Heidi Cuda and Matt Bernardini
Jan 15, 2023
Russia knows it can’t win on the battlefield with the West, so is engaging in covert activity to present the message that liberal democracies are failing, according to a Byline Supplement analysis.
“They know that they can’t go to war overtly,” said Keir Giles, author of Russia’s War On Everybody. “And that’s where all of these covert, sub-threshold, grey zone, so-called hybrid attacks come in. Because that is how Russia has been reaching out to harm the West. It knows that if it is in open warfare, the result is a foregone conclusion that it will be disastrous for Russia.”
Giles is a veteran Russia analyst who wrote the Handbook of Russian Disinformation Warfare for NATO, and whose latest book explains how Russia wages war on everybody. In particular, Russia emphasizes cognitive warfare, where the human mind is the battlefield.
“In every single other possible domain of waging war, Russia has already been convinced for a long time that it is in a state of conflict with the West, and it’s behaving accordingly. So all of the different levers of power that it can use to attack us, it has been using,” he said. “That’s the part which I think has not been sufficiently recognized even after this war on Ukraine started — whether it’s economic or cyber or disinformation warfare, or public health campaigns of subversion; it’s all been ongoing.”
The latest most visible insurrections in the United States and Brazil are part of global destabilization efforts with direct links to Russian hybrid warfare.
“By now it should be obvious to the entire world that Russia’s ham-handed attempts to foment chaos and coups in liberal democracies across the globe is derived specifically from the network of corrupt businessmen and politicians, and transnational organized criminals — the Iron Triangle that Robert Mueller warned about over a decade ago,” said Joshua C E Fidel, a network analyst with Aos Sí Consultants. “There are constant revisions and updates as their plans continue to fail.”
Fidel told Byline Supplement: “One need only look to those who still sing Putin’s praises – the hollow strongmen of Viktor Orbán and Alexander Lukashenko, Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump, the billionaires, princes and presidents of oil and petroleum, the fascist Fifth Column masquerading as conservatives, and those who would, through an overabundance of caution, fear, or compromise, allow Ukraine, Africa, and liberal democracy to be consigned to the graves Putin and Wagner mercenaries try to fashion, to see where the murderous madman in Moscow continues to cause chaos.”
Canadian academic Michael MacKay agreed, describing the rise of irrationality as a global threat.
“What we are seeing is a rise of unreason in public life,” he said. “This helps fascism, which is an ideology founded on irrationality. As an example of irrationality, the Russian fascist state holds two contradictory beliefs at the same time: that Russians and Ukrainians are one people (‘brother Slavs’) and that Ukrainians are inferior sub-humans (‘Khokhols’).
“The amplification of irrationality by Russian information warfare ties together Titushky rent-a-mobs in Ukraine, the Trump/MAGA insurrectionists in the United States, the ‘Freedom Convoy’ rabble in Canada, the Bolsonaro insurrectionists in Brazil, and the world-wide anti-vax/anti-mask COVID conspiracists. What they have in common is a violent antipathy to constitutional democracy and a lack of belief that a shared truth of human experience can even exist.”
The Boys from Brazil
In a Byline Times report this week, Sian Norris showed the overt links between US far-right figures who helped to promote Trump’s ‘big lie’ and the fascist attacks on Brazilian democracy. The ‘strongmen’ ties between Trump, Bolsonaro, and Putin are well documented. When reporting the mutual instigators behind these insurrections, it is important to keep in mind the bigger picture of fealty shown to the Russian leader.
On 8 January, supporters of Jair Bolsonaro attacked Brazil’s Congress in protest at the 2022 electoral success of the left-wing former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Bolsonaro laid the groundwork by whipping up fear that the election would be “stolen”, often via unsubstantiated claims about voting systems – directly from the Trumpian playbook, as Norris reported.
Fascists On the Run
Bolsonaro’s son, Eduardo, has formed close ties with the Trump regime, and “looked very closely at 6 January to understand what went wrong and why Trump was unsuccessful”, according to a report in the Financial Times. Eduardo and his siblings are seeking Italian citizenship in what Italian fascism historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat referred to as “fascists on the run”.
Eduardo has been in contact with Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon – tweeting that he and Bannon shared the same views, especially on “cultural Marxism” – a well-known antisemitic dog whistle term used by the far-right. On multiple far-right platforms, Bannon claimed there was fraud in the Bolsonaro defeat, suggesting it was “mathematically impossible”.
One critical difference between Brazil and America is in the swift action that Lula took. Ibaneis Rocha, the Governor of Brasilia who was in charge of the police, was immediately suspended for 90 days. Although there have been nearly 1,000 arrests in America related to the Capitol insurrection, the high-level plotters, as methodically revealed by the January 6 Committee, remain free. The Committee recommended Trump and others be criminally prosecuted, and a Special Counsel with experience in The Hague is charged with investigating Trump.
It should surprise no one that during the Brazil attacks both Trump and Bolsonaro were holed up on the “Russian Riviera” — the nickname for South Florida where Trump resides. Both ousted leaders refused to condemn Putin over his war in Ukraine.
A Second US Insurrection?
It is not just the copycat insurrections that occurred two years apart in Washington DC and Brazil that is worrisome; it is also the insurrection occurring in the United States Congress, where elected representatives in Congress are carrying out Russian-style theatre craft — also known as Kremlin dramaturgia – including staged spectacles, creating fake realities and fake movements.
“The second insurrection was far worse than the first one,” said Jim Stewartson, a disinformation researcher and filmmaker on the QAnon phenomenon. “While the images of neo-Nazis and QAnon cult members invading the Capitol were unmistakably criminal, this time the seditionists have been allowed to take Congressional offices and openly incite violence on Twitter with no legal consequences.”
Six of the Republican lawmakers who tried to overturn the results of the election — Matt Gaetz, Mo Brooks, Scott Perry, Andy Biggs, Louie Gohmert, and Marjorie Taylor Greene — sought pardons from Trump afterwards.
Brooks spoke at a rally before the insurrection and was the first lawmaker to announce plans to challenge the election. Greene’s tweets about alleged voter fraud began the day after the election. Perry attempted to convince Trump to make environmental lawyer Jeffrey Clark, who was sympathetic to election fraud claims, the attorney general.
Some of the lawmakers have suffered for their roles in the scheme. Brooks lost his primary in the summer and is now no longer in the Senate. Gohmert left Congress and unsuccessfully tried to run for Texas attorney general. Jeffrey Clark’s electronic devices were seized by federal agents in an early morning raid, in which he was captured standing outside his home in underwear.
Perry is under investigation for his role in the scheme and had his phone seized by the FBI in August, although he remains in Congress. As Citizens for Ethics reports, Perry’s actions do not seem to have deterred donors. Since January 6, he has received $62,500 from companies like Koch, Raytheon, Boeing, UPS, and General Motors.
Greene appears likely to regain some of the congressional committee seats that she lost in 2021 for her racist remarks. Her support for new Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, appears to have helped her standing in the party.
The latest congressional cast member, George Santos, who publicly admitted to lying about his history, was aided into office with tens of thousands of dollars from a cousin and cash handler for Viktor Vekselberg — one of Putin’s wealthiest oligarchs. Federal prosecutors are probing Santos’ public filings.
Congressional members — Santos, Greene, and Lauren Boebert — parrot Russian anti-Ukraine propaganda, and Boebert was celebrated on Russian-state TV for not standing up when Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky gave a speech in Washington DC just days before Christmas.
“What the US has to do is to know your enemy,” said Paul Niland, a reporter based in Kyiv. “If Russia is on your side, you’re on the wrong goddamn side. Russia means absolutely no good to the United States. Russia is your enemy.”
A key component of Russian active measures is what author Peter Pomerantsev referred to as the “fog of unknowability”, a world of endless conspiracy, rendering the truth unknowable. When staggering through this unreality, it is easy to miss the coordinated plays. Bannon referred to this type of disruptive media strategy as “flood the zone with shit”.
To rise above the fog and theatre of distraction, let’s review some of the recent global chaos events in addition to occurrences in US and Brazil which have links to Russian active measures.
In Burkina Faso, West Africa, young people waved Russian flags in the latest coup attempt in October, earning congratulations from Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch close to Putin and the founder of the mercenary organization, the Wagner Group. Prigozhin was indicted by the US Justice Department for his role in the St. Petersburg troll operation that targeted America, which according to multiple reports, is now based in Africa.
In the Central African Republic (CAR), the Wagner Group frequently patrols the country, and protects the country’s president in exchange for looting valuable resources. The entourage has been linked to violence and abuse towards the CAR’s civilians.
In Germany, an attempt to storm the Reichstag in 2021 during Covid-19 restrictions by far-right activists was fuelled by Russian Covid disinformation, which according to Keir Giles, began even before the virus was discovered. Last month, German authorities arrested 25 people suspected of plotting to use armed force to storm parliament again and violently seize power. Among those detained were Russian nationals.
In Canada, the 2022 Ottawa truckers disruption known as the Freedom Convoy was also linked to anti-vax disinformation — a long game played by Russia, according to research published at George Washington University.
In France in 2018, the ‘yellow vests’ were aided by Russian trolls, who helped stoke France’s largest protests in decades. The Gilet Jaune crisis, as it was known, seemed to “come out of nowhere”, and was a “manufactured” crisis, according to strategic studies, which noted it was aided by Russian disinformation.
In Italy, the first extreme right leader since Benito Mussolini, Giorgia Meloni, was elected last year. Her ties to Steve Bannon are well documented: Attending one of his events in Europe in 2018, she told reporters she saw him as an ally. Italian academics report Italy is particularly vulnerable to Russian active measures due to historical-political and cultural factors. And reports suggest that Putin may have engineered the collapse of former Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s unity government through Kremlin proxies in Italy, micro protests, and memetic warfare conducted on Telegram where Draghi was painted as a devil.
Although there continues to be a corporate media blockade to the acknowledgement of links between global chaos and Russian active measures, in an earlier report for Byline Times, the
authors of this article, Heidi Cuda and Matt Bernardini, revealed examples of how easily and cheaply it is done.
In their report, Agitation and Propaganda – Russian Indicted for Using Political Groups as Foreign Agents, they investigated how a Russian national backed by the Russian state had been indicted by the US Justice Department for funding and using members of American political groups as foreign agents of Russian intelligence in nearly a decade of malign influence operations.
Important revelations in that report include how the indictment charged the Russian national for funding political groups on the left and the right, and the revelation that “CalExit” — the movement for California to secede — was run out of Moscow and had curious links to Nigel Farage and Arron Banks, dubbed ‘the bad boys of Brexit’.
In another Byline Supplement report, Unmusked: How Elon Musk is Using Twitter to Destroy the Concept of Objective Truth, Russian analyst Fiona Hill was quoted as saying that she believes Elon Musk was using his Twitter platform to transmit messages for Vladimir Putin.
On the second anniversary of America’s insurrection, disgraced retired lieutenant general Mike Flynn was allowed back on Twitter, after having been permanently banned for becoming a top spreader of 2020 election lies. Flynn, who invoked the Fifth Amendment rather than answer questions of the January 6 Committee, was fired as Trump’s national security advisor for lying to the FBI about his contacts with a Russian ambassador. Stop the Steal organizer Ali Alexander was also reinstated on Twitter, a day after he praised the Brazilian rioters.
Jim Stewartson, who warned people to stay away from Washington DC on the day of the insurrection two years ago, said anyone who remains on Twitter should know they are behind enemy lines.
Michael MacKay said to beware of the zombies being stirred up by Russian propagandists.
“The global rolling insurrection is being carried out by zombies, the walking dead: people who have been separated from a supportive communal life,” he said. “They are easily directed by Russian information warriors and other malign actors to lash out against a civil society which they don’t understand but which they hate. People who no longer aspire to living as human beings in communities with shared values are the most dangerous people of all. To paraphrase the Sex Pistols song, they don’t know what they want but they know how to get it.”
Keir Giles said there is a vaccine for zombie insurrectionists and Russian active measures and cognitive warfare.
“As soon as the leadership of a country admits publicly that they are under attack by Russia, that triggers a whole load of other processes, which make defending against Russia a great deal
easier,” he said. “It gets over that initial mindset of denial of ‘it’s not happening here,’ and government and media and institutions and businesses and ordinary people actually take those essential steps to protect themselves and to build up that societal resilience, which is the biggest tool in protecting yourself against Russia. So the first step, anywhere, is just admitting and recognizing the problem.”