David Salvo: Putin has not succeeded in upending the international order

VoA Georgian’s Eka Maghaldadze spoke with David Salvo, Deputy Director at German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy, on Russia’s efforts to undermine western democracies and destabilize neighboring countries.

In 2007, at the Munich Security Conference, Vladimir Putin said the existing world order was unacceptable, and a year later, Russia began destroying the global order by invading Georgia, and then Ukraine. What has changed since then?

In 2007, Vladimir Putin was signaling to the world that he found the existing liberal international order to be unacceptable to Russian interests and that he was willing to upend the rules of the game by using tactics and tools that we had not really seen on the world stage before. So, from the invasion in Georgia to the annexation of Crimea, from the use of cyber-attacks in Estonia to information operations across the West, the Russian government and its proxies have been trying to undermine and destabilize democracies across the transatlantic space.

Can we say Russia has managed to do what Putin was predicting? Did it upend the world order?

I do not think so and the reason why, is that the organizations, the alliances and the institutions that underpin the liberal international order, including the United Nations but more particularly, the European Union and NATO, are still strong. Despite difficulties with Brexit and other populist challenges to European sovereignty and to NATO, you still have a preeminence of these organizations throughout the transatlantic community.

So, I think no, in a nutshell, Vladimir Putin has not succeeded entirely in his goals to upending the international order.

Did the West do enough to deter Russia? I think we missed a real opportunity to push back, particularly when the Russian military invaded Georgia and when they illegally annexed Ukraine’s territories. I think we missed an opportunity to really lay down a red line.

We have signaled in other ways – through sanctions and punitive measures – that we do not find this activity acceptable.

Did the West do enough to deter Russia? I think we missed a real opportunity to push back particularly when the Russian military invaded Georgia and when they illegally annexed Ukraine’s territories.

There is a debate whether western nations could have more proactively come to defense of Georgia and Ukraine. I think, the West has done a lot for both of the countries’ security and defense, but Georgia and Ukraine are not yet NATO members, even though the alliance has said publicly that they will become members of the alliance.

So, we cannot say we have done everything we could to pull these countries into the institutional framework that underpins the transatlantic community.

NATO and EU have different requirements for accession and, in some respects, both Ukraine and Georgia have more work to do internally in order to fulfill those requirements.

On the other hand, I think the EU and NATO should more forcefully signal to Georgians and Ukrainians that membership will happen.

If populations of these countries start to believe that membership is never going to happen, then it starts to change the public opinion towards the West, towards Russia or other actors in that space. So, it is dangerous for the West if peoples of Georgia, Ukraine, and Western Balkans or in other aspiring countries lose faith that it [the membership] is going to happen one day.

They need to hear it from Western leaders, they need to hear it from leaders of NATO and the European Union that all the work these countries are doing towards accession is not for nothing.

It was said many times for last 2 years that U.S.-Russia relationships are at the lowest point since the Cold War. How do you think, where are U.S.-Russia relations now?

Unfortunately, it is a pretty accurate statement. There is a lot of blame put on the U.S. in Russia for deterioration of bilateral relations, but when you look at facts, you have a nation state that has interfered in the democratic institutions of our country over the past several years, and it is not even just about the 2016 elections.

As the recent congressional investigations and various social media companies and civil society organizations, like mine, have shown, the Russian government is waging everyday interference operations against Americans and Europeans through information operations, in particular.

It just signals that there is not really an interest in improving the relations if they are trying to fundamentally undermine our society and increase and amplify the polarization among Americans and Europeans. So, I am skeptical that there is going to be an improvement until this sort of tactics stops.

What do you think about the U.S. withdrawing from Syria? What might that mean for the Caucasus? Do you have an impression that the U.S. might be losing its interest to the region?

I do not think I would make that sort of linkage. I think, the United States throughout the course of several Presidential administrations has shown that it cares very much about the developments in the Caucasus.

In Georgia, for instance, the U.S. was at the forefronts of pushing NATO, to signal that the country would become a member at some point. The U.S. has invested a lot in both Azerbaijan and Armenia in terms of being a mediator in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and trying to bring peace to the region, to open borders and promote people-to people-exchanges between the countries.

So, I do not necessarily see downgrading of the importance of Caucasus and I would be careful about drawing the linkages between what is happening in Syria and what our position is towards the Caucasus as a whole.

What has the ‘America First’ policy meant for countries like Georgia and Ukraine so far?

With the “America first” policy, the Trump administration was signaling that it will always protect the American interests first. Any country is going to protect its interest first, but this messaging is not helpful as it makes countries like Georgia and Ukraine nervous that we are somehow withdrawing from the region and that we do not take our commitments as seriously as we did before.

So, I think it is important to have more messaging from senior American leaders that we do honor our international obligations, our membership in NATO, and our commitment to aspiring Euro-Atlantic countries like Georgia and Ukraine.

The “America first” message is not helpful, even if there is an element of truth to that.

The “America first” message is not helpful, even if there is an element of truth to that: every country protects its own interests, but we have interests all over the world and it is in our interest that countries like Georgia and Ukraine become full-fledged members of the Euro-Atlantic community.

The Authoritarian Interference Tracker – what does it expose? What are the tactics and trends that define the Russian government’s interference efforts in democracies – what is the Kremlin’s asymmetric toolkit and what are the trends that the tracker has shown to your researchers?

My organization, the Alliance for Securing Democracy established the Authoritarian Interference Tracker that catalogs over 400 incidents of Russian government interference across the transatlantic community, in countries like Georgia, Ukraine, the United States and the United Kingdom.

We have tracked these operations since Vladimir Putin came to the power in 2000 to the present day. Some of the trends we were highlighting is that there has been a marked increase in these types of operations since the Euro-Maidan protest in 2013, so the Russian government uses various tools like cyber operations, information operations, financial influence, subverting political and social organizations and strategic economic cohesion, and uses these tools interchangeably, in order to destabilize democratic governments and societies.

The United States is a great example of this, in the run-up of the 2016 elections when the Russian government used multiple tools to interfere in our elections.

This was done through hacking email accounts of campaigns, through disinformation operations targeting both democrats and republicans, and by trying to infiltrate in influential political and social organizations like the National Rifle Association. These tools all mutually reinforce one another.

But it is not just about us, they have done this in countries like France, where they targeted campaign email accounts of now President Macron; his emails were hacked and Russians sponsored financially his opponent Marine Le Pen.

So, the tactics that countries like Georgia have been experiencing for numerous years, are now showing up in western European countries and in the United States and Canada, so these are the types and trends that the tracker exposes.

What are the main target areas in Georgia for Kremlin’s disinformation operations and which sphere of internal politics and public life is the most vulnerable?

There are two main issues that Russian government is trying to exploit. The first is Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations; so, any sort of support that Russian government can provide to parties and groups not sympathetic to Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations is in their interest.

The other sort of wedge issue is the conflict regions, Abkhazia and Tskhinvali/South Ossetia; the Russian government will always try to manipulate sentiments around the conflicts.

Overall, it is very important to keep in mind where these news and social media narratives and messaging are coming from. It is also important to know to whom the political parties have allegiances.

Overall, it is very important to keep in mind where these news and social media narratives and messaging are coming from. It is also important to know to whom the political parties have allegiances – I am not saying there are Georgian parties that are completely corrupted by the Kremlin – but knowing where some of that support, especially the rhetorical support, is coming from and why certain Georgian parties and candidates are not fully supporting the country’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations is important.

What are the tools and the capacities that we can use to counter the Kremlin’s propaganda and disinformation operations?

I think it is a two-way street. The Georgian government needs to be extremely transparent with its population about the types of operations that are happening in the country and more importantly about Georgia’s trajectory as a whole.

Tackling corruption, promoting rule of law and ensuring that all commitments are made towards EU and NATO accession, these are the things that Georgian government needs to demonstrate to its people. On the other hand, like I mentioned earlier, the European Union and the NATO need to be even more steadfast in demonstrating to the Georgian people that membership awaits them and that they will become full-fledged members of the Euro-Atlantic community.

In this ongoing ‘creeping occupation,’ how is it possible to deal with this propaganda machine on the occupied territories? And what do you think was the role that disinformation and other asymmetric tools played in all that happened?

I think, you have clear indications of Russian state controlled media pushing certain narratives to populations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. They are certainly pushing a propaganda narrative that the Georgian government will always work against the interests of the people of these two territories, but you also have the Russian government, and we saw this in the run-up to the invasion in 2008, using tools like cyber-attacks to try to cripple the Georgian military infrastructure or other government infrastructure. So, these tools are at their disposal and they will use them, if they believe it is in their interests in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

What are the key recommendations for Georgian Government, civil society and media in dealing with this malign influence?

I think, the civil society is particularly important because while the government should be part of the unmasking of information operations and other sorts of interference activities by the Russian government or other nation states, the civil society can often be a more credible voice precisely because they are not the government.

There are organizations in Georgia that are tracking these issues and are extremely talented experts who understand Russian motivations and tactics and they should be at the forefront of educating and raising the awareness about these activities.

On the government side, as I mentioned before, it is more about demonstrating to the people that it is committed to a particular path and that this path will make the country more prosperous and more secure for average Georgian citizen.

These are the types of the narratives that the government needs to provide. So, the government and the civil society are mutually reinforcing and there is a role for both to play.

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