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writing for godot

Russia's War Against the West: A Study in Asymmetry

Written by Thomas Magstadt   
Thursday, 06 December 2018 13:19

Artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia, but for all humankind. It comes with colossal opportunities, but also threats that are difficult to predict. Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.”1

~Russian President Vladimir Putin, 2017

In the dawn of the new Age of Cyberwarfare, Russian meddling in Western elections would pose a fundamental problem for America and the West no matter who occupied the Oval Office.  With a severely impaired President in the White House, the problem is raised to the level of a clear and present danger to our constitutional order, political institutions, and the social contract that binds us together as a nation.  It goes to the heart of a systemic disadvantage for the United States in its troubled relationship with Russia, namely the challenge open societies face in dealing with a new breed of cyber-capable dictatorships.

We are in a new Cold War with Russia, Iran, and North Korea. The Trump White House is also on a collision course with China, despite the time-out in the face-off over trade. The outcome of this new Cold War fought with a weaponized Internet is infinitely more vital to the survival of constitutional democracy and the rule of law than the fate of any single individual, including the outcome of a wide-ranging investigation that could quite possibly lead to the impeachment of a sitting president.2

For our adversaries whatever serves to distract the voters, polarize society, and paralyze the government is good.  The same divide-and-conquer logic applies to America’s alliance relationships, most notably in Europe and the Western Pacific.

Vladimir Putin has the means (social media) and opportunity (direct access to voters) to interfere in the political process of any country with competing political parties, independent news organizations and a system of government whose legitimacy depends on holding free and fair elections.  His motive for giving top priority to targeting the United States—Russia’s decades-long archrival—is clear.  But because Putin does not play by the same rules, the U.S. does not have an equal opportunity to interfere in Russian politics. Russia’s elections are farcical affairs.  Russia has nothing resembling a free press.  There is no guarantee of due process or impartial justice in Russia’s courts.

Bottom line:  the playing field is not level.


The advent of the Nuclear Age created a bipolar world order—shorthand for the military-strategic stalemate that made a third world war “unthinkable”—while doing nothing to remove the sources of conflict.  So the rivalry shifted to a different kind of battlefield, one made-to-order for the Kremlin, one that at best was not a good fit for democracies and at worst is the antithesis of everything they stand for.

The totalitarian state Stalin bequeathed his heirs depended heavily on Orwellian instruments of rule: strict control of the mass media, a vast network of spies and informants, and domestic surveillance.  The stark contrast with a democratic republic anchored in constantly-touted Constitution, a Bill of Rights, a free press, and due process of law created a systemic imbalance in the political-strategic relationship.

Unlike the two world wars, the Cold War was fought primarily through intelligence agencies, covert operations, and the dark arts—propaganda, infiltration, subversion, and disinformation (дезинформация in Russian)—the very things Lenin first theorized and wrote about and then employed to great effect in the run-up to the October Revolution.  These were the basic elements in the political strategy and tactics at which Stalin proved to be the most effective and deadly practitioner in the power struggle after Lenin’s death in 1924.

In the decades after World War II, the Kremlin learned an important lesson in dealing with the American superpower, namely that Republican presidents have more room for maneuver in dealing with Moscow than Democrats. That’s because wide swathes of the electorate perceived Republicans (“conservatives”) as tough on Communism and strong on national defense, while Democrats (“liberals”) were portrayed as soft on socialism and proponents of “welfare” at the expense of military spending. So voters typically gave Republican presidents more latitude to negotiate arms and trade deals with Moscow.

It’s easy to misinterpret the meaning of the Cold War that ended in 1991 because of the desirable  outcome for the West.  We didn’t win it so much as they lost it thanks to a woefully mismanaged economy and disastrous war in a part of the world where we are now inextricably entangled.


“I created all these pictures and posts, and the Americans believed that it was written by their people.”3

~Irina Viktorovna Kaverzina

Fraudulent social media accounts impersonating Americans, political rallies planned in a Russian cyber bunker and promoted on Facebook, paid advertising touting Trump or haranguing against Hillary—it all sound like science fiction.  But it isn’t.  It’s the story of a major new threat to representative democracy.  A story that emerged clearly into view only afterthe 2016 presidential election.

The Kremlin’s future investment in AI research is a closely guarded state secret, but estimates put Russia’s total AI spending at approximately $12.5 million a year.  By comparison, China reportedly plans to invest $150 billion through 2030(!), while the U.S. Department of Defense spends $7.4 billion annually on unclassified research and development on AI and related fields.4 What these numbers tell us is that Russia cannot match China or the United States in AI research and development; what the same numbers mask, is that Putin’s Russia is putting its eggs in an AI basket—namely asymmetric political warfare—designed to make the gross strategic imbalance in R&D irrelevant. Indeed, these new cyber-war weapons have become a central tenet of Russia’s strategy toward the West and one with which Russia has been able to project power and influence beyond its immediate neighborhood. In particular, AI has the potential to hyperpower Russia’s use of disinformation—the intentional spread of false and misleading information for the purpose of influencing politics and societies. And unlike in the conventional military space, the United States and Europe are ill-equipped to respond to AI-driven asymmetric warfare (ADAW) in the information space.5

Far from abandoning Cold War-era “active measures” aimed at swaying public opinion, targeting policies, and subverting political systems abroad, Russia under Putin —has stepped up such efforts  and adapted them to the digital age; in the process the Putin has elevated information warfare intoa “core component” of the Kremlin’s foreign-policy strategy vis-à-vis the West.6 The re-emergence of a “gray zone” between war and peace is the new hallmark of Russia’s strategic doctrine in the Putin era.9 And it is not by chance that the role of cyber weapons in measures short of war is a recurring  theme in contemporary Russian military thought.8


The Cyber Age has raised the potential for destabilizing democracies through dissemination of fake news and disinformation to new levels and in the process given the Kremlin a made-to-order weapon of mass disruption—the perfect tool for winning the Second Cold War.

Despite prolific gerrymandering efforts to favor Republicans, the 2018 midterm elections resulted in Democrats recapturing the US House of Representatives.  In its aftermath, the federal investigation of Russia’s intervention in the 2016 election has shifted into high gear.  Even so, as Donald Trump’s second year in office draws to a close there is still no light at the end of the tunnel, no way to know what revelations yet to come, or the distraction, demoralization, and divisiveness in store.

No one knows what it means for the Trump presidency or what the Mueller investigation will mean for the course of history ultimately or the 2020 general election.  What’s clear, however, is that public anger, general confusion, and political finger-pointing have weakened the country, divided the electorate, and lowered America’s esteem in the eyes of the world.

It's Vladimir Putin's dream-come-true.


[1]  Alexander Putin,“'Whoever leads in AI will rule the world’: Putin to Russian children on Knowledge Day,” RT, September 1, 2017.

[2]  David Taylor, “‘America’s straightest arrow’: Robert Mueller silent as urgency mounts,” The Guardian(online edition), November 24, 2018.

[3]  Quoted in Alicia Parlapiano and Jasmine C. Lee, “The Propaganda Tools Used by Russians to Influence the 2016 Election,” TheNew York Times, February 16, 2018,  Kaverzina is one of thirteen Russian defendants Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III has charged with  trying to disrupt the 2016 presidential election.  This quote is from an email she wrote to a family member.

[4] Samuel Bendett, “In AI, Russia Is Hustling to Catch Up,” Defense One,April 4, 2018, See also, Julian E. Barnes and Josh Chin, “The New Arms Race in AI,” The Wall Street Journal, March 2, 2018,

[5]  See, for example, Alina Polyakova, “Weapons of the weak: Russia and AI-driven asymmetric warfare,” Brookings Report, November 15, 2018.  See also, Michael Horowitz et al., “Strategic Competition in an Era of Artificial Intelligence,” (Washington, DC: Center for a New American Security, July 2018), pp. 15-17,

[6] Polyakova, “Weapons of the weak…”; see also, Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer et al., “Information Manipulation: A Challenge for Our Democracies,” (Paris, France: Ministry for Europe…and the Institute for Strategic Research…August 2018),

[7]  Keir Giles, “The Next Phase of Russian Information Warfare,” (Riga, Latvia: NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, 2016),

[8] See, for example, Mark Galeotti, “The ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’ and Russian Non-Linear War,” In Moscow’s Shadows,” July 6, 2014;; see also, Jolanta Darczewska, “The Devil is in the Details: Information Warfare in the Light of Russia’s Military Doctrine”, OSW Point of View, no. 50 (May 2015) your social media marketing partner


A note of caution regarding our comment sections:

For months a stream of media reports have warned of coordinated propaganda efforts targeting political websites based in the U.S., particularly in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

We too were alarmed at the patterns we were, and still are, seeing. It is clear that the provocateurs are far more savvy, disciplined, and purposeful than anything we have ever experienced before.

It is also clear that we still have elements of the same activity in our article discussion forums at this time.

We have hosted and encouraged reader expression since the turn of the century. The comments of our readers are the most vibrant, best-used interactive feature at Reader Supported News. Accordingly, we are strongly resistant to interrupting those services.

It is, however, important to note that in all likelihood hardened operatives are attempting to shape the dialog our community seeks to engage in.

Adapt and overcome.

Marc Ash
Founder, Reader Supported News

0 # RICHARDKANE.Philadelphia 2018-12-07 00:47
Israel, Saudi Arabia and the US has been meddling in each other affairs for years Russia for a while was influencing BBC style giving third party opposition much coverage, the Green and Libertarian Party.

Then Evan McMullin a Mormon super hawk thought he would get Utah’s electoral votes, and Russia started condemning Hillary directly. Most of it accurate not misinformation.

Besides right-wing Americans See the Guardian
Donald Trump Jr met Gulf states emissary offering election help – report

for a coordinated effort by the Saudi’s and other Gulf States coordinating with Israeli intelligent and media expects and what was Backwater to get Trump elected.

As far artificial intelligence, many experts dread it becoming in charge of itself, especially choosing targets for drown attacks faster than an eye can blink.
+3 # AlexG 2018-12-12 02:54
Why Putin's post-Soviet Russia quickly lost trust in US/NATO promises

Ca. 1989-90, in the interest of furthering the incipient deconstruction of Cold War geo-political engines, a soon-to-gone Soviet President Gorbachev offered to collar Russia's internal right wingers --most of whom were still strongly opposed to any NATO-driven reunification of Germany.
In Return - but, amazingly, with no official treaty instruments signed by either side-- Bush I then gave Gorby "personal assurances" that, if German reunification thus proceeded peacefully, all then-existing NATO defense lines would become frozen in-place, presumably permanently.
But, prodded for the past 30 yrs by a succession of USA-based, deep-state right wingers, the Nato side of the agreement has not only not been kept, it has been provocatively and continuously violated in the most brazen ways imaginable.
Just read any brief, objective history of the matter, to easily verify this fact.
As for Putin: he may be no Enlightenment soter, but he's a helluva lot less horrid than his diabolical western provocateurs.
0 # tedrey 2019-01-31 00:16
Magstadt hasn't been able to shed his Cold War mentality for over thirty years, while actual facts and conditions kept sliding further and further away from him. The Empire he wants, based on the worst of American power mania, would thwart the best paths to the future. A waste to read this.

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