The United States is an open society, with a free press, a robust Constitution whose First Amendment guarantees freedom of the press; it maintains individual liberty as a bedrock principle. These rights make America an open and free place to live but also create vulnerability among bad actors who want to see the country fail. This is a competitive disadvantage vis-a-vis nations that would use our freedoms against us.
I had a fascinating ™ conversation about that 3 years ago with Jack Devine, a 32-year veteran of the CIA and former Acting Director and Associate Director of CIA’s operations. The details of those bad actors who wish harm against the United States are laid out in his latest book, Spymaster’s Prism: The Fight against Russian Aggression. It looks at the defining events of the post-war era, as they have impacted relations between the former USSR and the West. Devine comes up with 13 rules for understanding, responding to, and countering Russian aggression.
Some background: When the cold war ended and the USSR fell, we expected everybody to enjoy the peace dividend, including Russia. Surprisingly to the U.S., Russia’s response was business-as-usual, via aggressive intelligence operations versus America and her allies. Just because the Communists lost power did mean that the spying, propaganda activity, and attempt to destabilize its enemies — both real and imagined — were going to end.
Devine cogently explains how the Russians have managed to be so effective in these actions at little cost in terms of manpower, dollars, or blowback to themselves. The net result is a highly effective, asymmetrical set of covert operations by Russia against the West. Russian President Putin has managed to challenge other large actors on the global stage, but primarily the U.S. and Europe; he has threatened to destabilize U.S. elections, driven a wedge between the U.K. and Europe, undercut decades of US global leadership, exacerbated race and class divisions in the USA, all without ever firing a shot.
Russia is really, really good at this sort of warfare: It has been running AGITPROP campaigns externally for many decades, and internally for at least a century. The Russian Internet Research Agency has been weaponizing social media (especially Facebook) long before anyone even contemplated this was possible (China ain’t bad at this either, but it is less of a priority to them).
For any agitprop promoter to be successful they need not make anyone believe anything untrue; they just have to kick up enough dust to confuse citizens, who become unsure what to believe or who to trust. Democracy requires a shared set of Facts for citizens to be able to cast informed votes; it is an existential risk for any Democracy to no longer have a shared reality.
The Russians have successfully targeted many contentious issues, adding fuel to existing fires, and amplifying them to a larger audience. All of these issues exist prior to Russian interference, but agitprop has proven especially successful at making small issues larger and turning rational debates into extremely emotional ones.
Here is a shortlist of operations where the Russians had found fertile ground:
Successful Russian Agit-Prop
Masks / Covid-19 restrictions
Climate Change Denialism
White Supremicists / Proud Boys
Defund the Police / Antifa
GOP Takeover by Trumpism
I am speaking with Devine today to learn more about what we can do to counter this threat as both individuals and as a nation.
I hope this does not affect the already silly debates and online battles between bulls and bears — they occasionally go off the rails all by themselves. I am from the school that believes you must be able to articulate the other side of any trade you make cogently and intelligently, otherwise, you have no business putting that position on. But that is not what we see today on market debates: Wall Street Bets, the accusations thrown at short-sellers, the animus towards successful funds and ETFs, Gold versus Crypto versus NFTs — all of it makes me question if someone is stoking the flames behind the scenes of these issues that should simply be a traditional bull-bear debate.
I assume the decades-long back and forth about deficits, inflation, overvalued equities, even Armageddon, are good-faith arguments between legitimate adherents. But the more I learn about Russian agitprop, the more concerned I become about them. Agitprop has been very successful — it is cost-effective, destabilizing, and at least so far, has been difficult to stop.
One suggestion: We should all respond to this by working hard to make sure our market debates are well-founded, our positions logical, evidence-based, and rational. We should muster facts and data, be aware of our own biases and cognitive foibles. We must first and always contemplate the very real possibility, indeed the probability, that our views are wrong. Otherwise, we are no better than the Flat-Earthers and Anti-Vaxxers who would surely go bust if they brought their same processes to the markets.