In a week in which Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s unremembered visit with the Russian ambassador dominated the news, the most interesting thing I read was a 13,000-word article in The New Yorker. It exemplified all the preconceptions typical of what I have come to think of as reporters of the Generation of ’91.
David Remnick, b. 1958, was Moscow bureau chief 1988-1992 for The Washington Post, before he moved to the magazine. In 1998 he was named its editor. Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993. Evan Osnos, b. 1976, joined the magazine from The Chicago Tribune in 2008 and covered China for five years. Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China appeared in 2014 and was a Pulitzer finalist. Joshua Yaffa is a journalist based in Moscow. He has written for The Economist and The New York Times Magazine.
Nothing in the article – Active Measures: What lay behind Russia’s interference in the 2016 election – and what lies ahead? – was quite as punchy as the art that accompanied it. The magazine’s traditional anniversary cover featured Vladimir Putin, as a dandy peering through a monocle at a raging butterfly Trump, instead of the customary rendering of Eustace Tilley. That was non-committal enough, though it reminded me of the magazine’s 2014 Sochi Olympics cover, a figure-skating Vladimir Putin leaps while five little Putin lookalikes feign disinterest from the judges’ stand.
More alarming was the art opposite the opening page, Saint Basil’s Cathedral, in Moscow, administering a jolt of light (a digital illumination ray?) to the White House from the skies above. The caption states, “Democratic National Committee hacks, many analysts believe, were just a skirmish in a larger war against Western institutions and alliances.”
The article was organized in five little chapters.
In “Soft Targets,” Putin orders an unprecedented effort to interfere in the US presidential election. It is a gesture of disrespect, ordered out of pique and resentment of perceived US finagling in the 2012 Soviet election, intended to be highly public.
In “Cold War 2.0,” the Obama administration is caught flat-footed by the campaign and fails to respond effectively. The Russians have adopted a new and deeply troubling offensive posture “that threatens the very international order,” a former Obama official states.
In “Putin’s World,” a capsule history of the decline of Russian pride during the 1990s is presented alongside an argument for the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Putin’s mistrust of democracy at home is described, as well as his recoiling from the US invasion of Iraq. Differences between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama after the annexation of Crimea are recounted: she sometimes favors the use of military force whereas he does not.
In “Hybrid War,” Russia becomes technically adroit at cyberwarfare and experiments with a digital blitz on Estonian communications after a statue of a Soviet soldier is removed; meanwhile the US unleashes its Stuxnet computer virus on Iran’s uranium refinery operations. The Russian Army chief of staff, Valery Gerasimov, is introduced, along with his 2013 article, The Value of Science Is in the Foresight, urging “the adoption of a Western strategy,” combining military, technological, media, political and intelligence tactics to destabilize a foe, the article having “achieved the status of legend” as the Gerasimov doctrine, following the invasion of Ukraine. An estimated thousand code warriors are said to be working for the Russian government on everything from tapping former Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland’s cell phone in Kiev (“a new low in Russian tradecraft”) to the forthcoming French and German elections. Finally, the hacking campaign against the Democratic Party is rehashed, and Clinton campaign manager John Podesta says the interaction between Russian intervention and the FBI “created a vortex that produced the result” – a lost election.
In “Turbulence Theory,” Trump is said to be a phenomenon of America’s own making, like the nationalist politicians of Europe, both the consequence of globalization and deindustrialization, but Russia likes the policies that are the result: leave Russia alone and don’t talk about civil rights. Meanwhile, the hacking campaign may have backfired, and Trump may no longer have the freedom to accommodate Russian ambitions as might have been wished, but at least Russia has come up with a way to make up for its economic and geopolitical weakness, namely inflict turbulence on the rest of the world.
Three things about this assessment stand out.
Putin’s views of US foreign policy are not integral to the account: they are presented in two widely separate sections, one on the history of US “active measures,” the other on changes in his opinion wrought by the war in Iraq.
Putin is quick to accuse the West of hypocrisy, the authors write, but his opinions, and those of others, especially who compare the invasions of Crimea and Iraq (where the US immediately set out to build an embassy for 15,000 workers) are dismissed as “whataboutism,” exercises in false moral equivalence. NATO expansion is more or less taken for granted. The military alliance’s extension to the borders of Russia forms no part of the narrative.
Second, no attention is paid to Putin’s problems, aside from a nod to his suppression of oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the rock group Pussy Riot. His plans for a Eurasian Union, which were at the heart of the Ukraine crisis, go unmentioned. There’s nothing about the centuries-old struggle between Westernizers and Slavophiles who oppose policies that would tie Russia more closely to the West.
Third, the history of the Cold War itself gets short shrift. The genesis of the doctrine of “hybrid war,” ascribed to Gen. Gerasimov, is described at length in The Last Warrior: Andrew Marshall and the Shaping of Modern American Defense Strategy, by Andrew F. Krepinevich and, Barry D. Watts (Basic Books, 2015). Marshall founded the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment. In 1973 he described what would become a dramatic strategic shift:
In general we need to look for opportunities as well as problems; search for areas of comparative advantage and try to move the competition into these areas; [and] look for ways to complicate the Soviets’ problems.
Many factors led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. “Active measures,” of the sort propounded by Marshall, were prominent among them. You can hardly be surprised that the Russians have sought to master new techniques. The underlying proposition of the New Yorker’s article is that the world is, or at least it should be, unipolar, with the US in charge of its democratic values. After all these years, the Russians still don’t agree.