Two years ago, when Garry Kasparov, the chess champion turned political dissident, began to warn that Vladimir Putin sought to undermine liberal democracy—not only in neighboring countries, but all over the West—he was widely written off as a crank. After Russia managed to hack the servers of the Democratic National Committee and spread fake news on an industrial scale, his warnings were finally recognized as all too prescient. But it is only over the past weeks, as journalists around the world have broken dozens of stories about Russian meddling in the democratic process, that the sheer scale of this effort has become apparent.
The American press is understandably focused on disentangling the strange web of ties between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s White House. So on these shores, it’s been barely noted that Russia has been:
- Actively supporting far-right populist Marine Le Pen, whose victory in upcoming French presidential elections would imperil the very survival of the European Union.
- Ramping up an operation of malicious lies about Emmanuel Macron, Le Pen’s main rival.
- Claiming that Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s minister of foreign affairs and an outspoken critic of Putin’s, holds an ancestral grudge against Russia.
- Forging close ties with the Alternative for Germany, a party that is stridently anti-Muslim, anti-American, and at times Nazi-curious. (“The big problem,” one of its leading exponents recently told the Wall Street Journal, “is that they portray Hitler as absolutely bad.”)
- Trying to embarrass European governments that have taken in large numbers of refugees by making up stories about their misdeeds—or even offering to pay youths in a troubled Stockholm suburb to riot on camera.
- Sidling up to any party that is willing to do Moscow’s bidding: In Italy, for example, Putin’s United Russia has just signed a cooperation agreement with the far-right Northern League—but simultaneously has begun talks to form a similar agreement with the (nominally) left-wing Five Star Movement.
“Russian Officials Scrambling as Plan to Delegitimize Western Democracy Moving Way Faster Than Intended,” reads a recent headline in the Onion. It’s a good joke. But the scary truth is that Russia is emboldened, not discombobulated, by its own success. Fresh off a spectacular victory in the United States, the country is now redoubling its efforts to undermine democracy from Canada to Croatia and from Greece to Sweden.
There is something puzzling about all of this. Back in the Cold War, the Kremlin had deep ideological reasons to think that the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a struggle for world domination. The theory of scientific socialism, on which Soviet society was supposedly built, predicted that communism would conquer the earth. Unless the workers of the world showed some forward-momentum, the legitimacy of the Soviet Union would thus be called in doubt. There was also a practical imperative to export communism: Since capitalist and communist countries barely traded with each other, adding a technologically advanced nation like Italy or France to the communist column would have given the Soviet Union a huge economic boost.
The reasons for today’s clash, by contrast, seem much less deep. The legitimacy of Putin’s rule does not depend on exporting his form of crony capitalism around the world. Nor does he stand to benefit economically from regime change: As long as he respected the sovereignty of neighboring countries, Germany and the United States were perfectly happy to trade with his increasingly kleptocratic regime.
Since Putin has little obvious reason to commit his country’s shrinking resources to a big fight against liberal democracy, it is tempting to dismiss his antics as a desperate bluff. But that would be a mistake. Farcical though it may seem that the history of ideological confrontation between East and West is being replayed in his mind, Putin does appear convinced that Russia can only thrive if liberal democracy fails.
It is not just that, as has widely been reported, Putin believes the breakup of the Soviet Union to have been “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century.” Nor is it just that, as Joshua Keating has chronicled, he feels deeply slighted by the West and now desires to take his revenge. What matters are the sweeping conclusions he draws from both these premises.
Russia, he believes, can only regain its erstwhile power if it establishes a robust and far-reaching sphere of influence—which it can never do so long as neighboring countries like Georgia or Ukraine can determine their own fate. And Russia, he is convinced, will never command the true respect of other countries so long as it is an autocratic outlier surrounded by democratic nations.
Whether Putin is acting rationally, then, depends on what one is willing to count as a rational goal. If we posit that he is merely seeking to cement his rule and grow the Russian economy, his actions make little sense. But if we understand that he is trying to make Russia a major power that can instill fear in its enemies and serve as a role model to its vassals, he is masterfully playing the mediocre hand he has been dealt.
So what can liberal democracies do to defend themselves against the concerted attack from Moscow?
The first step is to take the threat posed by the new, clandestine forms of war much more seriously than Western democracies have done so far. Republican lawmakers who claim to be tough on national security but obfuscate the degree to which a foreign power has meddled with last year’s presidential election are an especially shameful example of complacency.
But other countries are not far behind: In Germany, for example, much of the public is barely aware that the servers of the Bundestag have already been breached and that similar leaks might well be forthcoming in advance of national elections this fall. In part as a result, attempts to improve the country’s cyberdefenses are advancing at a crawling pace.
The second step is to close down the legal channels by which foreign powers can influence Western politics. The United States has long had strong laws to stop foreigners giving money to American parties or candidates. Until I became a citizen earlier this month, for example, it would have been illegal for me to donate to political campaigns.
Incredibly, European countries like France or Germany do not have similar rules on the books. As a result, it is perfectly legal for Russia to lend financial support to the populists—left and right—that do its bidding. This loophole could easily be filled if the political will were there. So far, it hasn’t been.
The third step is to recognize that a successful response to the new forms of disinformation will have to mobilize artists and teachers as well as politicians and corporations. In the Cold War, countries in North America and Western Europe responded to an ideological challenge to liberal democracy by investing real resources into expanding civic education and explaining the value of their political systems. Schools and universities understood that a big part of their mission was to educate citizens who understood politics and were willing to defend their freedoms.
Today, that sense of purpose has eroded. Most schools and universities are so focused on preparing their students for lucrative careers that they have abandoned the larger goal of forming responsible citizens. As Rep. Lee Hamilton and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor argued nearly a decade ago, “civic education has been in steady decline over the past generation, as high-stakes testing and an emphasis on literacy and math dominate school reforms. Too many young people today do not understand how our political system works.”
The fourth, related step is for writers and academics to reconceive of their role in society. We have long fancied ourselves critical intellectuals whose main task it is to point out all the injustices we see around us—and to deconstruct grand narratives about the values of the enlightenment or the genius of the Founding Fathers. It remains important to be critical, of course. There is no point denying that the lived reality of liberal democracies around the world has often fallen far short of the enlightenment values on which they were built. But in this perilous age, it is no longer enough for writers and intellectuals to adopt the pseudo-radical posture of pointing out all the things that are bad in the world. Instead, real intellectual courage would now consist in searching for the words that can explain both why liberal democracy is worth preserving and how its flaws can be remedied.
This is hardly the first time that the Kremlin has tried to undermine the stability of Western democracies. Back in 1946, George Kennan predicted in the “Long Telegram” that Moscow would use radical political parties “to bring pressure to bear on capitalist governments along lines agreeable to Soviet interests” while waging “relentless battle” against moderate leaders.
Back then, these moderate leaders waxed lyrical about the imperative to defend freedom and worked relentlessly to protect their countries against Soviet infiltration. But they also accomplished something more important: They were able to offer their citizens tangible improvements in their standard of living and to make them hopeful about the future. Throughout the postwar era, the economy grew rapidly, a large swath of the population enjoyed the fruits of this progress, and even greater affluence seemed to be just around the corner. As a result, most citizens developed a deep commitment to their democratic institutions. With few exceptions, the Kremlin’s campaign of cooptation and disinformation fell on deaf ears.
In order to defeat the Kremlin’s latest attempts to undermine democracy, political leaders need to face up to the novel risks of the 21st century. But even in this new era, they can learn a lot by studying the old recipes for success: To safeguard our freedoms, they must do a better job of articulating why liberal democracy is worth preserving—and recognize that a fairer distribution of the gains from economic growth is a matter, not just of social justice, but also of political stability.