Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s reaction to Moscow protesters perfectly illustrates how the former Soviet spy chief can masterfully leverage classic subversion tactics and strategies typically found in espionage to undermine the opposition and even ridicule the concept of democracy.
In the wake of the Russian parliamentary vote in early December, a Russian opposition leader was jailed and protesters hit the streets to protest what they considered electoral fraud and vote-rigging that led to the crushing victory of Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev’s governing United Russia party.
Most of what spies do involves subversion, not information collection as we tend to see in the movies. And an effective way to subvert or dilute a concept or term is to adopt it in name only while assigning it a new substantive meaning under its surface. How many Third World despots have co-opted the term “democratic” for their political party’s title, for example?
Putin heralds the expression of “democracy” the Moscow protests represent, but underneath it’s obvious that the movement is void of any real power that the Russian government doesn’t choose to ascribe to it.
Since protests started, Putin has asked the electoral commissioner to look into the situation. Chief electoral officer Vladimir Churov has since come back with the fix: 60,000 transparent ballot boxes. Hey, the protesters wanted more systemic “transparency,” right? Well, here it is, in the form of an actual see-through object.
The protesters have also asked for reforms. So Medvedev signed off on some corruption-reduction measures, including “developing measures to reduce the economic interest in committing crimes for profit” and “taking steps to impose restrictions on transactions between state agencies and commercial organizations whose major shareholders include family members of the heads of relevant government agencies.” In other words, “come up with ways to make greedy people less greedy,” and “take steps to curtail kickbacks on government contracts.” This might sound like reasonable measures in the utopian democracy that exists only inside my head, but kickbacks can’t even be stopped in France or between lobbyists and various elected officials in America. Fat chance that greed reduction or kickback curtailment would ever be of substantive value in a country where cash has long been funneled directly and openly to a top layer of government-connected and controlled oligarchs. Still, the right words are being co-opted as cover.
In a classic move ripped straight from Sun Tzu’s Art of War—the Bible for military and espionage strategy—Putin is also leveraging his opponents’ inherent disorganization against them. Sun Tzu wrote: “When the general is weak and without authority; when his orders are not clear and distinct; when there are no fixed duties assigned to officers and men, and the ranks are formed in a slovenly haphazard manner, the result is utter disorganization.” He calls disorganization a “calamity” to which an army is exposed.
The protesters have asked to meet with Putin to discuss their concerns. He responded that he can’t meet with protest leaders because he doesn’t know specifically what they want or who has any authority among them: “[They] should formulate some kind of common platform and common position, so that it’s possible to understand what people want. Is there a common platform? No. Who is there to talk to?” He has found their precise Achilles’ heel—something President Obama failed to do, or was too keen to overlook.
Occupy Wall Street characterized itself early on as a movement without a single cause or goal, preferring instead to represent a collection of gripes. Rather than throwing the onus back onto them to define themselves concretely, Obama preferred to shadow box, responding to the Occupy Wall Street protesters, at the peak of their action, by proposing student loan reforms that would save each debtor about $8 a month, according to research by The Atlantic. We see the result of responding to something undefined with lip service: The protests continue. Putin is instead insisting that the protesters differentiate between leaders with authority and simple participants in the movement, and even further with a defined target or platform.
And it’s a good bet that as soon as that target comes into focus—if it ever does—it will be addressed using the same strategies that prove Putin to be an excellent master of subversion.
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