key assets, transferring funds to offshore accounts and tax heavens, building agents’ and partners’ networks with Western businessmen, politicians and digital world opinion leaders, as well as key figures in the Russian criminal and Islamic radicalists’ world. In time, these individually unattractive bits of the holistic effort turned into a scary, destructive power, forcing the EU and US governments to reckon with Moscow’s interests. Its assault and forward defense capabilities stretched well beyond Russian borders, into the enemy lines, i.e. within Western societies, exploiting newly emerged and generic zones of vulnerabilities.
This was a classic divide et impera policy line – turning EU members against each other, the EU against the US, US Republicans against Democrats.