Last Wednesday, near the end of a more-than-two-hour Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism hearing—“The Modus Operandi and Toolbox of Russia and Other Autocracies for Undermining Democracies Throughout the World”—Minnesota Senator Al Franken gave Americans some sober advice. He said, “Get this book, Americans, because it tells you how this works,” he said, “when their web of influence is so complex that it obscures activities.” The book to which Senator Franken referred is The Kremlin Playbook: Understanding Russian Influence in Central and Eastern Europe. It’s free from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
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The Kremlin Playbook concludes that “Russia has cultivated an opaque web of economic and political patronage across the region that the Kremlin uses to influence and direct decisionmaking. This web resembles a network-flow model . . . which the Kremlin can use to influence (if not control) critical state institutions, bodies, and economies, as well as shape national policies and decisions that serve its interests while actively discrediting the Western liberal democratic system.” The end goal is a return to the “bipolar organized world” of the Cold War’s very clearly demarcated East v. West stance. “The total effect of this cycle is state capture,” Conley testified to the Senate. Capture, she explains is “influence over critical state institutions and the economy, as well as the protection of Russian interests at varying levels of power.”
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Russia achieves this end, the report argues, by way of its New Generation Warfare doctrine that depends on influence rather than raw power, “break[ing] the internal coherence of the enemy system” in order to expand Russia’s influence in central and eastern Europe and degrade or dismantle the United States’ and western Europe’s “democratic liberal order.” According to The Kremlin Playbook, Russia tailors tactics to specific countries and systems: the broad success of the New Generation Warfare doctrine depends on its flexible and agile application across the range of liberal democracies.
Conley and her team identified two essential New Generation Warfare doctrine strategies Russia is employing to achieve its bipolar ends: domination through economic manipulation the corrosion of democracy through deepening political division. Dominance through economic manipulation means steadily expanding Russian investments and private ownership in which the tipping point is apparently somewhere around 12 percent Gross Domestic Product of the country or system under assault. The art of systematic corrosion of liberal political systems is about establishing a mafia-like system that spreads by way of “a comingling of public and private interests.” “Corruption,” writes Conley, then is “’the basis for upward mobility in Russia’ and the reward of ‘access to illicit wealth’ in exchange for loyalty is what allows this network to expand and grow.”
According to the Playbook, success in either effort—economic manipulation or internal corrosion and corruption—supports the other. Weak outcomes by way of economic manipulation are strengthened by a deteriorating liberal democracy, and vice versa. It is, as the authors describe, a circular system that appears to achieve something along the lines of a perpetual motion and expansion once instigated.
The New Generation Warfare doctrine has a viral effect. Those individuals, parties, or states that succumb to the temptation of “perpetual enrichment” by way of corrupted economic systems “spread their antidemocratic and corruption contagion to others, widening and entrenching this circular system.” This Russian threat, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism seems to agree, is real and immediate. And alarming. Conley testified, “The goal is to use these local affiliates to influence and direct decision-making and policies, leading to the enrichment of the inner circle and the slow deterioration of liberal democratic institutions through malign influence.”