U.S. Senate witnesses describe dark side of Russia

Vladimir Putin at U.N.
Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the United Nations’ General Assembly, Sept. 28, 2015. (Creative Commons photo by Cia Pak/UN Photo)

Russia is still on good terms with the U.S. in the Arctic, where their coast guards cooperate. But since Moscow annexed Crimea, Americans have been warily eyeing President Vladimir Putin’s military buildup in the far north.

At a U.S. Senate hearing Tuesday, witnesses described Putin more as a cunning bully than a good neighbor. The hearing in the Foreign Relations Committee was all about Europe, not the Arctic. Specifically, it was about Putin’s propaganda strategy. But a portrait of Putin emerged from the Russia experts who testified, and the image has fangs.

As they described it, Russia uses its English-language RT news channel, among other platforms, to pollute the information sphere with all kinds of partial truths and hoaxes. The goal is to feed conspiracy theories and sow doubt.

“They’re not trying to get Putin’s (polling) numbers up. They’re just trying to erode faith in democratic systems elsewhere,” says Peter Pomerantsev is a fellow at the Legatum Institute, a London-based think tank.  “Putin doesn’t want to be loved internationally. He wants to be feared. That’s a very very different kind of process.”

He says Putin is trying to sully America and all it stands for, both in the information realm and on the ground.

“The aim is never Crimea or Syria. Their aim is you,” Pomerantsev said, pointing his finger at the senators behind the dais. “They’re after you. They want to psychologically prove that America is impotent. Therefore Pax Americana … is pointless, and therefore why don’t we be more corrupt, more violent?”

A senator on the panel asked about Putin’s popularity at home. Pomerantsev says it’s hard to measure such things in an authoritarian regime.

“But without a doubt, there’s been an emotional, you know, catharsis from the Crimean experience,” he said, adding that it’s unclear how long the feeling will persist in Russia. “So I think that’s what we’re all asking ourselves: Is this a momentary high? Or is this something more long-term and much more frightening?”

Heather Conley, a Europe and Arctic expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said information infrastructure is at risk, too. She said Russian submarines have been examining the locations of Europe’s undersea fiber optic cables. Severing those, Conley says, could disrupt Internet service, essential commerce and military command and control.

“In fact, this summer, a Russian vessel continually harassed a Swedish research vessel, which was laying a new fiber optic cable, connecting Sweden to Lithuania,” she said.

She contends America needs to re-engage in civil life in Europe, to be as omnipresent as it was on the continent before the European Union and the expansion of NATO. Conley warned it won’t be an easy sell to taxpayers.

“But that’s about how we build the antibodies to growing Russian influence,” she said, “Because if we’re not there, Russia will step in.”

Conley also believes the U.S. and Russian coast guards should continue to cooperate in the Arctic, in part to keep the channels of communication open.

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