Putin’s special operations achieve a second and larger victory when they are exposed

Analysis & Opinion, Politics, Russia

Many in the US and elsewhere are horrified by Vladimir Putin’s overt and covert efforts to affect the outcome of the American presidential election, but they should be even more horrified by something else: the exposure of his involvement is giving him a second, larger but as yet unrecognized victory.

That victory is this: from now on, at least as long as Putin is in power, Western elections are likely to be affected by the danger, real or not, of Russian involvement, transforming the campaigns into referenda on whether this or that candidate is Putin’s agent in place and thus undermining the democratic process by raising suspicions about the loyalty of this or that figure.

Some will see this as nothing more than a restoration of the situation when in some countries, candidates for office denounced their opponents as pro-communist, the kiss of death in most of them. But this situation is far more insidious because it has less to do with ideology than with the exacerbation of disorder.

Rasa Juknevičienė (Image: delfi.lt)

Rasa Juknevičienė (Image: delfi.lt)

The danger that this can and will happen is on view today when former Lithuanian defense minister Rasa Juknevičienė warns that Moscow will find and support its very own candidate for president when elections are held in 2019.

She is not wrong to issue this warning: it is almost certainly correct in the case of that NATO country neighboring Russia. But the danger is that other officials, commentators, and politicians in other countries will follow suit, poisoning politics in their homelands whether Putin’s minions are directly involved or not.

Many currently assume that Putin can only succeed in bringing to power his allies if he works covertly, noting that he and his propaganda apparatus in Moscow and the West have repeatedly denied that Moscow was involved in the American or other elections. But this view misses the point in a double sense.

On the one hand, Putin is less interested in bringing to power some kind of Russian version of the Manchurian candidate than in creating chaos and confusion. Of course, he would like it if he could have a president in another country who would without question do his bidding. But he lacks the power to do that, at least in most cases.

Even if he backs this or that candidate, as he has been doing, the best Putin can achieve is bringing into office someone who will start by being more sympathetic to Russia’s demands; but over time, the imperatives of the countries these people head will prove more important than the signals their new leaders get from the Kremlin.

Consequently, it is important to recognize that Putin’s real goal is to delegitimize democracy elsewhere, to sow discord, and to weaken his opponents, given that he is fundamentally incapable of strengthening himself and his country except by aggression and bombast.

And on the other hand, there is another aspect of Putin’s behavior, one rooted in his KGB past, that few in the West understand or are paying attention to. Unlike Western intelligence services who plan only for success, Russian secret services plan for failure and seek to design their operations in ways that give Moscow benefits even when such actions are exposed.

That has been Moscow’s modus operandi since at least 1921 when Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet Cheka secret police, set up the Operation Trust, a false-flag operation designed to penetrate, disorder and ultimately hamstring the military wing of the first Russian emigration. (For a good introduction, see this 35-page report).

Most leaders of the Russian emigration and many European intelligence services fell for the Operation Trust, but not all did. And when the Trust was exposed for what it really was in 1927 — an exposure that it is possible Moscow even played an active part in — many assumed that the Soviet intelligence services had suffered a serious defeat.

At one level that may have been true, but at another, it definitely was not. The exposure of the Trust as a Soviet operation discredited all those who had believed in it, most prominently perhaps V.V. Shulgin who was manipulated by it and whose influence in the emigration never recovered. And that gave Moscow a second victory, even if many didn’t see it at the time.

Countering Putin – who is first, last and always a KGB officer – as Captain Nikitin said, “there are no ex-KGB officers just as there are no ex-German shepherds” – requires a recognition of this danger. Exposing his criminal activities is critical; but exposing them in ways that do not allow him to walk away with a second victory is even more so.

That isn’t going to be easy. The Trust or operations like it have been the bread and butter of Soviet and Russian intelligence operations at home and abroad ever since the 1920s. Recognizing what Moscow is about is the first task; explaining how Putin’s KGB tactics work is the absolutely necessary second one.



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  • Mephisto

    I disagree with this assessment. Heightened awareness of the Russian meddling and subversion is a good thing and not a bad thing. It is no victory for Putin. And I have more experience in this regard than most because in our country Russia has been doing this for at least a decade. In my country (Czech Republic), after the Velvet Revolution, we had a democratic president Václav Havel. After him, two russian scumbags were elected presidents – Václav Klaus and Miloš Zeman. I have 10+ years experience of living in a country presided by a russian scumbag.

    A minority of people were aware of the fact that they are russian scumbags. And even if their expressed pro-russian views, there were popular with the common folks, because both are/were first-class populists – anti-EU, anti-immigration, anti-ecology etc. Now the tide is turning and the foreign policy starts to matter. More and more people are becoming aware of the russian meddling, which in turn will limit the capacity of future potential russian scumbags to get elected. People such as Le Pen, Wilders, Farage, who were openly pro-russian, will find it increasingly difficult to be openly pro-russian.

    It would be far more dangerous, if Putin secured a steady stream of immigrants to Europe (by massacres is Syria and elsewhere), covertly supported anti-immigration populists and fractured the EU. I think that with Trump he overplayed his hand. I have no doubt that Trump is a witting russian stooge. The question is if it will help Putin or not. In the long run certainly not. It will turn the tide against Putin.

    • Oknemfrod

      Thanks for a well-reasoned post. Now please correct me if I’m wrong, it seems to me as though the Czechs hasn’t been taking their last two presidents’ Russophilic proclivities lightly, particularly in connection with the Russian adventures in Ukraine. One one occasion, IIRC, Zeman was even egg-pelted. Which dovetails into a question: Could you edify me about the extent of power the Czech president wields and how much it is constrained by the other branches? In particular, can he single-handedly take an action around the Parliament to shift to shift the country farther away from the West and closer to Russia? Díky moc předem.

    • Tony

      I agree. Trump is actually creating political will through his scandals and pandering to Putin and it’s been said that lack of political will is West’s greatest weakness. Well now Americans can get a taste for cronyism, lies and lack of principles all while noting how Russia pulls the strings and Trump defends his patron Putin. In the end Americans will swing in the opposite direction.

      I used to think Trump’s thin skin and lack principles makes him easy to manipulate by Putin but now I think that American society can just as easily manipulate Trump using the same character flaws. It’s all about playing Trump like a trumpet.

      Also, Putin is forced to play nice with Trump because otherwise Trump’s thin skin and campaign rhetoric of being tougher than Obama will work against Putin.

      • Alex George

        On your second point, if you want to get a rise out of Trump, just give him some public criticism. Tweets will follow…

    • Alex George

      I agree. The author just doesn’t make her case.

      The overriding imperative is for people to be made aware of what Putin does. If that leads to greater scepticism and questioning of our political leaders, no problem.

  • Mephisto

    BTW, the best strike against Putin would be to expose his criminal financial machinations – all his wealth, secret accounts in the Switzerland and elsewhere. Take all this information and post it on the Russian internet. Take to war to his own country instead of fighting him here.

    • Randolph Carter

      Interesting idea – do this for Putin and all of his sycophants. Expose assets like land, and partial ownership of various industries also. To the Russian on the street, desperately trying to make a living, finding out that someone (especially the ruler of the country) having billions will evoke resentment and cause people to question whether he is really dedicated to their welfare. Probably not enough for a decisive rebellion, but it sows the seeds of resentment and envy. It worked for the French Revolution and the Nazi party.

    • WisconsinUSA

      the best defense is a strong offense. wake up world.

  • zorbatheturk

    Pick a non-Putin next time, Yeltsin, you clown. Still, some good may yet come of your incompetence and familial greed. Hopefully Vlad the Bad will be the final tsar, the man who destroys RuSSia. Good riddance.