The US has released the kernel of another intelligence assessment that describes the Kremlin’s global malign influence machine. Following the liberal tradition, it produces facts, allowing the public the make up its mind. This is in contrast to the authoritarian model that relies more on producing narrative. Democracies argue in facts. Authoritarians play with meanings. The voice in the podcast is from the State Department’s Ned Price given in a press conference. What little I know about the 36 star memo is here.
The film director Brian De Palma had this to say about director’s careers…
“We don’t plan them out, we happen to be working on one thing, then another happens, then another thing is delayed. Then we do the thing we can do at the time.”
There is a lesson in this for the great debate about whether China or Russia (or Iran or domestic extremism) are the biggest threats to democracy.
The reality is: these nations and forces are all occurring at once.
If democracies are hoping to meet and defeat these challenges and threats, they need to be able to see them in their totality. Democracies can’t afford to become inverse projections of the authoritarianism they oppose.
Rather, democracies need to better frame the whole picture we’re in today. Set up the shot and tell the story for the world to see. They need to do as the old rules around economy and technology fade away.
In just the same ways that New Hollywood directors reinvented filmmaking amid dramatic shifts in the economy of film, the imaginations of people in democracies today need to become more expansive in order to project democracy successfully into the contested and conflicted 21st Century.
*The De Palma quote above comes from his interview in the documentary De Palma by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow.
*The full interview with Sino-Russia expert Bobo Lo can be found here.
*Music: Igor Khorkavyy
For years, the world has been treated to a view of the Kremlin’s information war.
Now, we see the first nascent Western democratic version.
Call it tactical information war, Washington and London style.
This CNN article discusses the Biden administration’s strategy of declassifying intelligence on Russia’s moves around Ukraine and releasing it in an effort to frustrate the Kremlin, communicate with the public, and potentially help shape the outcome of the event. According to the article: the Biden administration “believes Russian President Vladimir Putin has been caught off guard by some of the releases.”
The strategy shows an evolution since 2014, when the West watched seemingly helplessly as Putin deployed his unmarked troops to Crimea, which they soon took over.
Since then, the modus operandi of Russia has been to use anonymous or proxy voices to sow doubt: about troop movements, as well as about political reality.
Interestingly, the US model relies not on doubt but trust. Trust that the US isn’t cooking the intelligence. Also the public’s trust that on this matter the US government is accurate.
In mid-January, the US intelligence officials said Russia had already prepositioned operatives to conduct a false-flag attack as a pretext for invasion in eastern Ukraine. In late January, the British foreign office disclosed what they said was a plot to install pro-Russian leadership in Kyiv. The White House repeated its claim of a “false-flag” operation – with details of “graphic propaganda video” in early February.
There have been other benefits. Apparently Russian officials have been “grumbling about the exposure of their plans” forcing Moscow to fear it has a mole among its staff.
One western intel figure told CNN: “Sometimes, if you put enough doubt in the system, they may actually remove some competent people who they suspect of being spies who, in fact, aren’t spies at all.”
This approach is a cousin to the broader US insistence that accurate news reporting will do the work of supporting democracy’s values in a contest with authoritarian nations. But rather than a persistent, open-ended, strategic approach, these “fact-bombs” around a possible Ukraine “further”-invasion are tactical, released as a series of slashes and parries in a fencing battle with the Kremlin’s thrusts and counter-thrusts.
US officials say there are signs the strategy is working, per CNN. The question is: will the strategy be enough to dissuade Russia from invading?
I suppose we’ll have that answer soon enough.
Here is audio of a talk I gave at SXSW in March on how the tech world aids Russia’s war on the West.