This piece was originally published in The Integrity Initiative
As its confrontation with the West grows, Russia’s use of the elements of blackmail, both veiled and direct, in its diplomacy is increasing. In general, threats and fear-mongering are some of the main tools of the Putin’s regime, primarily in domestic policy, where they serve as essential means of ensuring the loyalty of the population. However, the Kremlin is not averse to using the same tactics beyond its borders as well, trying to win concessions from Western leaders. Let’s look at the main types of Putin’s blackmail inside and outside Russia.
- Blackmail by civil war
This is perhaps the oldest and most popular form of blackmail used by the Kremlin against its own population. For the last several years, the state has been persuading Russians that any mass protests, let alone attempts at revolution, will inevitably lead to a bloody civil war, the details of which are vividly described by propaganda. The fear caused by these images is one of the pillars of Kremlin propaganda, not only scaring people off any future attempts to change the government, but also forcing them to consolidate around the “national leader” in the present.
The fear of civil war in Russia is also used as an instrument of pressure on Western leaders. The main argument here is “the unpredictable consequences of chaos in a vast territory that possesses nuclear weapons.” This idea is clearly being pushed in an open letter from Andrei Kortunov to the “composite Washington acquaintance” published on the website of the Carnegie Moscow Center:
“It appears then that current American policy brings Washington away from, not nearer to, its goal of regime change in Russia… Be honest, John, are you able to predict the concomitant global and regional risks, the risks for U.S. interests and security? We both remember well that the world was fortunate in 1991 to avoid violent turmoil in a nuclear superpower state… It’s not at all obvious that the same thing will happen next time. Won’t you agree that the current Russian military-security establishment somewhat differs from the old Soviet nomenklatura and will hardly acquiesce to collective political suicide?” warns the author.
In addition to the threats of civil war in Russia, the Kremlin is actively trying to spread the same fears in other countries, in particular in the United States. As noted by the Washington Post, on the eve of the presidential election of 2016, Russia tried to provoke a “color revolution” in the event of Donald Trump‘s defeat, which would eventually inevitably turn into a civil war. Trump, in turn, gratefully picked up this blackmail, threatening in advance with non-acceptance of the election results, and declared their “falsification” before any vote, calling on his supporters to start mass protests if he loses.
After the election, blackmail with a possible civil war in the United States by Russian propaganda continued, but its goal now was to stop Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller‘s investigation of Russian intervention and to prevent possible impeachment. In particular, in the American Russian-language media, the topic of the inevitable “angry reaction of Trump voters” is being predicted in the event an impeachment procedure is started and it is often mentioned that continuing the investigation could lead to violence and disturbances in the streets, and therefore, “everything possible should be done to prevent it.”
Simply put, the Russian media warns in plain text that even if Trump is really guilty of illegal ties to the Kremlin, law enforcement agencies and Congress shouldn’t attempt to impeach him in order to avoid a “civil war”, and therefore even if the crime is confirmed it should be overlooked. The fear of a possible civil war in the United States is sometimes thrown into the English-language information space, and some American experts unconsciously broadcast it, often without even realizing that they are playing into the hands of Kremlin propaganda.
In fact, the chances of a bloody civil war in Russia itself, much less in the United States, are close to zero. Extremist groups in the United States are certainly strong enough to organize protest actions and even bloody clashes, similar to those observed in Charlottesville in August 2017, but they are not so powerful as to unleash a full-fledged war. In the United States, as in other democratic countries, even with all the conflicts that exist in those societies, there is confidence in the institution of elections, fundamental freedoms are considered to be unshakable, and individual states are fairly independent of the federal authorities in legislative terms. This significantly reduces the influence of political events at the federal level on the lives of ordinary people, and hence it reduces their desire to react violently to these events.
A civil war inside Russia is also unlikely. The mentality of the majority of Russians is characterized by inertia, excessive reliance on the state, a deep-rooted fear of “losing Russia” as a country and an increased level of conformism combined with a low ability to self-organize. Most Russian political scientists are inclined to believe that a regime change in the country will occur not as a result of a sudden revolution, but as a result of the gradual degradation of power, that is, as a result of the change of elites, or, as some would say, a “palace coup”.
Such a coup would certainly lead to the weakening of the elites and consequently a shakeup of the repressive mechanism (or at least the loss of its former legitimacy in the eyes of the population). Such tendencies can lead to an intensification of the protest wave and, as a result, to the need of the new authorities to reckon with popular discontent. However, it is very likely that after certain concessions from the “post-Putin” elites, this discontent will decline, and the main battlefield will not be in the streets, but in the corridors and towers of the Kremlin. In the event of such a scenario, Putin’s propaganda prepared the following type of blackmail – the fear that Putin will be replaced by even more radical followers, who will inevitably increase repression inside the country and make their foreign policy even more aggressive and unpredictable.
- Blackmail with the radical successors
This type of threat is not stated directly but spread by subliminal messaging to both Russians and foreigners. Russian TV shows, in which politicians and political scientists call their opponents obscene words, provoke fights and call for the destruction of entire countries; terrorist “militiaman” Girkin-Strelkov, who at the beginning of the Russian aggression in Ukraine was predicted to play the role of the informal people’s leader; military analysts, prophesying that the role of the new opposition leader will be taken up by the left radical and supporter of the continuation of the expansion of Russia in the post-Soviet space Sergei Udaltsov; the head of the Russian Guard, General Viktor Zolotov, who publicly challenged corruption fighter Alexei Navalny to a duel — all this is intended to convince Putin’s opponents that the current Russian president can still be negotiated with, while those who will replace him will be beyond reason.
The fear of a possible military dictatorship in Russia, headed by one of the radical and completely uncontrollable security officials, is a reality among the European establishment. Regardless of whether there will be a change of power in the Kremlin through the official appointment of a “successor” or a coup, it is obvious that the power of the special services in the country is so strong that Putin’s place will most likely be taken by another representative of the recently strengthened security force or, in the best case, someone from the opposition controlled by this clan. However, it is wrong to assume that the power of such a “successor” will be absolute. Any person who takes Putin’s place will not have his charisma, and he will find it difficult to maintain the balance created by Putin between the interests of the oligarchs and the security forces.
In fact, judging by the latest trends in the Russian economy, discontent of the “oligarchic” clan with the current Kremlin’s course is growing. The oligarchs close to Putin came under a double blow – first, from Western sanctions, and secondly, from the Kremlin, which is trying to circumvent the sanctions by nationalizing the assets of those close to it.
This nationalization is carried out under various pretexts, including under the guise of the “financial recovery” and reorganization procedures conducted by the Central Bank. The reason for the implementation of such procedures are violations and even crimes revealed during an audit, but, as financial analysts note, the strangest thing is that criminal cases against former owners are never initiated. Thus, the only logical explanation for this behavior by the authorities is an attempt to remove assets from under the sanctions, without attempting to punish their owners, who, despite all their crimes, have done nothing against Putin personally. Such procedures affected, in particular, Oleg Deripaska, and some other Russian oligarchs.
In turn, the majority of oligarchs are not ready to easily give up their savings to the state that has already brought them so many problems, and therefore, according to media reports, are trying with all their might to withdraw their money not so much from Western sanctions as from the process of nationalization in their homeland. These trends indicate increased friction between Kremlin hawks and the more moderate part of the Russian elites seeking to restore relations with the West and hastily transferring their money out of Russia. The Kremlin, in turn, transparently hints through propaganda programs that Russians who own property abroad are becoming an easy target for recruitment and the FSB can destroy these recruited “traitors” in any country in the world.
Solving all the above-mentioned conflicts is done in a “manual mode” through the Putin-built system. In general, the whole vertical power structure in Russia and the mechanism for resolving many key issues are built in the same mode. After Putin, this vertical will begin to crumble, and the conflicts between the various “power structures of the Kremlin” are likely to escalate. And let’s not forget about the centrifugal tendencies on the part of the regions, which can also manifest themselves “after Putin”, and about the possible intensification of protest mood. The new leader will need to win national trust, and repression alone will not help here.
As noted above, a full-fledged revolution in Russia is unlikely at this stage, but the system will weaken considerably, and security officials will most likely have to make certain compromises with the oligarchs, or perhaps even with some representatives of the liberal opposition. This may not lead to significant changes in Russia at first, but it is likely that such Russia will no longer be able to continue its aggressive foreign policy in the post-Soviet space and interference in the affairs of Western countries. Such a situation can give Western leaders and the democratic opposition in Russia the very “window of opportunity” that some opposition leaders are waiting for.
At this stage, a lot will depend on the position of the West and on whether the leaders of the free world have enough wisdom to accurately support genuine oppositionists, not to declare with ease a new “reset” while the security services in one form or another retain control over the country, not trust pseudo oppositionists and build protection mechanisms that prevent Putinism comeback in any form.
- Nuclear blackmail
Periodically, Moscow decides to resort to nuclear blackmail as a way to force Western countries to make certain concessions. One of the first threats on this topic was Dmitry Kiselev’s famous statement that “Russia is capable of turning the United States into radioactive ash.” The next case of exacerbation of direct nuclear blackmail was observed before the presidential elections in the United States. Then, the leading propaganda media openly stated that a nuclear war in the case of Hillary Clinton‘s victory would be almost inevitable.
For example, in October 2016, Russian programs, one after another, showed TV specials devoted not only to the quality of bomb shelters but also to the technology of anti-missile defense. On the official channel of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, a twenty-minute story was released under the loud title “Obama threatens Russia!”, In which it was directly stated that the USA is “the enemy of humanity”. At the same time, the famous Russian journalist Alexander Sotnik published on his page in social networks a post from a woman claiming that children in a Moscow school were being scared with the prospect of a nuclear war with the USA and death in case of Hillary Clinton’s victory in the presidential election.
The latest vivid example of blatant nuclear blackmail is the threat voiced personally by Vladimir Putin in the World Order-2018 film devoted to him. To the direct question of the leader Vladimir Solovyov about the possibility of using nuclear weapons, Putin replied that he was ready to deliver only a “retaliatory strike”. However, he acknowledged:
“Yes, it will be a global catastrophe for the world, but why do we need such a world if Russia is not there?”, in effect openly stating that he is ready to destroy the planet in a nuclear war if he feels a similar threat to his country. It is significant that the film included, as an afterword, the notorious excerpt from the message to the Federal Assembly, in which Putin demonstrates new types of weapons as a “response to the United States on their withdrawal from the ABM Treaty.
Moreover, most analysts agree that we are dealing with a gigantic bluff designed to force the West to make concessions to Russia. The Russian opposition politician Vladimir Milov has the same idea.
“The entire campaign is designed for specific powerful individuals in the United States, those who are particularly sensitive about the issue of cooperation with Russia on nuclear nonproliferation. In America, this theme holds a special place in national security policymaking,” he explained.
According to Vladimir Milov, there is a large stratum of people in the American establishment that is ready to forgive Moscow any antics as long as they continue their cooperation in the nuclear field.
“Putin wants to scare these people, and thus create additional pressure in the highest echelons of US power such that “Making peace with Russia is necessary, otherwise we will lose out on nuclear cooperation. It is in this community that nuclear issues have always been prioritized above all others. It is precisely these specialists that Putin wants to frighten. But, apparently, he no longer scares them,” believes the Russian opposition member.
In addition to direct threats, Russia demonstratively “pours” weapons into the border regions, primarily the occupied Crimea and the Kaliningrad region, without hiding their readiness to use at least tactical nuclear weapons. On December 8, 2017, at the “Ukraine’s Century of Struggle to Secure Independence” conference in Washington, the President of the Potomac Foundation, Phillip Karber, called the nuclear threat from the Crimea to be one of the elements of the Russian “hybrid war”. Leonid Polyakov, former Deputy Defense Minister of Ukraine, Chairman of the Expert Council of the Center for Army Research, Conversion and Disarmament (CARCD), also stresses that Russia still refuses to sign the treaty on the reduction of tactical nuclear weapons.
At the same time, on July 7, 2017, the head of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Viktor Muzhenko, at the joint meeting of the Military Scientific Council of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the National Academy of Sciences said that Russia was working to restore the capacity to deploy nuclear ammunition in the occupied Crimea. Even earlier, in December 2016, the leader of the Crimean Tatar people, people’s deputy of Ukraine Mustafa Dzhemilev said in the European Parliament that the Russians had already brought nuclear weapons to the Crimea.
Belarusian experts also do not rule out that Moscow may achieve the use of tactical nuclear weapons in the region. It seems that the use of tactical nuclear weapons is the only at least remotely realistic threat out of all types of Kremlin blackmail. True, some experts call it a bluff, noting that such intimidation failed in 2015, when, despite all the threats, NATO deployed its troops in the Baltic countries on a permanent basis.
Another type of nuclear blackmail from Moscow is blackmail on behalf of others, that is, the threat to use its influence on individual authoritarian regimes in order to increase the escalation of their confrontation with the West. This includes, first of all, the blackmail of the United States with the North Korean nuclear threat. The first ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary of Russia to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, was the first to undertake this thankless mission. During his speeches in Northern California in early December 2017, he repeatedly said that Russia is the largest nuclear power and can help in negotiations with Pyongyang.
“Russia is a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and the world’s second largest nuclear power. We are ready to offer our assistance in negotiations with the DPRK, as we too are concerned about the growing nuclear potential of North Korea,” said Antonov, struggling to convey to the audience the idea that the United States cannot do without Russia’s help in resolving the North Korean crisis. By the way, the well-known Russian publicist Andrei Piontkovsky later called this tactic “the Kremlin’s nuclear offshore.” At the same time, the Kremlin did not propose any concrete ways to solve the problem, except for abstract words about “the need for a diplomatic settlement”. The main goal of Putin’s veiled blackmail was only to show the indispensability of Russia in resolving the crisis and the resulting need for the United States to abandon sanctions and restore relations with Moscow.
Then others, including highly respected Russian publicists, began to express the same idea, trying to convey a clear message to the West and China: in case of introduction of full-scale sanctions against North Korea without considering Moscow’s opinion, Russia will use its influence on Pyongyang to strengthen North Korean nuclear blackmail.
- Blackmail with terrorist attacks
This type of blackmail is primarily highlighted by the above-mentioned Andrei Piontkovsky, who, in his publications, expressly states that Moscow is using its influence on Islamic terrorists, directing them against the United States in order to later suggest the need for cooperation in exchange for security.
“You must first and foremost cooperate with the Kremlin, otherwise they will continue to blow you up.” That was the narrative developed by Putin’s propaganda and his foreign agents after the Boston Marathon terrorist attack by the Tsarnaev brothers. Any American prosecutor, journalist or politician who wanted to understand the truth about the Tsarnaevs’ terrorist attack, can be assured that “the Boston fuse had been ignited a long time ago” (Novaya Gazeta, April 27, 2013). Before carrying out his act of terrorism, the elder Tsarnaev spent eight months of 2012 in Russia, under the strict control of the FSB. He did not sneak out of Russia to America through some hidden backchannels, but he flew openly through Sheremetyevo airport… Tsarnaev would never have dared to carry out such an act if he had not been absolutely sure that he would be completely safe in Russia, that he was going to friends and handlers,” – said the Russian publicist.
Other experts have repeatedly warned about Russia’s ties with radical Islamists. For example, the president of the Eastern Partnership Institute (Israel), Rabbi Abraham Shmulevich, is certain: the fact that Russia uses ISIS terrorists in its games is beyond doubt. According to him, over the years, Russian security forces have literally forced not only militants from the North Caucasus and other regions of Russia into the Middle East, but even peaceful opposition. The most famous of these figures were the former commander of the riot police of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Tajikistan Gulmurod Khalimov, who joined ISIS in May 2015, and the Islamic preacher Nadir Abu Khalid (Nadir Medetov), who also swore allegiance to the Islamic State in 2015.
“ISIL relies on the flow of people, especially since Russia supplies them with very valuable personnel. In fact, we have a mutually beneficial alliance between Russian special services and Islamic terrorists. Against this backdrop must be placed the recent terrorist attack in New York, committed by an expatriate from Uzbekistan, and the Tsarnaev brothers, and other terrorist attacks in France… The destabilization of Europe and the increasing flow of refugees to the West are certainly beneficial to Moscow,” explains Shmulevich.
This type of blackmail is the most realistic of all listed. Moreover, certain facts lead one to suspect that Russia, in this case, embodies the same threats that it hints at in talks with disagreeable Western politicians. However, this in no way means that Western leaders should allow themselves to be led by such a “mafia” style of foreign policy. As for the other forms of blackmail, as already noted, almost all of them are a deliberate bluff aimed at intimidating any opponents of Vladimir Putin inside and outside the country.