Russia seeks to weaken a foreign adversary from the inside, paralyzing its ability to resist. It partners with a range of allies, such as oligarchs and journalists, and uses a diverse toolbox, including propaganda and cyber attacks. Moscow begins by locating the target country’s weakest point, whether it’s an ethnic, religious, or partisan cleavage. Then Russia manufactures a sense of distrust to destroy the social contract. Whereas the Stasi might break into a man’s apartment in the middle of the night and turn on his electric razor—just to freak him out—Moscow uses hackers and trolls to propagate conspiracy theories and cultivate a skepticism of authority.
Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. election was less about altering the result, and more about messing with America’s sanity—feeding cynicism about the system, encouraging people to second-guess reality, and leaving America too incapacitated to offer much resistance. Since 2016, the Kremlin has continued trying to maximize political division, using troll farms and Facebook to boost both Trump and Bernie Sanders, and attack Joe Biden.
Putin also tried to decompose the European Union by backing far-right nationalist parties such as the French National Rally (formerly the National Front) and the Alternative for Germany, as well as the Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum. Moscow spread false reports of rape by immigrants in Berlin—a classic decomposition technique. Russian operatives were linked to a plot to undermine the parliamentary election in Montenegro in 2016, and stop the Balkan country from entering NATO. (Montenegro eventually joined the alliance in 2017.)
Modern-day Russia isn’t the only country that has tried to destabilize an enemy. Long before Putin came to power, the Soviet Union engaged in what were known as “active measures.” During the Cold War, Moscow spread the rumor that the U.S. government created AIDS as a secret biological weapon. Meanwhile, the United States used Radio Free Europe to sow opposition against communist regimes behind the Iron Curtain.
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Russia’s weaponized Zersetzung is unusual, however, in its calibrated use of pressure and its keen awareness of the enemy’s weak spots, especially the vulnerability of democratic societies in an age of social media, populism, and distrust of elites. Just like the Stasi sought to destroy a target’s reputation by blending accurate and damaging information with harmful lies, so Russian media mixes real stories with disinformation to make people doubt the truth, or as the Russian state television network RT slogan says, “Question More.” For its part, Moscow claims that its actions are a defensive measure against Western efforts to decompose Russia and depicts all independent reporting at home as foreign-backed psychological warfare.