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Putin’s new Cold War

Assassination attempts, cyber-attacks, military interventions – Russia is once again playing a deadly game with the West. Yet beneath the bravado is a nation riddled with insecurities.

Vladimir Putin is not one to accept criticism from the West, even when his country stands accused of attempted murder using military-grade nerve agents. Russian responses to the accusations have been dismissive, even suggesting that British intelligence was really responsible for the attempted murder on 4 March of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, combined with knowing observations that their fate should be a warning to other traitors.

Russia has been on the receiving end of sanctions and diplomatic slights ever since Crimea was annexed in March 2014, and Putin will expect to ride out whatever punishments the British can put together in the same way that he has ridden out those of the past. He will talk up the resilience of the Russian state and identify appropriate forms of retaliation that his adversaries will find difficult to match.

He may even wonder whether heightened tension with the West will help him with his other main preoccupation this weekend – the first round of his re-election as president on 18 March. Putin’s message to the Russian people has been for some time that they are under attack from old enemies and that this requires national unity and a readiness to sacrifice. He does not need to worry about the result. His victory is taken for granted. Polls show him romping home with about 65 per cent of the vote, with the other seven candidates all managing about 5 per cent each.

There are no credible opposition figures because murders, imprisonments and denunciations have left few capable of taking on this role. The anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny might have made a dent on Putin’s majority, but he was barred from standing by the Central Election Commission. The only thing that might worry Putin is that too few people will come out to vote and so detract from his victory. Given the lack of a real contest, minimal actual campaigning, calls for a boycott from Navalny and his supporters, declining living standards and little for the Russian people to look forward to, the turnout could well be less than the 65 per cent achieved in 2012, which was itself down from 70 per cent in 2008.

This will be Putin’s fourth term (five if you include the 2008-2012 period when he swapped places with his prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev). He may not be following China’s Xi Jinping in getting himself declared president for life, but he has already had the presidential term extended from four to six years. This means that he should be in power until he is 71. As Western governments work out what to do about Russian disruption, there is not much point looking forward to a new leadership in Moscow that might be interested in starting afresh. They need a policy for Putin that can last for some time.


This is one reason comparisons are being made with the Cold War – a period that began after the Second World War and lasted until the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. Over this period relations between the two superpowers, the US and the Soviet Union, and their respective allies were tense and dangerous. There were many vicious conflicts, often involving client states, but a third world war, which was expected to involve massive use of nuclear weapons, was avoided.

In the 1990s it was hoped and believed all this could be consigned to history and that a new period of peace and prosperity could be enjoyed by all. Well before the start of the Ukraine crisis in March 2014 it was apparent that these hopes were not being fulfilled. Russia complained about the West demanding a rules-based international order while regularly breaking its own standards.

An election campaign poster for Vladimir Putin in Grozny, Chechnya. Credit: Dmitrij Leltschuk/ Laif/ Camera Press 

How useful is it to think about the new situation as a cold war? Comparisons with the previous one can be, as we shall see, instructive, if only to explain why things are very different now. But “cold war” is also a more generic category. The term was first used in France before the Second World War to describe circumstances that had not yet led to actual hostilities but were likely to do so at any time. This was how the phrase was understood when employed by American commentators in the late 1940s – they had no reason then to expect a long stalemate but were looking ahead to a period when the possibility of a “hot war” was very real. And this is how we might think of a cold war now. It is not so much a replica of what we might call Cold War 1.0 but a new version with its own characteristics. Cold War 2.0 deserves the designation because it might turn hot. That is the risk that demands attention.

In some respects it is already quite warm, given the number of active measures recently taken by Russia against the West. As a reminder of the most dreaded aspect of Cold War 1.0, Putin started this month introducing a collection of new nuclear weapons, including a cruise missile that could “reach anywhere in the world” and bypass all forms of defence. Meanwhile, in tones reminiscent of the early 1980s, Nato generals have been describing the extent of the recent Russian build-up of conventional forces facing the Baltic states and the struggle the alliance would face when responding to a quick offensive, even if over time (if there was time) its superior strength would win out.

The emphasis on nuclear power is one of the major continuities between the two cold wars. It is the foundation of Russia’s claims to great power status (which is why Putin refers to it with alarming regularity). The other is its permanent membership of the UN Security Council, which allows it to prevent other great powers from ganging up on it. Yet the differences between the cold wars 1.0 and 2.0 are profound.

The most obvious and major change is that Russia is in a far weaker position than the Soviet Union was. At the end of 1991 the Soviet Union split into 15 republics and they all went their separate ways. Three – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – are now members of Nato. All its former allies in the Warsaw Pact have now joined Nato too. Moscow’s sphere of influence has therefore shrunk dramatically. Unsurprisingly this has led to a sense of isolation and insecurity. The priority for Russian foreign and security policy has become the old Soviet space – its “near abroad”.

Second, Cold War 1.0 was a global affair. Although it began in Europe, it soon spread to Asia and then on to the Middle East and Africa. In Cold War 2.0 Syria is the major exception to Russia’s European focus. Moscow stepped up its engagement in 2015 in order to prevent the defeat of President Bashar al-Assad. This operation was more successful than the one in Ukraine where Russia is stuck sustaining an unstable enclave. Putin is now a major player in Syrian affairs, although, as he is discovering, this is a mixed blessing.

Despite having done enough to ensure the survival of the Assad regime, Putin has not yet managed to work out how to bring sufficient peace to allow Russia to withdraw. Nor is this really part of Cold War 2.0 as a new arena for conflict with the West. Neither President Obama nor President Trump was inclined to get directly involved in Syria, despite the unfolding humanitarian disaster. They both largely confined themselves to mounting air strikes against Islamic State and its supporters.

Third, the shrinkage from the Soviet Union into the Russian Federation had major economic consequences. Almost until its fragmentation the Soviet Union had the second-largest economy in the world. It now vies for 13th place in the economic league table with Australia, a country with about a seventh of the population. Its GDP is about 60 per cent that of France and Britain, 40 per cent of Germany’s and not even 8 per cent of the US’s. In addition its economy is severely unbalanced. It is extremely dependent upon energy exports, which is why it gained in strength during the 2000s, as energy prices rose to new heights, and slumped after prices fell in 2014. Rebalancing the economy was one of Putin’s objectives early in his presidency, but chronic corruption and disregard for the rule of law have held it back.

Fourth, during Cold War 1.0 the interaction between the Soviet bloc’s economies and those in the rest of the world was minimal, other than in the energy sector. Since 1991 the Russian economy has engaged much more directly, using Western capital markets, importing Western goods and technology, and exporting oil and gas in return. Russia has always seen its position as an energy exporter as a source of leverage as well as revenue, a means of demonstrably rewarding friends and punishing enemies. Over time this has weakened Russia’s position in the market as customers become wary of being too dependent upon it as a supplier. At the same time, substantial economic connections with Russia provided the West with opportunities to impose sanctions, although these have largely been on individuals rather than whole sectors of the economy.

Fifth, Moscow can no longer claim leadership of an international ideological movement. There are some old leftists who still find it hard to think of Moscow as anything other than a leader in the struggle against global capitalism and imperialism. Its main messages, however, are now crudely nationalist, and so its natural supporters are on the xenophobic right – figures such as Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and Viktor Orbán. Russian sympathisers are now most likely to be found among misogynistic, racist and homophobic parties and movements.

These have gained ground in Europe largely because of the migration crisis, and Russian propaganda has done what it can to encourage this. Putin can appear to be more sympathetic to popular concerns than Brussels, Paris or Berlin. Yet this is not the same as leading a movement with a clear ideological identity. A number of pro-Putin politicians have come to power in EU states, including Viktor Orbán in Hungary but Russia’s lack of economic power means that these leaders end up complying with mainstream EU policies (including sanctions).

Sixth, Cold War 1.0 was a struggle of the pre-internet age. Cold War 2.0 has been shaped by the internet. This has provided opportunities for new forms of coercion and influence that have the advantage of being relatively cheap and potentially covert. They allow for provocations just below the threshold of what might lead to a hot war. In this way conflict can be carried on in a grey world of actions that are hard to attribute, and may be enacted by private individuals and groups acting as agents of the state. When critical information systems go down suddenly, affecting banking or a government bureaucracy, or fake and inflammatory messages overwhelm social media, the fact that Russia is responsible may be obvious but hard to prove. Even when the evidence is overwhelming the response is often simple denial.

Military personnel in Salisbury following the attempted murder of Sergei and Yulia Skripal. Credit: Chris J Ratcliffe/ Getty Images

The intensity of Russian activity below the level of actual war is worth noting. Attention in the UK is focused on attempted assassinations. But the other high-profile issue concerns the extent of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election campaign. Special counsel Robert Mueller has reported on the role of the Internet Research Agency, a St Petersburg-based “troll farm” which was part of an effort to develop links with far-right and far-left groups opposed to “globalisation” and liberal interventionism. Russia has also been blamed for the Petya ransomware attack of June 2017, which was originally directed against Ukraine’s financial, energy and government institutions – but its indiscriminate character meant that it spread further to other European businesses, causing many millions of dollars’ worth of damage.

The opening ceremony of the South Korea Winter Olympics was also attacked, with the official website going down and on-site technology failing, in such a way that North Korea might have got the blame at a time when South and North Korea were engaging in talks to reduce tensions. A likely motive was revenge for the International Olympic Committee’s decision to ban the Russian team from the Games because of its history of doping violations (a practice that showed how ready Russia is to gain advantage by breaking the rules). The German government has disclosed that federal computer systems have been penetrated by Russian hackers.

Responsibility is always denied, without much attempt to make the denials plausible, and often with a knowing sneer. Refusal to be held accountable for actions is combined with satisfaction at giving an impression of deliberate menace.

Does Cold War 1.0 provide any guidance for how we should cope with Cold War 2.0? For a start, we should accept it is not going to end soon. For this reason, and to prevent small incidents escalating into something much worse, we should keep open lines of communication and be prepared to c0-operate when it is in our mutual interests to do so. There are, for example, some decaying arms control agreements left over from easier times that need some attention. In addition, while bad behaviour must be called out, we should also recognise that suitable sanctions will be hard to find. A tit-for-tat response to attempted assassinations is hardly appropriate.

Although our media continues to challenge Russian narratives, Western governments are never going to be much good at state-sponsored information campaigns. It is worth noting, however, that Russians are convinced that the West is quite brilliant at undermining governments this way, citing as examples the Arab Spring of 2011, demonstrations against Putin in Moscow in 2011, and the uprising in Ukraine in 2014 (indicating their difficulty in believing that popular movements can develop without substantial help from foreign agents). There are also reasons to be wary of engaging in offensive cyber-operations, as they can get out of control, although temptations to move in this direction are likely to grow.


It is important to keep all this in perspective. China is a far more important player in international politics and economics, and bigger issues are posed by the wayward course of President Trump’s foreign policy. There have been complaints from Russian dissidents that exaggerating Moscow’s prowess in cyber-attacks or overstating its role in Western elections gives Putin an aura of power that he does not deserve (as well as discouraging honest assessments of why certain political messages turned out to be popular in the West). Putin wants to be talked up and not down, for Russia to appear as a great power whose interests must be accommodated and that must have a say in all important issues.

As Cold War 1.0 ended, it became apparent that a country that had been worrying us so much was hollow inside. Russia should be taken seriously, but in the end it is a minor economic power. It has allowed its insecurities to lead it into behaviour that can hurt its adversaries, but in the end will prevent it from addressing the aspirations of the Russian people. 

Lawrence Freedman is emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London. His latest book is the “The Future of War: A History” (Allen Lane)

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game

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 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game