While most observers kept looking for the detectable part of Russia’s new military hardware potential beyond its borders, tracking every move of the obsolete aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetzov, the Kremlin amassed a loosely bound yet concise and sizeable cyber warfare force, which was operatively privately, yet under Russian government control, both at home and in the West. It was capable of penetrating institutions, political parties, key public infrastructure, business, media and data centers – critical during election time in opinion and policy shaping and making.
Although a substantial chunk of the direct cyber-attacks is known to have been the work of Russia-based hackers, the kernel of the psychological operations (psyops), although conceived in Moscow has spread to remote places – Canada, the US, UK and key EU states, including CEE – Romania (Guccifer 2.0), Serbia (for Civil Intelligence Service – SVR and Military Intelligence Service with General Staff – GRU operations in Montenegro, FYR of Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina) and Bulgaria (alleged IT and communication support for Montenegro coup plotters and GRU operations in Macedonia). The multi-level command and control structure with proxies and agents acting as a fuse has been intentionally designed to spare Moscow the hazard of nasty disclosures and reputational damage. President Putin could, at any time, revert to plan B and divert attention to the West or locally based individual hackers as being behind cyberattacks. Institutional belonging or geography does not mean much in the web.
The early warning systems of Western democracies, calibrated for Soviet time threats, have been idling for quite some time, remaining essentially blind to the new risks. Russia chose to hire and pay, where the Soviets played the ideology tune, duty and national pride. Commercially motivated Westerners, operating freely within their home social and business networks, did not consider their work a threat to national security, but a legitimate business interest.
The Kremlin used business channels for geopolitics, which is nothing new – worth recalling Armand Hammer and Robert Maxwell. The most recent example – the awkward sale of a 19.5 percent share in Rosneft. The Kremlin tried to trade the lifting of sanctions and a more lenient and Russia-friendly US policy via backdoor channels for a stake in Rosneft worth $10.2 billion. We might never know the details of the failed transaction, but accounting for its proceeds using the balance sheets of the involved Russian companies, funds and banks, gives a good idea of the deal’s double bottom and Moscow’s intentions. Silent admission of failure is Moscow’s recent decision to retake possession of the shares from the middlemen – the Qatari Investment Authority and Glencore.
Enjoying full media and public opinion comfort back home, Vladimir Putin could afford to raise the ante until Western leaders blink first, while sustaining psychological operations and manipulating public opinion and electoral votes in favor of Moscow’s hopefuls. The Kremlin’s targeted negative power continued undermining the credibility and electoral base of identified opponents.
Putin’s Russia succeeded, to an extent, in blending lucrative business deals with geopolitical advances. A routine practice is to extend credit lines or guarantees to Western politicians or middlemen, or Russian proxy businessmen targeting Western venture capitalists in the high-tech and IT sectors, notably in data mining and data analysis, advanced technologies in public opinion shaping or voting systems, eager to put into practical use their newly acquired capacity to convert their new private wealth and messiah’s ambitions into power and influence. Moscow’s first option was buy; if impossible, hack. Steps taken by Western governments to protect essential public infrastructure and institutions were often ineffective or insufficient, as there is simply too much data at risk and at critically sensitive points, which are impossible to protect in real time.
The Kremlin has been quick to grasp this vulnerability. The fact is that Western governments, military establishments and secret services do not enjoy full control over the web-based social networks in democracies. The privacy of personal data is easily compromised, allowing manipulation of consumer preferences and conduct.
Yet the whims of fortune turned against the man at the Kremlin’s helm with the recent sequence of foreign policy flops. Russia suffered a seemingly impossible to repair reputational loss and is coping with freshly imposed operational limits in the West.
Moscow’s hybrid warfare tactics have backfired – its diplomatic service is essentially blocked in key western capitals. These days a normal meeting with top Russian diplomats in Washington, London, Paris or Berlin comes out as potentially ‘toxic,’ risky and a professional liability.
President Putin is compelled to speak out in defense of his policies and deny ill intentions and hybrid operations, including engaging in personal defense of his key assets – Western politicians. Yet often his interventions cause more harm than good. Whether the net result of his efforts is on balance positive or negative is uncertain. One thing is clear: he does not have any more intermediaries to rely upon – Sputnik International and RT are unable to do their job; they are exposed. The Russian president has left his comfort zone and is forced to speak out – no more allies and troops to call upon as proxies or support.
Foreign Minister Lavrov grumbles that the hysteria around Russia’s hybrid warfare has made it impossible for Russian diplomats to conduct their routine business. Through the virtue of its own role in Russia’s hybrid operations, Russian diplomacy has become incapacitated for providing an official cover – diplomatic escorting in MID’s terminology – of hybrid operations. Russian embassies have been red flagged as essential parts of Russia’s hybrid war’s executive and coordination mechanism.
The outcome of the French presidential elections is equally humiliating for President Putin.
To play it safe, he bet on many ‘horses’ in the run-up to the elections – the hard-left Trotskyite Jean-Luc Melenchon, the early front-runner Francois Fillon and the backup proxy Marine Le Penn. 7 out of 11 participants in the French presidential race came out as pro-Kremlin, anti-sanctions candidates. Their Russophilia has been the byproduct of expediency – their stances on Crimea and Ukraine a copy-paste from the Kremlin’s textbooks.
The election of Emmanuel Macron has been a personal setback of unprecedented scale for President Putin. Relations with France have always been top priority for the Kremlin, evidenced by the fact that ambassadors to France were personal picks by Putin with direct access to his office. I can’t recall many incidents when the Russian president has been forced to bite his ego and pride, desperately seeking to fence-mend relations with a Western leader. No Western leader other than President Macron has been so blunt in openly and publicly – in his presence – calling Putin’s two main propaganda tools – Russia Today and Sputnik International ‘agents of influence’.
Macron left no love lost in placing the blame with Mr. Putin for supporting Marine Le Pen: “We all know who Le Pen’s allies are: the regimes of (Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor) Orban, Kaczynski, Putin. These aren’t regimes with an open and free democracy. Every day they break many democratic freedoms”.
Worst of all, the disillusionment with the Kremlin’s selfish foreign policy spread across Europe. Moscow’s closest EU friends like Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Hungary’s Victor Orban, despite rallying against the sanctions against Russia, at EU Summits fall in line with Chancellor Merkel, voting to extend their term.
The chances for Mr. Putin to influence the elections in Germany this fall and deny Mrs. Merkel a new term in office are getting slimmer by the day. Nothing seems to work for him – Russia’s OPEC rapprochement yielded no tangible results. Oil prices are beyond both Saudi Arabia’s and Russia’s control. Russia’s strongman in the oil business – Rosneft CEO Sechin confirmed recently that there will be no more voluntary oil production cut extensions.
Russia’s rise to prominence as a global superpower in hybrid and cyber warfare generated media headline across the globe. But is has exhibited the limits of virtual power versus real power. Influence campaigns and hacker attacks could achieve short-term gains in the foreign policy domain but lack of adequate technological, financial, economic and other tangible asset bases at home make those gains unsustainable over the long term.
Vladimir Putin is no more the global leader determining the agenda in European affairs.
Europe has risen, and he has played an instrumental role – the law of unintended consequences.