The general rule of thumb is that, contrary to what folk wisdom might have taught you, you not only look the Russian gift horse in a mouth, but you also subject it to an endoscopy and a colonoscopy so that the two little camera probes can meet in the middle of the horse and shake hands. Then, when you have assured yourself to the best of your ability that the horse is legit, you take it out the back and shoot it in the hand; just in case.
Vladimir Putin has been injecting himself into internal affairs of Western countries, including their elections, for some time now. Many believe that Julian Assange and his WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden and his NSA leaks are now nothing more Russian intelligence operations. While he threatens and invades his neighbours, Putinâ€™s cyber armies of spies, hackers and trolls steal, cajole and propagandise on the Kremlinâ€™s behalf.
Everything old is new again. Technologies, rulers and ideologies may change but Russiaâ€™s interests, enemies and tactics remain largely the same. Just as during the good old days of the Cold War, the former Chekist Putin is using all the soft weapons in his arsenal â€“ espionage, propaganda, disinformation â€“ against those who he sees as his rivals and enemies in the West, who might try to interfere with his ambitions for domestic supremacy, regional hegemony and the return to the superpower status. Russia is an ever-paranoid power, animated by feelings of vulnerability, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. She is also an ever-proud power that believes the world is conspiring to deny her the rightful respect and influence; this too becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
If the commentators are right and the Assanges and the Snowdens of this world have been subverted and taken over by Moscow, it follows that the spate of recent high-profile hacks and leaks is meant to serve Russiaâ€™s political and strategic interests. So far, the victims of the hacks have in general not denied the veracity of the information hacked and released. But we should remain wary of automatically accepting every new revelation, as if it was not driven by any hostile agenda. Sometimes information can be legit and embarrassing, sometimes bogus and embarrassing but in both cases it is being pushed because it fits someoneâ€™s narrative and furthers their interests.
This is particularly important to keep in mind when considering things less tangible than seemingly genuine leaked emails and documents â€“ things like arguments, stories, narratives.
During the life of the Soviet Union, particularly during the Cold War, the KGB ran a whole department devoted to “dezinformatsiya” â€“ disinformation â€“ the so called Department D. Its task was to invent or amplify stories, rumours and conspiracy theories, and covertly plant them and publicise them in the (mostly) Western media, with the aim of embarrassing and discrediting their opponents and sowing internal dissention.
Here are a few examples of disinformation operations the Soviets reasonably successfully ran against the West, many of which still continue to pop up in conspiracy demi-monde and popular culture:
- HIV is a man-made virus, manufactured by the US military to exterminate ethnic minorities (Operation INFEKTION).
- The â€œdoomsday scenarioâ€ of nuclear winter based on a fake report by the Soviet Academy of Sciences and used as a propaganda weapon against the deployment of American nuclear missiles in Western Europe.
- Promoting various JFK assassination conspiracy theories directed against â€œright-wing Texas oil menâ€ and/or â€œright-wing Cubansâ€.
- Painting West Germany as a continuation of the Third Reich on the account of the number of political, military, business and cultural figures who used to be associated with the Nazi regime (the same was of course true of East Germany).
- Stories spread in Third World press about rich Westerners butchering children from the developing world for body organs.
- Third World pandemics being result of covert American biological weapons testing.
(there are many good books, including by ex-KGB personnel, which touch on disinformation campaigns, the best of which probably are the two volumes of â€œThe Mitrokhin Archiveâ€ by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin.)
Be aware that after a brief peaceful hiatus, the disinformation war has well and truly restarted. The United States, and other Western countries, of course are not perfect and do many bad and stupid thing â€“ as the domestic left keeps continually reminding everyone. But increasingly the Western left is aided in this task by the covert machinations of the Russian intelligence agencies, who share the same interest in portraying Western leaders and institutions that might be hostile to Putin and his aims as evil, criminal, incompetent or hypocritical.
One recent example: the meme (in the original sense of an idea, not a funny picture) that the United States has created ISIS, and not by omission and indifference, but actually organising and arming the group (to fight the Assad regime, among other things) is one that has been popping up for a while on political fringes, but is also one which is being assiduously cultivated by the Russians, since it enables them to portray the Americans as not merely incompetent but actually sinister, while at the same time promoting Putin as the only genuine force fighting against the Islamist terror (never mind the Russians have spent a lot more time bombing the non-ISIS opposition to Assad).
To finish with another old equine saying, beware of the Russians bearing gifts. Particularly when you donâ€™t realise itâ€™s the Russians bearing them.