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The race to conquer the Arctic – the world’s final frontier

As the polar ice caps melt, Russia and China are leading the race to control the lucrative and strategically important shipping lanes and natural resources of the High North.

On 14 December 2017 Vladimir Putin gave his annual end-of-year media conference, which lasted nearly four hours and was televised across Russia. The British and American media focused on Putin’s unsurprising announcement that he was going to run for re-election in 2018. A far more interesting story went largely unreported.

Only a few days earlier Putin had returned from the frozen wastes of Siberia, nearly 400 miles north of the Arctic Circle. He had just opened the £19bn Yamal liquefied natural gas plant. Yamal LNG was built by Novatek, Russia’s biggest privately owned gas-producer, with loans from state banks (£2.8bn), the Russian National Wealth Fund (£1.6bn) and, most significantly, £8.5bn from Chinese banks.

Novatek owns 50.1 per cent of Yamal LNG. France’s oil-giant Total and China’s National Petroleum Corporation each hold 20 per cent, while China’s state-controlled Silk Road Fund has a 9.9 per cent share. With Yamal’s sister plant, Arctic LNG 2, due to come on stream in 2023, Russia aims to topple Qatar as the world’s biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas within less than a decade.

In front of the world’s media at the Kremlin, Putin quoted the 18th-century Russian scientist and polymath Mikhail Lomonosov, who had said that Russia would expand through Siberia. Putin brought this line up to date for our age: “Now Russia should expand through the Arctic,” he said.

Climate change is the crucial precondition. In August 2017, the Russian-owned Christophe de Margerie, the world’s first ice-breaking LNG tanker, accomplished a world-record voyage from Norway to South Korea in only 19 days by taking the Northern Sea Route (along Russia’s Arctic coast from Murmansk to the Bering Strait). Had it followed the usual route via the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean, the journey would have taken almost a month. But the recent melting of the Arctic ice cap is transforming global shipping and international geopolitics.

The Russians are constructing 15 new LNG supertankers, each with built-in ice-breaker capacity – to add to their existing fleet of 40 ice-breakers. And they aren’t the only ones. At the end of the 19th century the great powers engaged in a scramble for Africa. Now, in the 21st century, a scramble for the Arctic is unfolding. Across one of the bleakest landscapes of the world, the race is on for gas, oil and fish and to control the emerging shipping lanes of the High North.

The Arctic is at issue, above all, because nobody owns it. Unlike Antarctica – governed since 1959 by the Antarctic Treaty, which established the continent as a scientific preserve and banned military activity – the polar region of the north is one of the least regulated places on earth. There are more rules even in outer space. All the Arctic states are now jockeying for position as the region literally opens up. And several non-Arctic states are seeking influence, with the big money and real strategic vision coming from Beijing. It’s time for the West to pay attention.

How has this come about? A century ago, the High North was still the unknown unknown – an epic adventure playground for explorers such as Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen; home to indigenous Inuit hunter-fishermen in Greenland and North America, and nomadic reindeer herders in Lapland and Siberia. After 1945, however, these icy backwaters gained strategic importance. In fact, during the Cold War the Arctic ranked near the top of the security agenda.

The initial arming of the region began as both superpowers developed strategic bombers and then ballistic missiles, capable of delivering nuclear weapons across the North Pole. In the process the empty lands started to be developed. Soon the US and Canadian military had established a major military presence, with a string of high-tech radar stations from Alaska to Newfoundland. Nato also built bases in Greenland, Iceland and Norway. A second wave followed from the late 1970s due to the deployment of air- and sea-launched cruise missiles and their testing in the West’s polar territories. Meanwhile, between 1955 and 1990, the USSR conducted 130 underground nuclear tests at its so-called North Test Site on the Novaya Zemlya archipelago.

By the 1980s the often ice-covered Arctic seas became the main operational arena for a new generation of nuclear-powered attack submarines. Indeed, 60 per cent of Russia’s submarine-based strategic nuclear forces were based or operating in the vicinity of the Kola Peninsula, very close to Norway. As a result, superpower tensions rose to new heights in the European polar waters.

Mikhail Gorbachev’s years in power between 1985 and 1991 saw historic change but left ambiguous legacies. On one hand, despite all the deals on arms reduction and heady hopes about a new world order after the USSR collapsed, the Arctic itself was never disarmed. Russian and US nuclear submarines and bombers equipped with cruise missiles continued to lurk there, playing their cat-and-mouse games. And neither country realigned its Arctic missile launchers away from their Cold War targets. What’s more, many Soviet bombers formerly stationed in eastern Europe, as well as ships from the Soviet Black Sea fleet evicted from the Crimea, were merely shifted to Russia’s north. The frozen lands and icy seas above the Arctic Circle became the last potential battlefront.

Yet there was another side to Gorbachev’s legacy – his Murmansk initiative of 1987. He wanted to transform the Arctic into an international “zone of peace”, calling for nuclear-free areas and restrictions on naval activities. He urged joint development of resources, environmental co-operation and the opening of the Northern Sea Route to foreign ships. Gorbachev’s initiative fitted neatly with the concerns of the green movement in the West and with mounting awareness of the effects of climate change, not least the visible melting of the polar ice cap.

And so in the 1990s, although the Arctic remained full of the military relics of the Cold War, it also became the testing ground for a more co-operative approach to international relations. In 1991 the eight Arctic countries (those with terrain above the Arctic Circle) – Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, the US, Canada, Denmark and Iceland – got together with representatives of the indigenous peoples and signed the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy. Five years later this grew into the Arctic Council – a forum to promote co-operative governance in the region while emphatically not engaging with military issues.

Over the past decade, the Arctic Council has risen in political importance because the Arctic Ocean has been thawing at a record rate. The expanse of ice in September 2017 was 25 per cent smaller than in the end-of-summer averages between 1981 and 2010. Yet this geophysical calamity is also an economic opportunity for developed countries, opening up new prospects for fishing and shipping. As a result, more countries have sought entry to the Arctic Council. The eight founding states, which form the council’s permanent members, have conceded observer status to several European and east Asian states. For instance, Britain – a permanent observer to the council since 1998 – has designated itself “the Arctic’s nearest neighbour”, though it is not clear if there is substance behind the rhetoric. Not to be outdone, China, a permanent observer since 2013, calls itself a “near-Arctic” nation, even though its northernmost point is about 900 miles south of the Arctic Circle.

For now, the co-operative mood in the Arctic Council still holds. On 30 November 2017, the five nations with Arctic coastlines – Canada, Greenland (Denmark), Norway, Russia and the US – as well as China, Japan, South Korea, Iceland and the EU, completed negotiations in Washington, DC. They agreed to ban for 16 years unregulated fishing in newly ice-free international waters of the high Arctic – equivalent to the size of the Mediterranean – or at least until scientists are able to analyse the ecology of the quickly thawing ocean and put into place a plan for sustainable fishing.

This deal still has to be signed and ratified – no easy task given Trump’s denial of climate change – but the successful negotiations are seen as a major step in conservation efforts and an example of what diplomats call “Arctic exceptionalism”, meaning a willingness in Moscow and Washington to set aside some of their geopolitical differences for the sake of common interests. 

Icy waters by the Lukoil terminal in Russia’s Nenets autonomous region, which serves tankers using the Arctic route between Europe and Asia. Credit: Justin Jin/ Panos

Agreeing about water is one thing but terrain is something different. There is an enormous amount at stake. In 2008, the US Geological Survey estimated that the Arctic holds 13 per cent of the world’s undiscovered oil, and 30 per cent of its natural gas. That is worth about £12trn in today’s prices, roughly equivalent to the entire US economy. In other words, the prospect of an unfrozen Arctic Ocean opens up the remarkable riches of the North Pole.

Competition is already fierce. Russia, Canada, Norway and Greenland have all set their sights on the Lomonosov Ridge – an underwater mountain chain that stretches for 1,240 miles almost directly across the centre of the Arctic Ocean and through the North Pole. It is under and around this formation that nearly a quarter of the Earth’s remaining fossil fuel resources lies.

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) came into force in 1994 – regulating the 200-nautical-mile national economic zones offshore within which a nation has exclusive rights to fish the waters and tap the minerals under the sea bed. Beyond this limit, the states with Arctic coastlines are not permitted to fish or drill. Yet a nation can lobby for a zone of up to 350 nautical miles from the shore, or even more – if it can prove the existence of an underwater formation that is an extension of its dry land mass. Such claims are decided by the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, established under Unclos.

Nearly 170 countries have acceded to or ratified the treaty. The US signed Unclos under President Bill Clinton but the treaty has never been ratified by the US Senate. Republican senators in particular contend that the agreement subjugates US military and business interest to UN control, which they detest. Among all the Arctic countries, America is the odd one out.

Others, however, have used the convention to their advantage, as they seek to prove the extent of their continental shelf and thereby stake their claim under Unclos to a slice of the Arctic. In 2001, Russia asserted that it owned not only the North Pole but also an area amounting to half of the Arctic – 1,325,000 square kilometres of international seabed. Six years later, to dramatise their claim, the Russians cut a hole in the ice, launched a mini submarine and at the North Pole ceremonially planted a rust-proof titanium Russian tricolour on the ocean floor 4,300 metres down. Artur Chilingarov – a noted explorer and also deputy speaker of the Duma – was on board and he was hailed as a national hero. “If a hundred or a thousand years from now someone goes down to where we were, they will see the Russian flag,” he said.

These flag theatrics raised an international outcry. “This isn’t the 15th century,” Peter MacKay, the Canadian foreign minister, declared. “You can’t go around the world and just plant flags and say, ‘We’re claiming this territory.’” Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, responded: “Whenever explorers reach some sort of point that no one else has explored, they plant a flag… That’s how it was on the moon, by the way.”

So far Russia and Denmark have submitted full claims to the North Pole and the
Lomonosov Ridge, while Canada is expected to make its complete claim in 2018. Of the other two littoral states, the US has ruled itself out of the game because of its failure to ratify the Unclos treaty, while Norway has no geographical grounds to make a bid. Russia has recently tried to press Denmark into talks about a bilateral northern carve-up.

But the Danes want to stay within the UN process, even if this proves lengthy and cumbersome, not least because they took 12 years to gather the scientific data, at a cost of £35m. They see the process as an incentive for the Arctic countries to resolve their territorial issues peacefully and also to exclude potential predator states, notably China. 


Russia has played it both ways – engaging in co-operative diplomacy in the Arctic Council and over territorial questions via the UN Law of the Seas, while constantly seeking to assert itself on the world stage. Putin’s long-term strategy has been to rebuild Russia’s international position since its humiliating crash at the end of the Cold War. Over the past decade, having restored political and economic stability at home, Putin has been testing the West – exploiting opportunities in Crimea, Ukraine and Syria. In 2009, the government’s national security strategy until 2020 was proclaimed simply as “transforming Russia into a world power”.

The Arctic is a keystone of that policy,
because only here – as Putin said last December – is there real scope for territorial expansion and resource acquisition. This builds on and deepens the main asset of Russia’s unbalanced economy – its continued heavy reliance on the extraction and export of raw materials, especially oil and gas – which no modern leader of the country has been able to change.

The natural resources in Russia’s Arctic region already account for a fifth of the country’s GDP. The oil and gas under the North Pole opens up the prospect of huge additional wealth but it will take time, money and technology to exploit, not to mention much international haggling. Somewhat easier pickings are opening up on the thawing northern rim of Siberia – 14,000 miles of coastline from Murmansk to the Bering Strait – both on land and in Russia’s territorial waters.

De-icing opens up new opportunities for mining some of the world’s most valuable minerals, including gold, silver, graphite, nickel, titanium and uranium, as well as
oil and gas. The thawing Northern Sea Route along Russia’s shores also creates a lucrative shipping lane, which the Kremlin will be in a strong position to control. In November, Putin made a point of stating that only vessels under the Russian flag could use this trade route.

Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping yearn to push the US from its post-Cold War pedestal​. Credit: Carlos Barria/ AFP/ Getty images

Complementing this economic scenario, Russia has developed a security policy for the Arctic, involving bases and ice-breakers. In December 2014, Russia announced that Moscow intended to station military units all along its Arctic coast, and began pouring money into airfields, ports, radar stations and barracks. The new infrastructure includes two huge complexes: the Northern Shamrock on Kotelny Island and the Arctic Trefoil on Franz Josef Land – a mere 620 miles from the North Pole.

Taken together, Russia’s six biggest Arctic bases in the High North will be home to about a thousand soldiers serving there for up to 18 months at a time in constant snow, permanently sub-zero temperatures from October until June, and no daylight for nearly half the year. Moscow is now concentrating on making airfields accessible year-round. Under Gorbachev and Yeltsin, “our Arctic border areas were stripped bare”, Professor Pavel Makarevich, a member of the Russian Geographical Society, said last year. “Now they are being restored.”

No other country has militarised its Arctic North to anything like this extent. And none can match Russia’s 40-strong ice-breaker fleet, which is used to clear channels for military and civilian use. Three nuclear-powered ice-breakers, including the world’s largest, are now under construction to complement the six already in operation. Russia is also giving its naval warships an ice-breaking capacity. By 2020 the Northern Fleet, based near Murmansk, is due to get two ice-capable corvettes, armed with cruise missiles.

To be clear about the scale of Russia’s endeavour: next on the ice-breaker list are Finland (eight vessels), Canada (seven), Sweden (four), China (three) and then America (two). The US response is spearheaded by the US Coast Guard, whose two vessels are several decades old, primarily intended for scientific research and have to operate in both the Arctic and Antarctic. “A new robust Western response to the Russian military buildup in the Arctic is necessary,” declared Admiral Paul Zukunft, commandant of the US Coast Guard, last December. Asking whether the Russian goal was “to create chaos in the Arctic” and to “make this an area that the United States would be denied access”, he said they had to assume the answer was “yes”.

We are not talking about Cold War-era militarisation. The Soviet military packed much more firepower in the Arctic and was geared to wage nuclear war with the United States. Arctic bases were staging posts for long-range bombers to fly to the US. Now, in an era when a slow-motion battle for the Arctic’s energy reserves is unfolding, Russia is creating a permanent and nimble conventional military presence in small packets that is highly mobile and capable of rapid reaction.

However, the scale of Russia’s Arctic ambitions is not in doubt. In March 2015, Moscow conducted the largest full-scale readiness exercise in the Arctic since the collapse of the USSR. It deployed 45,000 soldiers, 3,360 vehicles, 110 aircraft, 41 naval vessels and 15 submarines, according to the Russian ministry of defence. And on Navy Day on 30 July 2017, Russia made a point of showing off its naval might across the world, from Tartus in Syria to Sebastopol and Vladivostok, and, above all, in the Baltic waters of St Petersburg under the approving eye of Putin. Up to a point Putin’s naval show that day represented a Potemkin village. Russia’s 2018 defence budget of £32bn billion is small compared to America’s spending of £500bn, and even China’s £140bn. Yet it would be an error to write off the resurgent Russian fleet as mere bluff and bluster.

Members of the Russian Navy Northern Fleet take part in training in Murmansk Oblast, in the Russian region of the Arctic, 2017. Credit: Lev FEdoseyev\ Tass via Getty images

Perceptions matter as much as crude power projection. In this vein, the Kremlin regularly releases pictures of President Putin in snow gear, of ice-breakers in the Arctic Ocean, and of troops training in white fatigues – brandishing assault rifles as they zip along on sleighs pulled by reindeer. And now that Russia’s military forces can move with agility to deliver precise and deadly strikes, they are far more useful.

Such forces need not be enormous. If cleverly deployed, even a small military hand can deliver a big blow with success – as Russia did in the Ukraine and Syria, calling America’s bluff and outmanoeuvring the West. Through its new presence and military build-up, Russia can also deny others access to polar terrain – just as China has managed to do in the East and South China seas.

Still, to realise its ambitions, Russia has to crack the Potemkin problem. It still lacks the necessary technology and finance to open up the new Arctic, onshore and offshore. Deep-sea ports and supply stations need to be built along the Northern Sea Route, as well long-distance railway lines, motorways and undersea fibre-optic data cable networks. Because of US and EU sanctions since 2014, Russia cannot rely primarily on investment from the West. That is why it has begun to turn to China for money and markets.

To President Xi Jinping, Russia’s Arctic ambitions present an opportunity for China to use its economic might to increase its global influence. Xi, like Putin, sees the Arctic as a crucial element of the country’s geopolitical vision. Now that the People’s Republic is no longer an introspective “developing state”, Xi declared in his December 2017 New Year’s Eve speech, it intends to become the “keeper of international order”.

So, the Sino-Russian Arctic alliance is not simply the consequence of climate change, but also a product of realpolitik. And the bond has grown tighter thanks to Donald Trump’s arrival in the White House. Moscow and Beijing have long yearned to push the US from its post-Cold War pedestal as the world’s self-styled “hegemon” and “sole superpower”. America’s abstention from Arctic power politics is offering them an unexpected gift.

The scale of Xi’s vision is remarkable. In 2013 China embarked on the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, the most expensive foreign infrastructure plan in history. It is a two-pronged development strategy, encompassing the “Silk Road Economic Belt” and the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road”, which together map out a highly integrated set of land-based and maritime economic corridors linking thousands of miles of markets from Asia to western Europe. Late last year Xi called for close Sino-Russian co-operation on the Northern Sea Route in order to realise what he called a “Silk Road on Ice”. While cast in terms of mutual benefit, the Belt and Road Initiative is a means to strengthen China’s influence and security along its strategically important periphery.

By making the infrastructure plan an integral part of its constitution and announcing that by 2050 China would be a “leading global power”, Xi has shown long-term thinking on a grand scale. He has done so by arousing genuine excitement about the future – so different in tone from the small-minded negativism about lost greatness that emanates from Trump.

Indeed, this is the kind of visionary leadership that Washington has not shown since the early Cold War era, when it set out to rebuild western Europe in the American way. And once the Belt and Road initiative reaches its predicted spending of $1trn, it will be almost eight times the value in real terms of America’s Marshall Plan.

Xi’s grand global vision is combined with shrewd diplomatic tactics. His string of state visits in May 2017 to Finland, Alaska and Iceland was no coincidence. Finland was just about to take over the rotating chairmanship of the Arctic Council from the US, to be followed by Iceland two years later. But Xi also saw his visit to Finland as a chance to shore up support in Europe, China’s biggest trading partner. In Iceland – situated at the crossroads of the transatlantic shipping lanes and the gateway to the Arctic Ocean – China had used the opportunity of the global financial recession to push a free trade agreement, concluded in 2013. The new Chinese embassy in Reykjavik is the biggest in the country.

In this systematic Arctic strategy, officially unveiled through a grand Chinese white paper entitled “Polar Silk Road” on 26 January 2018, Beijing has generally avoided locking horns directly with the US. But America, under Trump as under Obama, has not shown much interest in the region – even at the level of building ice-breakers, let alone as part of a 30-year strategy. And, in any case, China has been happy to hide behind the Russian apron. Certainly, the Beijing-Moscow axis works for the moment as a marriage of mutual convenience.


The Arctic has been described as the world’s “last frontier,” the “last white dot on the map”. Now it is beginning to be coloured in. As the climate changes, its ice-scape will become a seascape. And a region that did not belong to anybody will be divvied up – through co-operation or conflict, or perhaps a mixture of both. What may prove to be the new world order – a new multipolar system of international politics – is taking shape there, as Russia and China seek to challenge an American hegemony that, in their view, has lasted for too long.

Both think big. But Xi’s China has far deeper pockets and operates with much greater diplomatic shrewdness than Putin’s Russia. This combination of vision, money and finesse is nowhere to be seen in the Western world – certainly not in Trump’s Washington. As for Brexit Britain, supposedly entering a new global era, it seems barely able to raise its eyes beyond the power politics of Westminster. l

Kristina Spohr is an associate professor in international history at the London School of Economics

This article first appeared in the 08 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new cold war

An artist's version of the Reichstag fire, which Hitler blamed on the communists. CREDIT: DEZAIN UNKIE/ ALAMY
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The art of the big lie: the history of fake news

From the Reichstag fire to Stalin’s show trials, the craft of disinformation is nothing new.

We live, we’re told, in a post-truth era. The internet has hyped up postmodern relativism, and created a kind of gullible cynicism – “nothing is true, and who cares anyway?” But the thing that exploits this mindset is what the Russians call dezinformatsiya. Disinformation – strategic deceit – isn’t new, of course. It has played a part in the battle that has raged between mass democracy and its enemies since at least the First World War.

Letting ordinary people pick governments depends on shared trust in information, and this is vulnerable to attack – not just by politicians who want to manipulate democracy, but by those on the extremes who want to destroy it. In 1924, the first Labour government faced an election. With four days to go, the Daily Mail published a secret letter in which the leading Bolshevik Grigory Zinoviev heralded the government’s treaties with the Soviets as a way to help recruit British workers for Leninism. Labour’s vote actually went up, but the Liberal share collapsed, and the Conservatives returned to power.

We still don’t know exactly who forged the “Zinoviev Letter”, even after exhaustive investigations of British and Soviet intelligence archives in the late 1990s by the then chief historian of the Foreign Office, Gill Bennett. She concluded that the most likely culprits were White Russian anti-Bolsheviks, outraged at Labour’s treaties with Moscow, probably abetted by sympathetic individuals in British intelligence. But whatever the precise provenance, the case demonstrates a principle that has been in use ever since: cultivate your lie from a germ of truth. Zinoviev and the Comintern were actively engaged in trying to stir revolution – in Germany, for example. Those who handled the letter on its journey from the forger’s desk to the front pages – MI6 officers, Foreign Office officials, Fleet Street editors – were all too ready to believe it, because it articulated their fear that mass democracy might open the door to Bolshevism.

Another phantom communist insurrection opened the way to a more ferocious use of disinformation against democracy. On the night of 27 February 1933, Germany’s new part-Nazi coalition was not yet secure in power when news started to hum around Berlin that the Reichstag was on fire. A lone left-wing Dutchman, Marinus van der Lubbe, was caught on the site and said he was solely responsible. But Hitler assumed it was a communist plot, and seized the opportunity to do what he wanted to do anyway: destroy them. The suppression of the communists was successful, but the claim it was based on rapidly collapsed. When the Comintern agent Gyorgy Dimitrov was tried for organising the fire, alongside fellow communists, he mocked the charges against him, which were dismissed for lack of evidence.

Because it involves venturing far from the truth, disinformation can slip from its authors’ control. The Nazis failed to pin blame on the communists – and then the communists pinned blame on the Nazis. Dimitrov’s comrade Willi Münzenberg swiftly organised propaganda suggesting that the fire was too convenient to be Nazi good luck. A “counter-trial” was convened in London; a volume called The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror was rushed into print, mixing real accounts of Nazi persecution of communists – the germ of truth again – with dubious documentary evidence that they had started the fire. Unlike the Nazis’ disinformation, this version stuck, for decades.

Historians such as Richard Evans have argued that both stories about the fire were false, and it really was one man’s doing. But this case demonstrates another disinformation technique still at work today: hide your involvement behind others, as Münzenberg did with the British great and good who campaigned for the Reichstag prisoners. In the Cold War, the real source of disinformation was disguised with the help of front groups, journalistic “agents of influence”, and the trick of planting a fake story in an obscure foreign newspaper, then watching as the news agencies picked it up. (Today, you just wait for retweets.)

In power, the Nazis made much use of a fictitious plot that did, abominably, have traction: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged text first published in Russia in 1903, claimed to be a record of a secret Jewish conspiracy to take over the world – not least by means of its supposed control of everyone from bankers to revolutionaries. As Richard Evans observes, “If you subject people to a barrage of lies, in the end they’ll begin to think well maybe they’re not all true, but there must be something in it.” In Mein Kampf, Hitler argued that the “big lie” always carries credibility – an approach some see at work not only in the Nazis’ constant promotion of the Protocols but in the pretence that their Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938 was spontaneous. (It is ironic that Hitler coined the “big lie” as part of an attack on the Jews’ supposed talent for falsehood.) Today, the daring of the big lie retains its force: even if no one believes it, it makes smaller untruths less objectionable in comparison. It stuns opponents into silence.

Unlike the Nazis, the Bolshevik leaders were shaped by decades as hunted revolutionaries, dodging the Tsarist secret police, who themselves had had a hand in the confection of the Protocols. They occupied the paranoid world of life underground, governed by deceit and counter-deceit, where any friend could be an informer. By the time they finally won power, disinformation was the Bolsheviks’ natural response to the enemies they saw everywhere. And that instinct endures in Russia even now.

In a competitive field, perhaps the show trial is the Soviet exercise in upending the truth that is most instructive today. These sinister theatricals involved the defendants “confessing” their crimes with great
sincerity and detail, even if the charges were ludicrous. By 1936, Stalin felt emboldened to drag his most senior rivals through this process – starting with Grigory Zinoviev.

The show trial is disinformation at its cruellest: coercing someone falsely to condemn themselves to death, in so convincing a way that the world’s press writes it up as truth. One technique involved was perfected by the main prosecutor, Andrey Vyshinsky, who bombarded the defendants with insults such as “scum”, “mad dogs” and “excrement”. Besides intimidating the victim, this helped to distract attention from the absurdity of the charges. Barrages of invective on Twitter are still useful for smearing and silencing enemies.


The show trials were effective partly because they deftly reversed the truth. To conspire to destroy the defendants, Stalin accused them of conspiring to destroy him. He imposed impossible targets on straining Soviet factories; when accidents followed, the managers were forced to confess to “sabotage”. Like Hitler, Stalin made a point of saying the opposite of what he did. In 1936, the first year of the Great Terror, he had a rather liberal new Soviet constitution published. Many in the West chose to believe it. As with the Nazis’ “big lie”, shameless audacity is a disinformation strategy in itself. It must have been hard to accept that any regime could compel such convincing false confessions, or fake an entire constitution.

No one has quite attempted that scale of deceit in the post-truth era, but reversing the truth remains a potent trick. Just think of how Donald Trump countered the accusation that he was spreading “fake news” by making the term his own – turning the charge on his accusers, and even claiming he’d coined it.

Post-truth describes a new abandonment of the very idea of objective truth. But George Orwell was already concerned that this concept was under attack in 1946, helped along by the complacency of dictatorship-friendly Western intellectuals. “What is new in totalitarianism,” he warned in his essay “The Prevention of Literature”, “is that its doctrines are not only unchallengeable but also unstable. They have to be accepted on pain of damnation, but on the other hand they are always liable to be altered on a moment’s notice.”

A few years later, the political theorist Hannah Arendt argued that Nazis and Stalinists, each immersed in their grand conspiratorial fictions, had already reached this point in the 1930s – and that they had exploited a similar sense of alienation and confusion in ordinary people. As she wrote in her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” There is a reason that sales of Arendt’s masterwork – and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – have spiked since November 2016.

During the Cold War, as the CIA got in on the act, disinformation became less dramatic, more surreptitious. But show trials and forced confessions continued. During the Korean War, the Chinese and North Koreans induced a series of captured US airmen to confess to dropping bacteriological weapons on North Korea. One lamented that he could barely face his family after what he’d done. The pilots were brought before an International Scientific Commission, led by the eminent Cambridge scientist Joseph Needham, which investigated the charges. A documentary film, Oppose Bacteriological Warfare, was made, showing the pilots confessing and Needham’s Commission peering at spiders in the snow. But the story was fake.

The germ warfare hoax was a brilliant exercise in turning democracy’s expectations against it. Scientists’ judgements, campaigning documentary, impassioned confession – if you couldn’t believe all that, what could you believe? For the genius of disinformation is that even exposure doesn’t disable it. All it really has to do is sow doubt and confusion. The story was finally shown to be fraudulent in 1998, through documents transcribed from Soviet archives. The transcripts were authenticated by the historian Kathryn Weathersby, an expert on the archives. But as Dr Weathersby laments, “People come back and say ‘Well, yeah, but, you know, they could have done it, it could have happened.’”

There’s an insidious problem here: the same language is used to express blanket cynicism as empirical scepticism. As Arendt argued, gullibility and cynicism can become one. If opponents of democracy can destroy the very idea of shared, trusted information, they can hope to destabilise democracy itself.

But there is a glimmer of hope here too. The fusion of cynicism and gullibility can also afflict the practitioners of disinformation. The most effective lie involves some self-deception. So the show trial victims seem to have internalised the accusations against them, at least for a while, but so did their tormentors. As the historian Robert Service has written, “Stalin frequently lied to the world when he was simultaneously lying to himself.”

Democracy might be vulnerable because of its reliance on the idea of shared truth – but authoritarianism has a way of undermining itself by getting lost in its own fictions. Disinformation is not only a danger to its targets. 

Phil Tinline’s documentary “Disinformation: A User’s Guide” will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm, 17 March

This article first appeared in the 08 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new cold war