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Alexei Fenenko

Doctor in Political Science, PhD in History, Associate Professor at School of world politics of MSU, RIAC expert

At first glance, the latest “spy scandal” in Russia–U.S. relations appears somewhat humorous. However, current spy scandals are unfolding in a fundamentally different atmosphere, against the background of an unprecedented campaign launched by the United States in late 2016 regarding “Russian interference” in the U.S. elections.

The theory about Russia interfering in the U.S. elections should not be downplayed or dismissed out of hand. Moscow simply cannot understand why Russia would spend billions of dollars to ensure the election of a president of the United States who is just as hostile as all of his predecessors were.

It is interesting that contacts with Soviet citizens in the United States, and U.S. citizens in the Soviet Union, were always more defensive than offensive in nature. At any rate, the confrontation between the intelligence services of the USSR and the United States was always systemic in nature and never reached political level. Neither the Soviet nor the U.S. leadership saw the subversive actions of the CIA and the KGB as a reason for breaking diplomatic relations.

Modern electronic mass media help form public opinion. Digital technologies increase the ability of the authorities to monitor the lives of people. But the question remains as to whether or not they are capable of mobilizing people to solve collective problems.

It is difficult for us to imagine the possible return of a mobilized world. However, as the number of mobilization components increases, so too will the hostilities between the United States and Russia (and between other states). And these hostilities will resemble the those of the Cold War period, but rather of the more distant past.   

At first glance, the latest “spy scandal” in Russia–U.S. relations appears somewhat humorous. According to Business Insider, United States Secret Service agents ran a check on the football that President Vladimir Putin gave to Trump during their meeting in Helsinki. However, the event coincided with another, more serious conflict, namely, the arrest of a “Russian spy” Maria Butina in the United States, which happened right after the Helsinki summit had drawn to a close. The same thing happened in June 2010, when ten “Russian spies” were arrested immediately after a meeting between Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev in Washington. Once can be seen as a coincidence, but twice? Well, that is already an alarming trend…

We are not going to argue about the origins of the current “spy mania” in the United States. The more interesting question is: Does this mean a return to the times of the Cold War, or is there something fundamentally new behind it? If there is nothing new to it, then it would be logical to assume that the Cold War between Moscow and Washington never actually ended. However, if something fundamentally different does happen, then we will be forced to concede that Russia and the United States are entering a new and possibly more dangerous period of their relations.     

“Spying by the Rules”

The history of the Cold War gave us a number of interesting and even exotic spy scandals. In 1945, Soviet pioneers presented the American Ambassador to the USSR W. Averell Harriman with a model of the “Great Seal of the United States,” which supposedly contained a built-in cavity resonator. In the early 1970s, the Americans allegedly used a tree stump in a Moscow region forest to intercept radio signals coming from a Soviet military base [1]. After the Cold War, it came out that the Soviet intelligence services had used the cavity resonator to listen in to the goings-on at Spaso House, the official residence of the U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union.   

At any rate, the confrontation between the intelligence services of the USSR and the United States was always systemic in nature and never reached political level. Neither the Soviet nor the U.S. leadership saw the subversive actions of the CIA and the KGB as a reason for breaking diplomatic relations, limiting through legislation the activities of the other side’s diplomats or, moreover, causing real damage to the political elite of the enemy (the governments of both countries decried terrorism in all its forms). From time to time, the sides would expel diplomats from their countries, but they never did anything from the legal perspective to restrict the freedom of their activities. Neither the Soviet nor the American leaders proposed curtailing the activities of the citizens of the other state in their country. Clearly, neither side was particularly concerned about sabotage on the part of the enemy, as they never adopted any harsh restrictive measures.            

It is interesting that contacts with Soviet citizens in the United States, and U.S. citizens in the Soviet Union, were always more defensive than offensive in nature. Judging by information available in open sources, both the American and Soviet intelligence services advised their citizens to exercise maximum caution when travelling to capitalist (or socialist, as the case may be) countries, and to not engage in unnecessary discussions or “react to provocations.” Neither side compelled its citizens to actively seek out disputes with citizens of the rival country or try to win debates with them (which, by the way, is exactly what the Communist International advised Soviet citizens to do in the 1920s). The prevailing approach was essentially to ensure that citizens travelling abroad would not be “recruited” to the other side, rather than “recruit” foreigners during their trip.

At the same time, public opinion in the Soviet Union and the United States did not accept the logic of a “besieged fortress” that prevailed during the interwar period. The American people responded to the McCarthyism of the 1950s, which called for citizens to seek out “communist spies” everywhere, with mass demonstrations and protests. Soviet society engaged in a kind of passive protest that manifested itself in an enthusiasm for imported goods and the prestige attached to foreign travel to capitalist countries. The mentality of “seeking out spies” everywhere that prevailed in the Soviet Union and the United States during the 1930s had effectively disappeared. At some point people in both countries started to look at this “spy mania” and the arms race with a healthy dose of irony – just watch a James Bond film or listen to some of Vladimir Vysotsky’s songs and you will understand.    

In 1938, Arkady Gaidar wrote his now iconic novel Drummer’s Fate, which captures the mood of the 1930s perfectly. The story takes on three topics that are emblematic of the time: the sense of the inevitability of war, the need to seek out spies everywhere (even among one’s own family and relatives) and the importance of involving everyone in this process – even teenagers. Soviet and American spy films produced during the Cold War period differ from the Drummer’s Fate in two important ways: 1) the sense of an impending war is absent – none of the heroes ponders at the end of the film the possibility that we will all soon be fighting in the trenches; 2) seeking out spies is now a task of the intelligence services, not ordinary people. The war against the enemy’s intelligence services was conducted in both the Soviet Union and the United States as a competition between professionals, rather than mobilization for war.       

American political scientists often polemicize about how effective the use of “soft power” was against the Soviet Union. However, the very concept of “soft power” is based on the fact that the enemy is prepared to listen to information about the positive aspects of your culture and show an interest in it. The Americans knew that the Soviet people would be interested in this information. The phenomenon of “voices hear over the radio” that the Soviet intelligentsia was able to pick up proved that many people living in the USSR were ready to pay attention to what the enemy had to say. Judging by what people recall from that period, hearing negative things being said about their country did not really spark hatred towards the United States. Nobody thought “how dare they say that about us?” And nobody believed that foreigners had “no right” to discuss their homeland (a sentiment that could typically be found in European countries in the 19th century that had been caught up in a nationalistic frenzy). This can be explained by the specific characteristics of the Cold War. The Russians and the Americans did not hate each other like the French and the Germans did at the beginning of the 20th century. Rather, they were interested in each other’s way of life and culture. Similarly, the governments of the two superpowers did not attempt to sow hatred towards the people of the other country. On the contrary, they carefully separated the “reactionary circles in the United States” from the “American people,” and the “Kremlin hawks” from the “Russian people.” Espionage and the work of the intelligence services were seen as an important part of the competition between the two systems, which may have caused damage to the opponent, but did not pose a threat to its vital interests.       

People in both countries started to look at this “spy mania” and the arms race with a healthy dose of irony – just watch a James Bond film or listen to some of Vladimir Vysotsky’s songs and you will understand.

Espionage without Rules?

The current spy scandals are unfolding in a fundamentally different atmosphere, against the background of an unprecedented campaign launched by the United States in late 2016 regarding “Russian interference” in the U.S. elections. There are regular calls in Congress for Russia to be punished, through sanctions, for undermining American democracy. Russia is being blamed for nothing more and nothing less than threatening American statehood.  

The theory about Russia interfering in the U.S. elections should not be downplayed or dismissed out of hand. Moscow simply cannot understand why Russia would spend billions of dollars to ensure the election of a president of the United States who is just as hostile as all of his predecessors were. (In what ways does Donald Trump’s policy towards Russia differ from that of Barack Obama or George W. Bush exactly?) But it would seem that Washington views the matter differently. Certain Russian activity on social networks is presented as proof that Russia interfered in the U.S. elections. This argument borders on the ridiculous, as the American voters could have simply ignored unfamiliar accounts and not read or paid attention to the information posted on them. But for the first time since the mid-1950s, the American people felt vulnerable to an external enemy.

However, if the Americans are so scared of outside interference, then it is clear that they are not confident in the strength of their own democracy. Anyone who sees their country as the “best in the world” is unlikely to appreciate any kind of negative information about it. And judging by the statements made by U.S. congresspeople, the American people cannot see their country as the “best in the world” if their elections can be so easily manipulated by foreign accounts on social networks. The response to “the actions of Russia” could be a mobilization of sorts of American society: blocking the enemy’s access to the information space, restricting the rights of Russian citizens living in the United States, and also restricting the rights of its own citizens to access information from abroad. And this is precisely what is happening in the United States right now – the campaign to restrict the broadcasting rights of Russia Today and the Sputnik radio station is picking up steam and tighter regulations on political advertisements on Facebook are being introduced.

During the Cold War, the Americans loved to talk about how the Soviet Union was strangling its “radio voices” – Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. This, according to U.S. experts, was proof of the ineffectiveness of the Soviet system, as Soviet citizens wanted to listen to Western radio stations. Now the very same argument can be used against the United States. If it is “dangerous” for American people to listen to the Russian media, then it must mean that they are not confident in their own country and its system. As George Kennan once stated, the loser will always be the one who restricts information, while the winner will be the one who actively disseminates it.

This kind of fear of an enemy that is supposedly capable of undermining the very foundations of American society was typical in the United States during the interwar period, but not the Cold War. The United States lived through most of the 1920s and the Great Depression in an atmosphere of “great fear” and so-called “Red Scare.” At that time, fearing the Communist International, the United States adopted a series of laws restricting the access of U.S. citizens to information, including the Radio Act of 1927 and the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938. Similarly, at the beginning of the Second World War, Congress adopted the “Act on the Registration of Organizations under Foreign Control of Organizations Performing Political Activities in the United States” in 1940 as a response to the possible actions of Japan and Germany. The law regulated the activities of organizations with ties to international or foreign political structures or, as the government of the United States put it, “organizations that are ‘subjects of foreign influence.’” The parallels with the apparent “Russian trace” in the 2016 elections are so obvious that they do not even need clarification here.   

The current spy scandals are unfolding in a fundamentally different atmosphere.

Russia is also implementing a mobilization strategy of its own, although it is far weaker than the American version. On February 27, 2012, then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin published an article “Russia and the Changing World” pointing out the danger of the “soft power” being utilized by foreign subjects posed to the country, “The notion of ‘soft power’ is being used increasingly often,” he writes. “This implies a matrix of tools and methods to reach foreign policy goals without the use of arms but by exerting information and other levers of influence. Regrettably, these methods are being used all too frequently to develop and provoke extremist, separatist and nationalistic attitudes, to manipulate the public and to conduct direct interference in the domestic policy of sovereign countries.” In July 2012, the State Duma adopted amendments to the Law “On Non-Profit Organizations,” which defined the procedure for assigning Russian NGOs the status of foreign agent. In November 2014, a law was passed banning Russian political parties from making deals with foreign governments, international organizations and public movements that perform the functions of a foreign agent NGO, as well as with Russian legal entities in which foreign companies hold over 30 per cent of the authorized capital. In this context, it is only natural that the United States and Russia would increasingly view the other side as a threat to its vital interests. Just like during the interwar period, the notion that the enemy’s intelligence services may not only damage, but also threaten the very statehood of the opponent, is being to rear its head once again. Hence the desire of the sides (primarily the United States) to restrict the activities of diplomats and the media of the other country, limit foreign travel opportunities for its citizens, etc. And if this is the case, then those on the opposing side must be seen as full-fledged enemies, rather than hostile professionals. The fight against them could once again become the concern of the entire population (“every American”), rather than just the intelligence services. And in this sense, we are not far from mobilization projects being renewed.   

Is Mobilization Possible?

The term “mobilization” means the sum of measures taken to bring the armed forces and government institutions to a state of martial law. In the broader sense, “mobilization project” means the extensive use of military (power) management methods for achieving certain goals. The term seems somewhat outdated in the modern world, with its cult of globalization, openness and all manner of rights and privileges. However, mobilization projects may very well return, even if on a new basis.     

The potential for the previous mobilization was built from the 1870s onwards. It was during this decade that the leading powers quietly abandoned “free trade” and threw in their lot with protectionist policies – namely, through the creation of national industrial complexes. It was also during the 1870s that almost all the great powers transitioned to mandatory national service. This was made possible by the technical innovations of the late 19th century: the rapid growth of railway networks and telegraph lines, the invention of the radio and progress in aeronautics. It was these achievements that made it possible for the first time in history to manage large masses of people through technology. The subsequent mobilization during the First and Second World Wars were the result of this ideological and technological breakthrough.    

The Cold War period was a time of crisis of mobilization projects. The Soviet and American societies did not want a repeat of the Second World War and were not ready to accept mutual enmity and intolerance as the natural state of the bilateral relations. The absence of large-scale wars led to a crisis in the system of mandatory national service and the feasibility of maintaining the overdeveloped military-industrial complex (MIC). The expanding consumer culture, “youth protests,” hippy culture and self-deprecating humour – all this was symptomatic of the growing crisis in the mobilization idea of development.    

Perhaps mobilization against a “dangerous enemy” will allow American society to transition to more “manageable” democratic processes.

However, the current globalization crisis raises the question of what will come to replace it. The trade wars, sanctions and embargoes of the 2010s have led to the gradual abandonment of the global economy in favour of national protectionism. These states will once again require internal mobilization in order to achieve economic breakthroughs. (If the movement of goods and capital is limited, then mobilization is the only real form of compensating for it.) Modern electronic mass media help form public opinion. Digital technologies increase the ability of the authorities to monitor the lives of people. But the question remains as to whether or not they are capable of mobilizing people to solve collective problems. It is possible that this incessant wave of “spy scandals” and “media restrictions” is just the first movement towards future mobilization projects.

Classical liberal democracy was facing a new challenge at the turn of the 21st century. The development of information technology made it easy to quickly manipulate public moods and influence voter behaviour. In the past, the process of voting and ballot collection and counting took a long time from a technical point of view. Now it is almost instantaneous. Even in the United States the conversation has turned to the danger stripping ostensibly democratic institutions of their democratic content. Perhaps mobilization against a “dangerous enemy” will allow American society to transition to more “manageable” democratic processes.

It is difficult for us to imagine the possible return of a mobilized world. Yet it was equally difficult for the well-to-do European of the time of Marcel Proust and Anna Karenina to imagine that his or her world had already made the turn towards mobilization, much less that the mobilization experiments being carried out would eventually lay the foundations for the Second World War. However, as the number of mobilization components increases, so too will the hostilities between the United States and Russia (and between other states). And these hostilities will resemble the those of the Cold War period, but rather of the more distant past.   

1. A replica of the tree stump is now kept at the International Spy Museum in Finland.

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  1. Korean Peninsula Crisis Has no Military Solution. How Can It Be Solved?
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