The best offense is an existential defense

by Chris Zappone

A new paper by Jolanta Darczewska and Piotr Żochowski, from the Centre for Eastern Studies in Warsaw, offers some valuable insight into the mentality behind Russia’s active measures against the West.

'I blame society'

‘I blame society!’… or in Russia’s case, Western society (a scene from Repo Man)

One fundamental idea is that Russia is the victim of the West, which then gives Moscow the right to ‘defend’ itself by inherently subversive means.

As Darczewska and Żochowski write:

The narrative strategy imposed by Russia blurs the boundaries between war and peace, between the offensive and the defensive. A key ingredient of this strategy is shaping Russia’s image as the victim of the West’s cynical game, and enforcing the belief that this is a war between two sides. Meanwhile, the situation is actually inherently asymmetric: the aggressor is undertaking unilateral actions, while the party being attacked can only judge the scale of the devastation after the fact.

The paper, published in the Russian Analytical Digest, also makes an important point about the lack of fundamental ideology in Russian actions today (my emphasis added)…

Active measures were the subject of in-depth studies in the West during the Cold War. A cursory review of them leads to the conclusion that the contemporary repertoire is largely a continuation of the same ideas, although Russia has given up trying to change the world according to ideological preferences, which underpinned the conceptual Cold-War basis of its active measures in that period.

The doctrinal model justifying Russia’s present activity is similarly inflexible: it is based on a contrast between the worlds of Russia and the West, the basis for which is the civilisational distinctiveness of the ‘Russian world’, duly expanded to cover the ‘Eurasian world.’ The strategic narration based on this so-called geopolitical scientific conception, and the criteria of ‘truth’ deriving from it, is simplified, adapted to the specific nature of the target audience, and displays a diverse range of thematic and ideological concepts.

Moreover, this is a narrative free of the embarrassing burden of a system of values (which even today Russia has failed to create), and which in practice boils down to undermining the values of others. Geopolitics also determines the tone of the narrative, which is dominated by the rhetoric of confrontation. The United States and NATO have become a kind of ‘absolute enemy,’ which questions the role of Russia as a world power, abuses its trust and constantly humiliates it, shaping the global situation by means of ‘colour revolutions’.

The rivalry with the United States and NATO has become the most universal ‘argument’ of Russia’s domestic (the creation of an illusion of danger and of pervasive anti-Russian hysteria, or Russophobia) and foreign policy. Calling foreign values (such as the sovereign right of Georgia and Ukraine to determine their own paths of development and choice of alliances) into question presents this as an act of defence of Russia’s sovereignty, and as a mirror response to the cynical games of the West.

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