We know ISIS is bad because it killed people in San Bernardino and Paris. We know Iran is bad because it’s still developing nuclear weapons. We know Russia is bad…because…well, didn’t Charlie Rose once say something about that? Or was it Seth MacFarlane? Either way, as Americans, we know there is a threat from Putin’s Russia, but many of us (including, of course, Donald Trump) aren’t quite sure why.
Don’t feel bad for sleeping on Russia. Thanks to a hybrid of information operations, psychological warfare and espionage, Russia has evaded the scrutiny afforded ISIS, Iran and even North Korea. But while we had little excuse for our blindness to Russia’s actions in 2012, when Barack Obama laughed at Mitt Romney’s assertion that Russia was a preeminent geopolitical threat, we have absolutely no excuse now.
Russia has short-circuited the Syrian peace talks. Their subs are more active than during the Cold War. They have a bad habit of intercepting American aircraft. And Russia is beginning to dominate deep space. From partnering with Iran to selling radioactive material to ISIS, Vladimir Putin’s fingerprints are on a lot of bad juju.
You know that moment when James Bond finds out all the bad stuff happening around the globe is because of SPECTRE? Or when Sherlock Holmes suddenly realizes that Dr. Moriarty is the one pulling the strings of seemingly unrelated bad guys all over London?
For lack of a better simplification, Vladimir Putin is Dr. Moriarty. He is SPECTRE. And, like every Bond villain, Putin has given the world a preview of his vision. After trying time and again to make nice, even the Obama administration is starting to see him for what he is.
Here’s what you should know.
Putin knows how to do active measures. Or do you believe the CIA created AIDS to kill black people?
Since the 1980s, everyone from Louis Farrakhan to Spike Lee has run with that myth. According to the Washington Post, as recently as 2005 almost 50% of African-Americans believed either the government or the CIA was behind the creation of AIDS.
The fact that such a fine artifact of Soviet propaganda is still making the rounds in mainstream precincts is a testament to Russia’s historical excellence at disinformation. The Soviets excelled at stirring up discontent and mistrust between the government and Western underclasses, creating incidents, developing narratives and exploiting internal tensions to weaken their geopolitical enemies from within.
In that light, it’s not too surprising that the Kremlin-backed Russia Today RT, was one of the most persistent broadcasters to focus on the Ferguson riots and the major urban unrest that followed them. RT is merely a sequel to the Soviet-era subversion of I.F. Stone and Walter Duranty, dressed up as a news network and hiding in plain sight. Why America has let RT wrap itself in the First Amendment and bullhorn its way into 85 million homes is a question that deserves a better answer than we’ve heard so far.
Bearing the subversively appropriate slogan “Question More,” RT has enlisted names from Larry King to Ed Schultz to front the operation. From Congressman Dana Rohrabacher to Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel, RT has shown a knack for attracting guests and contributors from across the political spectrum who are willing to, at least temporarily, hold their nose and give RT the air of legitimacy. Of course, how much nose-holding is going on is a bit of a question. How many Western journalists, academics and talking heads are on Putin’s payroll and how many are simply “useful idiots?” Certain contributors like Alex Jones and Stephen F. Cohen hardly need coaxing to offer pro-Putinist declarations. Others, such as Mike Flynn and Matt Drudge seem to treat RT with a bit more suspicion.
Most Americans seem only to notice the biases of CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, their skepticism evaporating when a network anchor with a foreign accent speaks to the camera. Even when those anchors end up leaving and revealing the intentions of their former employers.
To be fair, RT is hardly the only media outlet at Putin’s disposal. Most people remember the outing of Maxim model Anna Chapman as a Russian spy. Most people don’t remember that Vicky Pelaez was busted as part of the same spy ring. Pelaez was a political columnist for El Diario (the most popular Spanish-language newspaper), where she had been writing for over 20 years, blasting US foreign policy while praising Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez and the Maoist-influenced Shining Path guerillas.
But no Russian-linked media outlet is more notorious than the much-hyped Wikileaks.
Whether Wikileaks has been “infiltrated” by Russian agents or has simply been a creation of Russia from the start is a question that history will have to answer. But even casual news consumers have trouble understanding why a website trying to be an “open-source democratic intelligence agency” seems tunnel-visioned on the West, routinely failing to expose the crimes and foibles of Russia or its allies.
Wikileaks first caught the American imagination with the release of Bradley Manning’s “War Logs.” Whether Manning was recruited by Wikileaks founder Julian Assange to gather information or whether he simply fell into Assange’s lap is a matter of debate. Regardless, his leaks helped Al-Qaeda’s recruiting, made other nations wary of intelligence-sharing with the US and are credited with starting the Arab Spring. (To be sure, Canada’s had its own version of Manning, who had much stronger ties to Russia.)
Regardless of how faint hand Russia may have played in the Manning episode, Manning’s leaks have gone on to benefit Russia as much, if not more, than any other entity; as the Arab Spring weakened US influence in the Middle East, it created a vacuum that Russia has gone on to fill.
Of course, Wikileaks was only getting going.
It’s been speculated that Edward Snowden was first approached by Russian intelligence in Geneva in 2007. There is also reason to believe that he may have been recruited in New Delhi in 2010 (India has a long history of collaboration with Russia). Regardless, at this point, it is an open secret that Snowden was already a Russian agent before he stole over 1 million documents and fled, ultimately, to that bastion of individual freedom, transparency and free speech, Moscow.
It’s hard not to notice that Snowden’s emergence in Moscow has coincided with Russia’s muscular foreign policy moves. From Crimea to Iraq to Japan, Putin has had an uncanny ability to detect the blind spots of his enemies (NATO and the US). Snowden’s intelligence has had the effect of making Putin look like the cunning genius he’s always wanted to be.
Sadly, Putin’s tactics go beyond disinformation and espionage. His ability to manipulate, control and exploit adversaries has been on full display in Russia itself where his own FSB has instigated, facilitated or, in some cases, actually performed terrorist actions in order to ease his political ascension, as infamously seen in Chechnya in 1999. It was not the last time Putin offered himself as a cure to a disease of his own making.
The Mitrokhin documents first opened Western eyes to the possibility of Russian collusion with international terrorists. Since then, Russia’s close partnership with Iran in Syria makes one wonder how close Russia also is to its proxy armies such as Hezbollah.
In that context, the curious ties between Russia and the Boston Marathon bombers leave more questions than answers.
Oh, but there’s so much more. The San Bernardino and Paris attackers both used Telegram, a Russian-developed encryption app designed, in the wake of the Snowden revelations, to work around NSA eavesdropping. Interesting. Maybe coincidental.
But then, coincidences abound in the San Bernardino case. As we now know, the shooters got their weapons from a straw purchaser, Sayed Farook’s friend, Enrique Marquez. Despite reportedly being a, well, slow individual, Marquez was married, to a hot, blond Russian number, Mariya Chernykh. Mariya had a sister, Tatiana who was married to…Sayed Farook’s brother. Both girls are Russian Jews from Western Russia whose parents have emigrated to Israel. Though the words “agent” and “provocateur” come to mind, it may be decades before we find out the truth.
While the number of Russian fingerprints on the San Bernardino attack were curious, they may also be small potatoes. In a revealing interview with a former FSB officer, a Ukranian newspaper tied Russia to the actual formation of ISIS, noting that it was Moscow-trained Baathists who founded the Islamic State.
In response to ISIS’ attacks and the Syrian refugee crisis right-wing, pro-Putinist parties have sprung up in reaction to the reflexively politically correct approach of the EU establishment. Has Putin created a problem that only he could solve? Is Europe in 2016 going to be like the Chechnya of 1999?
As if that wasn’t enough, Russian-backed gangs have been looking for ISIS buyers for enough cesium — a radioactive material — to contaminate several city blocks. Where did the cesium come from? All signs pointed to Russia, but Putin has blocked any attempts to track the cesium back to a Russian reactor.
Putin’s strategy is not one of ad hoc assassinations or big-score arms deals; it is far more encompassing than that. Putin has placed himself at the center of a spiderweb of organized crime, rogue nation states and terrorist groups; Putin has set himself up to be the instigator, middleman and/or even executor of everything from nuclear proliferation to domestic unrest while churning out enough disinformation and propaganda to blur his silhouette.
Dr. Moriarty would be impressed. After all, he never got to talk to Larry King.
This article was first published in The Havok Journal on 2 March 2016.