The US Is Cranking Up the Information War with Russia

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Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a Security Council meeting via videoconference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a Security Council meeting via videoconference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Thursday, April 7, 2022. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

In the late spring of 1953, a CIA officer aptly named Coffin learned that four agents he’d dispatched into Russia had been caught by security forces that seemed to know they were coming. In fact, the CIA man and his Berlin-based colleagues had lost virtually all the agents parachuted or otherwise slipped into the Soviet Union or its satellites to organize resistance movements. The Russians had penetrated every plot. One agent in particular among Coffin’s would-be spies and saboteurs, mostly Poles and Ukrainians, had become a close friend. Now he was dead, like all the others.

“It destroyed him,” a CIA colleague told author Scott Anderson for his magisterial 2020 book, The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War—a Tragedy in Three Acts. It “just totally destroyed him. When I next saw him he was a changed man.”

William Sloane Coffin, Jr. resigned from the CIA in despair and went on to become an ordained minister, Yale University chaplain and moral crusader against the Vietnam War. By then, the CIA had long given up trying to parachute agents into the USSR in a hapless campaign to bring down Communist rule.

But now, seven decades later, there are new calls for “regime change” in Moscow, sparked first by President Biden’s ad-libbed remark that Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power,” then further motivated by grisly photos of Russian bombings and massacres in Ukraine.

Why shouldn’t we try to bring down Putin? I asked Tim Weiner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former New York Times investigative reporter and author of several books on the spy wars between the CIA and KGB. He won the National Book Award in Nonfiction for his 2007 book Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA.

“Well, that falls into the category of the audacity of hope,” Weiner daresaid during an interview for this week’s SpyTalk podcast. To those calling for regime change, he’d tell them, “You're living a dream, pal.”

“That's what I'd say. There’s not a chance of a snowball in hell that the United States could conduct what we like to think of as regime change,” i.e., fomenting a coup in Moscow, Weiner said. Not gonna happen, at least anytime soon, most experts think. So today’s cold warriors have to settle in for the long haul, like their elders, taking a page out of their old playbook of information operations designed to pierce Russia’s new informational Iron Curtain.

“The only way to do this is a concerted whole-of-government effort to get the truth into Russia, to get the facts into the eyes and ears of the Russian people, to get them to stop believing the lies that are coming out of Putin and the Kremlin, and to get them to understand that the world is opposed to this,” he said.

The intelligence “leaks” forecasting Russia’s moves on Ukraine were just a start.

Piercing the Veil

Getting over and around the Soviet Union’s information blockade was a major part of the CIA’s Cold War operations. It not only secretly financed Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, which broadcast news of the outside world into Russia via short- and medium-wave transmissions, but funded and even created literary magazines, books and front groups to spread the gospel of democratic, liberal capitalism. Altogether, it amounted to a “Mighty Wurlitzer” of propaganda tunes, as CIA operations chief Frank Wisner famously bragged. In concert with the Voice of America, launched in 1947, the campaign “burnished America‘s image and trashed the Soviet Union 2,500 hours a week with a 'tower of babble' comprised of more than 70 languages…," a former U.S. Information Agency director recalled in a 1995 memoir.

VOA, which broadcast news, literary programs and jazz into the USSR and its successor alike, shut down its Russian-language radio service and a 30-minute Russian weekly television program in July 2008, long after social media and email had eclipsed radio and the Obama administration was trying to “reset” frayed relations with Russia, and shifted to sending “text, audio, and video content to Russia's fast-growing Internet market.” Now, with the Kremlin blocking Internet service, criminalizing criticism, shutting down independent news organizations, and stifling access to Western media outlets including Facebook and Instagram, it may be time to haul the old Wurlitzer out of storage and upgrade it with cutting edge software.

The objective is as urgent—and quixotic—as it was during the chilliest days of the Cold War: to degrade the power of the Kremlin, or at least a reckless Vladimir Putin. As in the 1950s onward, it’s going to be another long, hard twilight battle, some of it waged via traditional espionage and clandestine deception operations. But aside from the hard slog of Ukraine’s battlefields, America’s spear is pointed at Moscow and sheathed in electrons.

Infowar Victories

In 1956, when the CIA finally obtained a copy of Nikita Khruschev’s “secret” speech denouncing Joseph Stalin—after 15,000 copies had been distributed in Poland alone, Scott Anderson notes—the U.S. made sure the world knew about it. The revelations of Stalin’s wartime cowardice and paranoia, his gulags, corruption and economic mismanagement were broadcast on Radio Free Europe and printed in dozens of languages for worldwide distribution, undermining local communist parties and sympathizers. But its greatest triumph in clandestine information warfare would come in Poland 30 years later.

In the 1980s the CIA accelerated the erosion of the USSR by secretly supplying Poland’s Solidarity movement with paper, fax machines and offset printing presses to get its anti-regime message out. The agency also helped set up clandestine radio stations that allowed it to break into Poland’s state-run evening news.

“So imagine,” Weiner says. “A gray man in a gray suit comes on Polish television to read the latest news—you know, ‘tractor production has met the five year quota, coal mining going great’—and suddenly a banner appears across the television screen. It says ‘Solidarity lives!’ and tells you to tune to a certain frequency for the next clandestine radio broadcast.”

Hijinks for freedom. Communist rule began crumbling like sand castles across Eastern Europe, and in 1990-1991, Russia itself. Eventually “color revolutions” brought down Moscow-backed strongmen in Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Georgia. Belarus and Moldova.

Advantage, Mr. Putin

The West’s advantage in the 1980s was that virtually everyone living under Soviet communism knew it was out of gas, careening toward “the dustbin of history,” to steal a phrase from Leon Trotsky (who died from a NKVD ice ax in his head). It has no such advantage today.

Today, Vladimir Putin’s popularity is “soaring,” reaching an 83 percent approval rating at the end of March, five weeks after he launched his Ukraine invasion, according to The Levada Center, an independent Russian polling organization. Caution is warranted about taking the poll at face value, “given that Russian authorities have pursued a crackdown against dissent, including a media blackout of any reports contrary to the Kremlin’s narrative about Russia’s actions in Ukraine,” the Wall Street Journal said, Still, those are impressive numbers from a generally respected polling firm.

Some astute Russia watchers predicted it would go this way a long time ago. Back in 2017, Valerie Bunce, an expert on authoritarianism at Cornell University, assessed that Putin’s Russia might be vulnerable to a color revolution, citing all the usual factors—repression, endemic corruption, and so on. But she also issued a prescient observation.

“Aggression in Ukraine could mobilize Putin's popular support at home by playing up a ‘fascist’ threat in Ukraine and reminding Russians that, with Putin at the helm and Crimea a new ‘subject’ of the Russian Federation, the Russian state was finally in a position to expand—rather than, as in the recent past, contract—in both its physical size and its international influence,” wrote Bunce, the Aaron Binenkorb Professor of International Studies Emerita at Cornell.

All of which makes efforts to reach ordinary Russians, not to mention persuade them that they’re not getting the truth about Ukraine—or anything else—a tall order. According to reports out of Moscow, they’ve overwhelmingly accepted Putin’s version of events. And there’s this: Moscow’s TV anchors are no longer gray men with gray faces reading tractor production stats on the evening news: They’re rapturous cheerleaders for Putin’s lies that “Nazi” Ukrainians are “staging” their own vile atrocities, no matter what the whole world is watching.

“I'm telling you, the monstrosity of lies on federal channels is unimaginable,” jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny tweeted on Tuesday. “And, unfortunately, so is its persuasiveness for those who have no access to alternative information.”

Back to the Wurlitzer

The Voice of America, long an independent agency, is studying what to do, says spokesman Jim Fry, who tells SpyTalk that “using radio is not out of the question. The key, however, is whether radio broadcasts to the Russian people can currently be received, and we continue to look into this issue.” The Kremlin regularly jammed foreign news broadcasts, including those from VOA, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty until 1987, when Mikhail Gorbachev started lifting the electronic curtain. “We have no immediate evidence that Russia is jamming radio signals” today, Fry said. In any event, he added, VOA’s web and social platforms continue to reach Russian audiences despite Putin’s intent to muzzle all sources of foreign reporting.

“Even with the Russian government blocking golosameriki.com and various social media platforms, the Russian people are still finding VOA news and information online via circumvention tools like Psiphon and nth Link,” Fry said. “Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, VOA's Russian-language reporting has logged millions of video views across digital platforms.”

Given Putin’s “soaring” popularity, however, it’s hardly enough. And Washington seems to recognize that. The U.S. Agency for Global Affairs, which oversees the VOA, got an extra $25 million in the supplemental appropriations bill related to Ukraine, “and we are carefully evaluating the best use of these resources,” says Laurie Moy, USAGM’s director of public affairs.

“We anticipate using the supplemental funding provided by Congress to expand existing broadcasting to Ukraine, Russia, and throughout Eastern Europe,” Moy told SpyTalk in an email. Some of the money will be spent on “travel, emergency relocation of staff, equipment for remote reporting, and additional satellite bandwidth to expand the availability of USAGM content in Ukraine, and the potential reconstruction or relocation of RFE/RL’s Kyiv bureau,” she said. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty suspended its operations in Russia, the agency reported, “after local tax authorities initiated bankruptcy proceedings against RFE/RL’s Russian entity on March 4 and police intensified pressure on its journalists.”

Just like the old days. But it seems like a lot less fun, given the grotesque slaughter in Ukraine and Putin brandishing nuclear weapons. And you’re not going to hear about the CIA parachuting agents into Russia—it learned its lesson the hard way on that.

Still, harder measures may yet be required. And U.S. intelligence may soon need to employ them.

This article by Jeff Stein first appeared on Spytalk.co.

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