Part of what makes Russia’s war on truth so ominous is that it transcends ideology. Once Moscow had Pravda and espoused the virtues of the international proletariat. Today it uses “fake news” as part of a long-term strategy to transform Western publics into conspiracy-addled zombies. Take the case of the disturbed young man who shot up a Washington, D.C. pizza parlor last year, convinced it was sheltering a child sex ring run by associates of Hillary Clinton. The assailant came to this conclusion after marinating in a stew of conspiracy websites that developed the story based upon email correspondence stolen by Russian hackers from Democratic Party servers. While this was a lone wolf incident, it is not difficult to fathom the prospect of more aimless, politically malleable young men in the West (a demographic disproportionately supportive of Trump and other far-right movements) “self-radicalizing” through the path of inflammatory material propagated by Russia or its proxies on the internet, à la wannabe warriors for the Islamic State.
Less implausible is Russia’s ability to alter the political trajectory of Western politics in a way that suits its geopolitical aims. Last year in the Netherlands, a motley collection of Russian expatriates, far-right nationalists and left-wingers banded together to defeat a referendum on an EU trade agreement with Ukraine. Though the Dutch intelligence agency could find no hard evidence of direct Russian government support to the opposition side, it did conclude that the Netherlands is a target in Moscow’s “global campaign to influence policy and perceptions on Russia,” and that the Kremlin has mobilized a “network of contacts built up over the years.” Speaking of Russia’s suspected involvement in this week’s parliamentary election, a Dutch foreign policy analyst told the New York Times that, “A little effort goes a long way” and could “destroy the European Union from inside.”
While waging a nonviolent war against the West from within, Russia is rapidly building up its military capacities and engaging in kinetic action along Europe’s periphery.