Expert comment: If Putin’s thieves become respected in the West, why should one obey laws?


Arkady Babchenko

Journalist, military correspondent, member of Russian opposition. Founder of the project "Journalism without intermediaries".  As a military correspondent of Novaya Gazeta covered war against Georgia, as an independent journalist - war in Donbass. Participant of opposition rallies. Figured in criminal investigations over them. Considered a national traitor. Political immigrant.

The world is changing. I am actually afraid that the world order that was established after 1945 is coming to an end. I am fearful that we are entering a period of new global changes, new division of the global order.

One of the instruments of this division is a hybrid war. It is impossible to say that hybrid warfare is a modern invention. It has existed for a long time. This type of war was practiced by USSR in Afghanistan when regular army was used alongside irregular units. So, this is not the news.

But it is equally difficult not to acknowledge that Russia has certainly taken the hybrid warfare to a new level and has achieved impressive results on this stage. Hybrid war is not only different types of military operations that we see right now in Syria and Ukraine. It is also application of propaganda, informational technology, money, insurgents, ethnic minorities, meddling in the elections, agents of influence and corruption. Yes, and corruption, too. In fact, corruption is the most powerful tool in this warfare.

Export of corrupt influence, corrupt erosion of societies – this is a cornerstone of this new type of war.

Only a quarter of a century passed since the collapse of USSR and seeming transition of Russia to democracy but eighteenth year of twenty first century one has to note that this transition never occurred. Russia has now reverted towards imperial syndrome and is again turning into a xenophobic aggressive and imperialistic country. However, this time it is not using tank divisions to achieve its goals but a creeping influence.

Export of corrupt individuals with money is a key element of this influence.

After arrival into Western countries, they don’t just bring their money but also their world view. And they impact business and politics in countries that host them. And what is worse they seduce those countries towards their world view. An attempt to turn a blind eye to the origins of this money – mostly gotten in a criminal way – is a first step in this seductive depravation. If a thief and a criminal become a respected person on a equal basis as a person of labor that achieves everything through his or her own work then naturally a question arises: why bother to work and obey laws if theft and corruption are a quicker short cut to success? If “they” are allowed to do this, then why can’t “we”? If the society stops distinguishing between a thief and an honest man or woman, what’s the point of being honest?

Unfortunately, Western democracies still can’t understand what they are dealing with and what new grave challenges lay ahead of them, what Putin’s Russia stands for in the twenty first century. And they try and try to play by rules of fraudster who not only does not abide by those rules but who from the outset intended to break them abusing honesty and decency of the other side.

This is exactly why there is such a shock in the West when news about tens of thousands of fake pro-Kremlin social media accounts meddling in the electoral process appears. Although Russian opposition figures have been writing about this for a long time. This is why there is such a shock when fake news on refuges in Germany raping Russian girls are exposed and it is shown that this disinformation is an attempt to sway society into xenophobia. This is why there is such a shock when investigations show the scale of financing of Far Right movements in the West by Russian money. This is why there is such a shock when news about an attempt of coup d’état in Montenegro surfaces. This is why there is such a shock when a popular twitter account in the US turns out to be Kremlin trolls that try to set of manifestations of Far Right and migrants at the same time and place.

Freedom of speech is good where it belongs. Freedom of speech is an instrument of a well established democratic society. And it works coherently in democratic societies as a key instrument of society over those in power. However, in authoritarian societies it turns into an instrument of propaganda, an influence of power over society not the other way around. The instrument of enslavement of society, and what is worse – its depravation.

Berlin recently saw a strange action by local communists: a group of soviet tanks and a copy of Bolshevik battleship Aurora on platforms went through Friedrichstraße under the banner “Revolution is better than wars”. What revolution in Germany? Why would Germany need a revolution? What’s the relevance of Russian tanks and Aurora ship, a symbol of one of the worst state coups d’état that led to the death of millions of people? Who is paying for this not so cheap rally? Yes, once this type of action looks ridiculous. Second time it is laughable. But if one is allowed to hammer the same spot again and again, believe me, this tactic can bring certain results.

Democracy is a feature of a grown up free society. Infantilism is a feature of an immature society. Inability to construct logical links and understand that certain actions may lead to certain results. Attempts to play democracy with authoritarian regimes with infantile societies that seek simple solutions of complex problems have already once brought Europe to the edge of catastrophe. I mean Hitler’s fascism. An attempt to speak with such regimes a language of democracy is not an achievement but a sign of weakness. Such regimes do not understand such language. They should be talked with a language that they specifically can understand. Slap them by the hand at once. Immediately. Give them firm rebuke. Do not allow them to spread roots.

Giving a freedom of expression to cannibals is not only imprudent, it is dangerous. Unfortunately, the West still does not appreciate this danger. I very often have to talk with Western people, including policy-makers, and I see that these people simply do not understand the threats that I am writing about here. Through inertia these people still want to see Russia possibly as an imperfect but still law-abiding state. This has not been the case for a long time now.

Russia has long ago understood one cynical thought: breaking the rules is more profitable. Especially if you are allowed to that. If you can’t win the Olympics honestly, then carry out an operation with doping. And a certain major from FSB will go into a storage facility with urine samples of sportsmen and will substitute dirty ones with meldonium with the clean ones. This is not a plot from Kafka. This is a reality that led to a recent meldonium scandal which is part of the creeping influence and corruption export.

Now in Russia – and not only there but throughout the post-Soviet space – a new term “kleptocracy” is being widely accepted. It means power of thieves and corruption. This is a very useful term. Kleptocracy is possible only thanks to the infantilism that I mentioned above, to the irresponsibility of the population for the territory that they inhabit and to future generations that they will leave behind.

But what is worse is that export of this corrupt erosion is right now the most effective instrument of this creeping influence. What sort of money is the West allowing in their countries? How and for whom will this money work? How will it impact local society? How will it spread depravation in it? What sort of rallies, parties, powers, corrupt schemes, fake botofarms and mechanisms of influence will be paid through these monetary channels? And, most importantly, I will repeat, how will it continue seductive depravation of society? If you hammer one spot again and again, this will inevitably bring certain results. And these regimes definitely know how to do this.

It seems to me that it is very important to ask such questions. It is critical to finally understand that erosion through corruption is no longer about stealing and money laundering of ill gotten assets. Now it is first and foremost about hybrid war.

Only this understanding will allow to construct an adequate strategy of countering such hybrid war. It is impossible in this commentary to discuss all details of how such strategy could look like. But it is clear that the first step to a successful counter strategy is an acknowledgement by policy-makers and society that the West is essentially under an impact of an attack by corruption, that its open channels of business are used for dark political goals of Putin’s regime. After acknowledging the scale of this phenomenon that in my view is an indispensable step to contemplate a counter strategy one could think of further steps: should all commercial streams from Russia be blocked or selectively, how exactly to distinguish between more or less clean money from Kremlin-controlled, how to preserve links of the West with Russian society but contain undermining effect of Kremlin kleptocrats.

In February 2013 Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia, published an article in a military journal “Military Industrial Courier” called “Value of science in forecasting”. In this piece he discusses so called “chaos theory” which in the nutshell concludes that military actions are only a final part of the new hybrid war. However, its core part is shattering stability, creation of chaos in the state and society of your potential enemy.

So, it is imperative to understand that erosion through corruption along with cyber attacks and attempts to impact politics through fake social media accounts are part of Gerasimov’s doctrine, that very mechanisms of chaos in action. That very hybrid war.

And this war is already here.