Just recently – during the 2016 US presidential election campaign, the Russian turmoil seemed like a one-off scandal. Ostensibly just for that one time… It was even an attempt to show that relations with Moscow would not deteriorate. It turned out that Russian trolling had become more than just an everyday occurrence. It is such a political reality that everybody is aware of and has accepted in a way. It seems there is simply no means to overcome this reality, just to know that it is there and… stop paying attention to it.
You can ignore it, but so-called fake news has certainly become a reality. Apparently, it is part of a human nature. The ‘four freedoms’ once conceived in the European integration process have become freedom for crime, too – freedom for smuggling and movement of trash, freedom for criminals to run around Europe, freedom for money laundering and immoral services. Freedom for the media has become freedom for fake news. Political theorists have already included fake news to the list of so-called subversive political activities. And that list is not very short.
Subversive activities sometimes referred to as an unconventional method of political struggle, seems to have been conventional for a long time. It has always been so, but perhaps not so public, though not so secret, either. I will not hide the fact that (almost) all political systems have engaged in this activity, but in this text I will refer mainly to the activities of the former USSR and Russia.
Traditionally, there are three levels of subversive activities, depending on the level of the risk posed.
The first level, considered the least dangerous, is propaganda. Propaganda fake news has been around since antique times. One could write long lists of examples of praising governments and discrediting opponents, from antique times to today’s “trolling”. This level of subversion activities is particularly familiar to people of my generation, when propaganda battles were waged between the main opponents of the Cold War, using “witnesses”, photo and film “documentaries”, and so on. Occupations used to turn into liberations, coups into revolutions, protests into hooliganism and strikes into breaks at work… There was no shortage of propaganda elements, even in seemingly innocent phenomena such as feature films, fiction with all its love lyrics.
The second level is the deliberate and purposeful “doing” of policy. It is no secret that the USSR had in fact not only advised but also funded the activities of leftist parties or terrorist organisations operating in the West, infiltrating its agents into Western political parties. These activities not only posed a direct threat to democracy, but also served the purpose of propaganda. It was a kind of propaganda from within, which was monitored by the Western powers but not always suppressed. Sometimes it was out of the conviction that supposed freedom, even if it destroys own state, is more important than national security.
The third level is open warfare against countries considered hostile. Weapons, mercenaries, fifth columns and the like, and finally war or intervention under the pretext of “our people” are in danger.
Theorists of political and practical terrorism Mao Zedong and Che Guevara paid much attention to subversive activities. According to Mao Zedong, the best time for a socialist revolution is when subversion creates political and economic chaos in countries. Che Guevara’s terrorist organisations encouraged sowing of fear and panic in the society and the destruction of traditional community relations. It does not take large forces to seize power when a country is at a loss.
In theory, it is as simple as that.
There have been success stories, but maybe even more failures. In Europe after the Second World War, the Soviets established their proxy regimes in the occupied territories, but failed to “take” Greece, Turkey, Finland, even Yugoslavia, and there were attempts to bring the communists to power in France and Italy. The Soviets won Vietnam but failed in Indonesia, won Angola and Ethiopia (with Cuban assistance) but lost the Congo, won Cuba but lost Chile. And so on and so forth. Investigators of the subversive activities provide more failed projects. The strategy for Africa and Latin America was prepared in some detail, but the Soviet state had some weak competitors in order to create its own order. Today, Africa is relatively far away from Russia politically, and the Leftist politicians of Latin America, if they remember the good word of the USSR, have no great affection for Russia today. And the strategy of Moscow has changed. Today, it is not in the interest of Russia to support communist parties, and Russia is certainly not the USSR here, but it is in the interest of Russia to support those parties and organisations which, in the eyes of Moscow, make the Western countries weaker. Simply make them weaker. Revolution is too risky. For Moscow, it is better to ‘wrestle’ existing states than to destroy them. The so-called useful idiots – popular or influential people – today may well be self-identified right-wingers, nationalists … it doesn’t matter at all.
I remember once, during my studies in Geneva, we spent the whole day analyzing the pros and cons – did the USSR have a great strategy or did it act sporadically? Had Stalin already foreseen a pact with the Germans and annexation of the Baltic States around 1930? Probably not, and in many cases took advantage of the situation and the results of subversive activities. Probably, even then, it was more important to have useful idiots than to have some communist zombies. It is assumed that nowadays there is and will be a pro-Russian party in every Lithuanian election. This label has been applied to more than one of them, or is it really so? We can think that the Russians have lost, that the party that won is not the one that won…? Maybe it is just the big eyes of our fear.
We have to admit that the conditions for subversive activities today are certainly not bad. Delusion of the West is dangerous, no matter what, democracy and the current world order will always win. It is better for the West to believe and to investigate than to see its enemies, which is why Russia’s subversive activities seem to be taken too airily. The Russians are using some old proved and tested methods. This is so-called geopolitical kleptomania – grabbing a piece of what is not properly protected – Abkhazia, Crimea, Transnistria… This is the so-called Salami tactic – petty political thuggery that… not really worth making a scandal about. Subversive activities are unmasked but rarely actually punished. Diplomats can be expelled, but… they will be replaced and… the story will start from the beginning. The crisis becomes the new normal, and everything starts from the beginning again. Then there is the so-called political hyena lifestyle of taking so-called failed states or other geopolitically “dead” countries (sorry, but this is not my invention).
Thinking only of Russia, today we see that there are more “subversives” willingly engaged in subversive activities, indeed all those for whom the World Order – democracy, the market and human rights – does not suit for whatever reason.
I started my story with election interference and cyber-attacks. We might say that this is something new in a sphere of politics that is really as old as politics itself.
We have entered a new era of subversive activities. It will be very exciting.