The One Weird Trick, and Why You Should Care About Russia
Part II of a V-part Series
You may not be Interested in Russia …
Let me reply to readers who have written to say that they find my concern about Russia excessive. Russia, they note, is demographically doomed, and its economy is the size of Italy’s.
Ukrainians, wrote one reader,
… are friendly acquaintances at best. Enemies at most. I don’t care what happens between them and Putin. Russia and Ukraine are dying States. Their demographics are horrible.
Several of you have written to me to say this. I’m not sure why you think this means Russia poses no threat. First, it isn’t true. PPP-adjusted, Russia’s economy is larger than Italy’s. I think it came in as the world’s largest economy this year after China, the United States, India, Japan, and Germany. Also: Italy is a very wealthy country.
But why does the size of Russia’s economy matter at all? The only questions we need to answer are, “Is Russia big enough to do us damage,” and “Does Russia want to screw us up?” And the answer to both question is “Yes.”
Even if its economy were the size of Italy’s, that doesn’t mean Russia is like Italy. The country is implacably hostile to the United States and working to screw us up in every way possible. It’s very capable of doing just that.
Russia is more populous than all of its neighbors (China apart). It’s the largest country in the world. It can move its military to and from North Asia, Eastern Europe, and to the borders of the Middle East without ever leaving its own territory. The US is capable of projecting power because it has allies (a situation we’re trying to rectify as quickly as possible). Russia doesn’t need them.
Italy spends its money on elegant clothes. Russia spends it on weapons. Russia’s economy is big enough for it to maintain the second-most powerful military in the world. It has an enormous, competent spy network. It’s the world’s largest oil producer, and second-largest producer of natural gas.
Here’s a map of Russia’s organized crime networks, which extend over the entire former Soviet Union and Western Europe:
Italy is friendly to the United States and its allies. Russia is not. The Kremlin sees the United States as an enemy and views the US-led international order as malign—a thing to be undone. It is dedicated to destroying this order.
Even China attempts, at least for now, to maintain a stable relationship with us (not least because its economy is so profoundly intertwined with ours). Russia rejects the international order wholesale. No other country is willing and able to obstruct US foreign policy on a global scale.
We can argue in good faith about whether Russia or China is the greater long-term threat. But the argument that Russia’s economy is “the size of Italy’s,” and therefore no one reasonable would care about it, just makes no sense. Its demographic predicament only makes it more dangerous. Russia needs conquest to survive.
As one of my loyal readers, Eric Hines, has written, it may be “precisely because of Russia's demographics and its relatively primitive economy … that its leadership believes it has no alternative to aggression and nothing to lose.” [my emphasis]
So you may not be interested in Russia.
But Russia is Interested in You.
That uplifting Tweet you just shared? A Russian troll sent it. This, at least, is what Darren Linville and Patrick Warren concluded from a two-year study of Russia’s disinformation strategy, tactics, and impact.
The image Americans have of these trolls is wrong. They’re not “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.” They’re an impressively disciplined and professional army, and they are waging, in the infamous words of Valery Gerasimov, the Russian chief of the general staff, an “information confrontation aimed at the reduction of the fight potential of the enemy.”
The Kremlin wages political war to achieve specific political outcomes—which is cheap and easy, compared to physical conflict. They are good at this and we are not.
They have studied us. They understand how to harness our biases (and hashtags) for their own purposes. They know what pressure points to push and how best to drive us to distrust our neighbors. … They don’t go to social media looking for a fight; they go looking for new best friends. And they have found them. …
Professional disinformation isn’t spread by the account you disagree with—quite the opposite. Effective disinformation is embedded in an account you agree with. The professionals don’t push you away, they pull you toward them. …
The quality of Russia’s work has been honed over several years and millions of social media posts. .... They attack issues from both sides, attempting to drive mainstream viewpoints in polar and extreme directions.
Russian disinformation is not just about President Trump or the 2016 presidential election. Did they work to get Trump elected? Yes, diligently. Our research has shown how Russia strategically employed social media to build support on the right for Trump and lower voter turnout on the left for Clinton. But .... Russia’s goals are to further widen existing divisions in the American public and decrease our faith and trust in institutions that help maintain a strong democracy. …
The IRA generated more social media content in the year following the 2016 election than the year before it. … Russia has dug in for a long campaign. So far, we’re helping them win.
Just how many Russians are involved in these operations? I don’t know, exactly, but clearly the answer is “many.” Many Russians have spent a lot of time studying the United States. Many Russians know us well enough to know exactly how to yank our chains.
This relationship isn’t symmetrical. Few Americans understand Russia this well. Few Americans speak Russian; few understand the fault lines of Russian society; few would be able to pass as Russians on the Internet.
We’ve long assumed that our total dominance of global culture was an immense advantage, and in many ways it is. But as hybrid warfare becomes more sophisticated, advantages accrue to nations that better understand the adversary’s culture. In this respect, it’s a liability.
Our adversaries spend a lot of time looking at America. We spend a lot of time looking at America, too. Our citizens don’t have the general knowledge of Russia—or China, or Iran, or any other country—that theirs have about us. This makes it far too easy for hostile foreign powers to persuade us to believe nonsense. We should be cultivating the habit of looking outward.
But how can ordinary Americans do this, given there’s no longer any coverage of foreign affairs in the American media?
So, let me tell you about this one weird trick. ….