Once again, Vladimir Putin’s gangster regime is sabre rattling and threatening the peace and security of Eastern Europe. Not content with the illegal invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014 or the continued occupation by Russian troops of sovereign Georgian territory, Russia’s President is again trying to use the people of Ukraine as pawns in a wider game.
Putin’s propaganda, which is so often swallowed by Left-wing commentators in the West, has a familiar refrain. “Russian speakers”, a ridiculously wide definition if ever there was one, are threatened in the Caucuses/Ukraine/Baltics and Putin says it is the duty of the Russian state to defend them.
This argument is, on its own, one of the reasons why Russia can never be allowed to be part of the family of democratic and civilised nations. Its core belief is that those who regard themselves as being culturally allied to Moscow should be protected not by the laws and constitutions of the state in which they live, but by interventionist forces dispatched by the Kremlin.
Everything we have seen in recent weeks is part of the KGB playbook based on the concept of “reflexive control”. This doctrine results in a sustained campaign of using carefully selected information to convince opponents to make decisions that they believe are their own but are in fact the desired outcome of the Soviet, now Russian, state. Built out of the Soviet concept of maskirovka, or military deception, the aim is to control the psychological reflex of the opponent by creating a particular model of behaviour, taking advantage of familiar moral arguments and psychological tactics, or exploiting the characteristics and behaviour of political and military leaders.
This remains a widely taught concept in the political and security apparatus of Russia and is a key component in their practice of hybrid warfare which blends conventional warfare, irregular warfare and cyberwarfare with other influencing methods, such as fake news and foreign electoral intervention.
Meddling in the democratic elections of Western states and regular cyber attacks have become a regular part of the modus operandi of Putin’s Kremlin. In 2020, the US government announced that its intelligence services believed Russia was responsible for a cyber-attack that embedded malicious code inside the software systems of governments and companies across the world. In July last year, Britain, the US and Canada accused a Russian hacking group of trying to steal Covid-19 vaccine research from academic and pharmaceutical institutions.
In 2014, ahead of their last illegal action in Ukraine, Russia deployed forces in uniforms without insignia, a policy of plausible deniability which too many Russian apologists in the West were happy to buy into. Even when Malaysia airlines flight 17 was shot down in July of that year, Moscow’s Western sympathisers urged caution in apportioning blame.
Putin’s preposterous arguments in recent days that Russian action may be required to deal with discrimination against Russian speakers in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine fits perfectly into his well-rehearsed tactics. More subtle was his use of language that “we see and know what is happening in Donbas … it certainly looks like genocide”. This was designed to have a clear resonance with Western politicians who have been complaining about the Chinese treatment of the Uyghurs, regularly referring to the concept of genocide. By using the same terminology, the Kremlin’s reasoning is that there would be less instinctive opposition to Russian action.
It is time to call Putin out and make clear that we understand the game he is playing. While it has become a regular part of Russian policy to prod and irritate Western powers without actually provoking a military response, it is up to our political leaders to make extremely clear that the price of Russian miscalculation would be high.
Understandably, much domestic focus has been on Christmas parties and the omicron variant. But we must not allow our political priorities to play into Putin’s “reflexive control” approach. There is danger here which we must all appreciate.