Russia will be the United States’ greatest adversary of the 21st century. It is an adversary that cannot overtake the United States without mutually assured destruction, as both superpowers stockpile nuclear weapons.
Why, then, should the U.S. government and its citizens be concerned about the current Russian government? The answer is simple: warfare is changing in a way that has been precipitated by increasing connectivity of the world.
Countries are no longer amassing massive infantries to invade their adversaries. Instead, they are paying and training special operation units that create devastating consequences without ever placing a single boot on the ground. This military evolution is called cyber warfare.
There are two central components of cyber warfare, the first of which is the conventional military approach. Facets of this approach attack infrastructure such as airstrips, electric grids and telecommunication systems, but are done with a set of computer codes rather than a dropped bomb.
The second and most relevant component to Russia’s cyber activity is the use of propaganda warfare. Used throughout the Cold War to convince individuals which ideology—democracy or communism—was superior, it is not an entirely new evolution of warfare.
What has changed post-Cold War pertains to Russia’s decisive commitment in terms of resources and initiative. This commitment alters the landscape of 21st century warfare to that of an information, rather than arms, race.
With its unstable, oil-dependent economy, Russia’s military is incapable of sustaining prolonged military campaigns in foreign territories. Therefore, its military cannot directly influence a foreign country’s political allegiance and shift it over to Russia. Because of this, President Vladimir Putin is forced to double down on propaganda warfare to ensure domestic tranquility.
Putin’s policy of choice is to manipulate the United States to his and Russia’s benefit. By tactically using Western democratic ideals like fair elections and freedom of the press, Russia is peacefully bringing countries back into its orbit without these countries even noticing.
Russia is supposedly pouring millions of rubles into ultra-nationalistic campaigns across Europe, from Marine Le Pen in France to Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Hungary. The Kremlin has been funding massive disinformation campaigns through Russian state-run media outlets RT and Sputnik, along with more covert channels: paid internet trolls who flood message boards with conspiracy theories and alternative facts.
According to The New York Times, one such covert campaign emerged last year in Sweden. As the Swedish government contemplated joining NATO, one “news story” went as such:
“If Sweden signed the [NATO] deal, the alliance would stockpile secret nuclear weapons on Swedish soil; NATO could attack Russia from Sweden without government approval; NATO soldiers, immune from prosecution, could rape Swedish women without fear of criminal charges…”
Montenegro—set to join NATO in May—is under similar pressures. The Times writes Russia “has campaigned furiously to keep Montenegro out of the alliance, supporting pro-Moscow political groups in the country and Orthodox priests who view NATO as a threat to Slavic fraternity and faith”.
Thankfully, the European Union has finally noticed the strain such disinformation campaigns have on its member states. According to The Wall Street Journal, the bloc plans to address Russian meddling in the continent’s affairs at a summit in Brussels later this month, but the U.S. government has already allowed Putin a massive head start.
Instead of moving forward with a strategically integrated response, Western countries are bickering among themselves.
A stable and unified European Union constitutes one of United States’ prime trading partners. Furthermore, through a logical standpoint, close security cooperation, like-minded institutions and stability lead to less friction and a greater likelihood of peace between the nations.
A more prosperous Montenegro and Eastern Europe could accept more refugees, which would decrease the burden on Western European countries. It could also defuse the rise of nationalistic parties across the continent. These nationalistic parties seek to undermine the current system by placing all the blame on refugees.
If the United States does not want to throw away 70 years of peace and hard-fought humanitarian gains in Europe, the European Union and the Trump administration must invest both militarily and financially in the security and stability of Europe’s future.