The strategic error of the United States has been to treat with Vladimir Putin as a politician, and not what he is at his core, a spymaster.
He rose to power neither as democratically elected leader nor as old-fashioned thug in an open and honest coup, but as a malicious illusionist. There is credible evidence that he became Russia’s autocrat by staging a series of apartment bombings in Moscow and blaming them on Chechen terrorists, all just a month after a weak and sick Boris Yeltsin was forced behind the scenes to appoint him prime minister. In the resulting war with Chechnya, Putin cast himself as a beloved nationalist hero. At least four Russian journalists and activists who said the bombings were a pro-Putin conspiracy have since been murdered, either shot or poisoned.
Putin and his government have long been masters of weaponized illusion, designed to fragment the mind of the enemy. A spy never does anything for its own sake, only for strategic advantage. And this includes the act of communication, every act of communication.
To any Cold War veteran, native to the world before 1989, this strategy is familiar. Under the direction of men like Putin, Russia’s shadow campaigns against the state's enemies, within and without, ground away in the pre-digital, analog world of television, films, newspapers, books, and pamphlets. Eric Ambler, that great author of Cold War thrillers, described in his 1962 novel The Intercom Conspiracy, the confusion spread by “paper mills,” the “innumerable political warfare and propaganda groups engaged in feeding misinformation to the international news-gathering agencies. Some paper mills had government subsidies, others were financed by émigré organisations and separatist movements; a few of the smaller, more furtive paper mills—those, for instance, which specialised in the manufacture of false intelligence documents—were businesses run for profit.” Spurious twitter bots and for-profit clickbait sites that prey on American political fervor are 21st Century paper mills. Except this time we have stopped relying on news agencies to protect us from the lies, and have handed ourselves over to gullible algorithms instead. When they have tried, Facebook and Twitter have had little success training their artificial intelligences to block propaganda, or have simply accepted the pay of propagandists and spread their lies to any American who wished to read them.
Because of our national faith in the goodness of any new technology and our innate urge to make money off each other, we Americans were unprepared for the deft, promiscuous use of our own newfangled communications tools against us. And we have paid for it with the election of authoritarians bent on confounding our connection with reality even further. The derangement of the individual link with reality is the vanguard weapon of any authoritarian regime. The first strategic goal is not the imposition of the ruler’s worldview, but the questioning of all legitimized points of view. Confusion precedes indoctrination.
We live in a world so easily set on its end by spies and charlatans of all professions, that any enemy of established truth, however well-intentioned, has to fight hard not to be an unwitting aid to Mr. Putin.
Fortunately, a return to sanity starts as it always does, with small actions.
This weekend, take the opportunity to turn off your phone. Read printed books, written before we got lost in this digital hall of mirrors. Buy a newspaper edited by human beings. Eat well. Look your friends and family in their unmediated faces. Go outside and see the sunlight on the last of the autumn leaves. Be thankful we can still breathe free.