The Kremlin’s "Protest Potential” Strategy

10/24/2016 07:51 am ET Updated Nov 27, 2016
Pro-Russian protesters in Donetsk, Ukraine, March 8, 2014.
Reuters/Konstantin Chernichkin
Pro-Russian protesters in Donetsk, Ukraine, March 8, 2014.

It is time for the West to take the Kremlin’s “protest potential” strategy seriously. If for no other reason than because Putin, his intelligence services and the Russian military do.

It is true that Russia is using its revamped naked military power in Syria. But its subversive strategies against established democracies in Central and Western Europe and the United States and against more fragile, transitioning states such as Ukraine, Moldova, or Bosnia are more nuanced. In this case, the Kremlin has aimed to harness “protest potential” of the local populations to advance its political and military objectives.

Putin’s career as a top decision-maker in Russia, – first as Prime Minister (1999-2000), then President (2000-2008), again Prime Minister (2008-2012) and then again President (2012 to present) – happened to coincide with the outbreaks of the largest mass movements, popular uprisings and civil revolutions since the collapse of the Soviet Union (e.g. Serbia in 2000, Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004, Kyrgyzstan in 2005, Arab Spring in 2011, Russia in 2012, Ukraine in 2014, just to name a few). There were at least three conclusions that Putin and his close circle of intelligence and military officials have drawn from these events:

  • Mass protests could not possibly be genuine because always seemed to be manipulated and helped by outside forces interested in specific political and military outcomes;
  • Still, ordinary and seemingly powerless people, if organized and mobilized, could constitute a real threat to the survival of a government, even though they may merely use peaceful protests instead of arms. They are still able to destabilize powerful regimes and bring strongmen down;
  • Popular, mass-based civilian mobilization and uprisings are here to stay and even grow. The Russian political and military establishment must be proactive rather than reactive to such events and learn how to manufacture and use the force of the people to its advantage both at home and abroad.

Putin might have a “visceral aversion to public protests” but he also embraced their utility and turned them into an instrument for military and political strategies. In fact, Kremlin officially elevated people power and mass movements into its national security agenda when, on December 26, 2014, the Russian Security Council adopted new Russia’s military doctrine.

According to this document the modern conflicts, that Russia must also be prepared to wage, involve now

the use of indirect and asymmetric modes of actions [such as] nonmilitary measures implemented with the extensive use of the protest potential of the population, [including] “political forces and social movements.

The preview to this revised doctrine was the third Moscow Conference on International Security held by the Russian Ministry of Defense on May 23, 2014 where the color revolutions were the main topic discussed. While pointing out that “Color Revolutions allow the US and Europe to fight low cost wars at the expense of local populations,” Valery Gerasimov, First Deputy Minister of Defense and the Chief of General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, offered his own definition of color revolutions as

a form of non-violent change in a country by outside manipulation of the protest potential of the population in conjunction with political, economic, humanitarian and other non-military measures.

Not only did the top military official of a nuclear state, together with his counterparts from Belarus and China, give a prominent place in military considerations to nonviolent people power but they also strongly believed that such power can be artificially engineered from the outside to advance military and political agendas of external state actors.

What Gerasimov presented during the conference Putin himself had brought up two months earlier on the eve of the invasion of Crimea. On March 4, 2014, during an interview the Russian president boasted about a contour of Russia’s military strategy in Ukraine, which used protest potential of the local population:

Listen carefully. I want you to understand me clearly: if we make that decision [to send Russian troops to Ukraine], it will only be to protect Ukrainian citizens. And let’s see those [Ukrainian] troops try to shoot their own people, with us behind them – not in the front, but behind. Let them just try to shoot at women and children! I would like to see those who would give that order in Ukraine.

2014 Crisis: “Protest Potential” Strategy in Action

What Putin described briefly was exactly what happened in Crimea and in the Donbas region in 2014. On the peninsula, Russia’s “little green men” stood back when hundreds of pro-Russian civilians, including men, older women and children with their parents, gathered in front of the Ukrainian military garrisons to protest the Ukrainian government and demand the Ukrainian army to leave. With no specific orders from Kyiv, the Ukrainian soldiers dared not to attack unarmed civilians and the green men behind them, instead choosing to surrender their posts. In Donbas, by mid April 2014, in places like Donetsk, Kramatorsk, Sloviansk, Horlivka and Mariupol, the Ukrainian local administrative and security services buildings were captured by so called local self-defense units. These units acted more like well-trained special forces without recognizable insignia rather than spontaneous groups of agitated citizens. Once they took over buildings, civilians would suddenly show up, stage a protest or engage in a sit-in, basically extending unarmed protection for the armed men inside the buildings. This created a dilemma for the Ukrainian security services: to take down the armed men inside the occupied state buildings they would first need to shoot their way through the crowds of unarmed civilians. Any carnage involving seemingly defenseless people could be a propaganda coup for Russia, giving it a pretext for more aggressive and open intervention. At the same time, letting civilians and armed men continue their occupation, which is what eventually happened, meant Ukraine had lost control over its own territory.

Recently released wiretaps of phone conversations of Sergey Glazyev, Putin’s close advisor on economic and political integration of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia which date back to late February and early March 2014, reveal how the Kremlin manufactured and deployed the “protest potential” of the local population. In the intercepted calls Glazyev is heard saying to his associates in Ukraine: “I have a direct order from the (Kremlin) leadership to mobilize the masses in Ukraine wherever we can” and lays out the plan to do so:

[First] it is important moment, to seize the city council to give opportunity for the council members to come and vote… . [Second, force them to pass a resolution] that it does not recognize legitimacy of Kiev authorities, that the new government is criminal and so on. Third, in order for the city council to meet it has to be secured, like in Kharkov [where] people went out and took over the council, threw away all Banderovtsy [author: used here with a pejorative meaning to describe Ukrainians as ultra nationalists or fascists], [paving the way] for the city council to convene and appeal to our president…. People must gather on the square and call for Russia’s help against Banderovtsy. … It is important that people will appeal to Putin. Mass appeals, directly to him, with request to protect [them].

Russia’s “Protest Potential” Strategy Goes Global

Beyond Ukraine, Russia has continued conducting hybrid warfare (drawing on a military projection of power and subversive nonviolent interventions) with a specific emphasis on the mobilization potential of the local civilian population. It has extended its support to right-wing movements in Western Europe; thrown its weight behind a popular referendum in the Serbian part of Bosnia and Herzegovina; embarked on a full-fledged, anti-EU propaganda campaign in Moldova at the height of its anti-corruption protests; and played a shadowy role in anti-fracking protests in Eastern Europe, including in Romania.

The lead-up to the US presidential elections during which Russia’s favorite candidate questioned the fairness of the elections and warned against possible rigging created a propitious climate for the Kremlin’s hybrid conflict to take root. In August, Roger Stone, Donald Trump’s close confidant, warned about possible voter fraud and the potential illegitimacy of US elections. This would, according to him, lead to “a constitutional crisis, widespread civil disobedience, and the government will no longer be the government.” He advised Trump to speak publically about the likelihood of electoral fraud and to mobilize his supporters for the day after elections.

What Stone said about potential demonstrations after the election falls squarely within Kremlin’s hybrid warfare scenario. In fact, some suspect that the ultimate goal of Russian meddling in the US presidential election was to manufacture a protest movement in the United States that could, if not derail a democratic system, sow doubts in its legitimacy. In turn, instability would spread, distracting the US government from important foreign policy issues. The Kremlin would also see this outcome as a sweet revenge against Hillary Clinton whom it accused, without much evidence, of standing behind mass opposition protests in Russia in 2012 when she served as US Secretary of State.

There is palpable evidence that the Kremlin not only recognizes the significance of people power but, in fact, weaponizes it to wage effective hybrid conflict – both in its immediate surrounding regions and overseas. The ultimate goal of such actions is to inflict irreparable damage to the legitimacy of democratic processes. Western countries, for their part, seem to understand little about how Putin’s protest potential strategy is wielded and, even less about how to prepare to countervail it.

There is, however, one bright exception: tiny Lithuania.

Lithuania and Civilian-Based National Defense

Soon after Russia waged its hybrid war against Ukraine the Lithuanian Ministry of Defense established a new unit within its structures: the Mobilization and Civil Resistance Department. It was tasked with studying hybrid war and devising counter-strategies that would go beyond traditional military kinetic actions. Consequently, in the last two years, Lithuania made exceptional steps to integrate basic tenants of nonviolent civilian-led defense into its national security and defense policies. In January 2015, the Lithuania Ministry of Defense published a preparedness manual, which was disseminated in thousands of copies to various state and civic institutions and directly to Lithuanian citizens. The manual acknowledged that people can resist foreign aggression not only through arms. “Civilian-based defense or nonviolent civil resistance is another way for citizens’ resistance” and “this method is especially important for threats of hybrid war.” The manual referred to Gene Sharp’s 198 methods of nonviolent actions to show how unarmed citizens could face and challenge an aggressor by waging stealthy campaigns that draw on an authentic resistance potential of the defending population.

The second, more humoresque and cartoon-like version released by the Ministry of Defense in 2016 and shared with local media, schools, and civic organizations across the country, highlights the importance of “modes and principles of civil resistance” that “make us strong.” The new manual sensitizes Lithuanians to different aspects of hybrid war that the country can be subject to; calls for mass noncooperation in the case of foreign interference and invasion; and prompts them to reach out to aggressor’s allies and neutrals at home to reveal internal divisions and put a wedge between the society and political elites of the aggressor state. It also emphasizes the need for building internal cohesion and solidarity throughout Lithuanian society to repel what the adversary wants to create and exploit: divisions and polarization. Finally, in March 2016, Lithuania adopted a new military strategy that put forward a blueprint for

reliable deterrence [that requires preparing citizens for] unarmed civil resistance, [including] fostering their will and resilience to information attacks, as well as ability to engage in a total resistance…of the whole nation.

Ways to Counter the Kremlin’s “Protest Potential” Strategy

One way to further support efforts to develop non-military, civilian-based strategies to counter Russia’s unconventional threat would be to establish a permanent analysis and information unit within NATO. Drawing on Lithuania’s experience with civil resistance planning, and the existing scholarly work on the effectiveness of nonviolent campaigns, this new structure could refine both practice and knowledge to create an integrated policy strategy on nonviolent civilian-led defense for the transatlantic alliance as a whole. This would not only legitimize people power for a skeptical policy audience vested in military approaches, but would also finally recognize what nondemocracies such as Russia have been telling us all along: that people power is here to stay and is a force to be reckoned with.

Authentic nonviolent mobilization integrates the strengths of pluralistic and open societies, as well as organizational skills and experiences of pro-democracy nonviolent campaign veterans. It can simultaneously be a powerful ally to democratic and deliberative processes (which no autocrats such as Putin can tolerate), and an effective antidote to the manufactured, partisan civic mobilization that the Kremlin champions. It can help expose artificiality, illegitimacy, and the ideological and organizational weaknesses of the Kremlin’s efforts such as what happened in Kharkiv and Odessa in 2014. In these cities, Ukraine’s local populations rejected Russia’s propaganda and disinformation while successfully counter-mobilizing to push against anti-Ukraine and pro-Russia protesters. The Kremlin’s attempt to apply its protest potential strategy backfired, inviting successful push-back and defeat by an authentic grassroots unarmed mobilization.

For that to happen elsewhere democracies must begin planning and building institutional capacities and population resilience for sustained mass participation in nonviolent campaigns against disinformation, bigotry and intolerance and in defense of basic democratic practices and values. Now – and in particular, in the United States since the November 8 elections – is the time to turn autocrats’ misinformation and manipulative strategy of “protest potential” on its head and resist nondemocratic pushback with genuine nonviolent mobilization of millions.

A page from the manual distributed by the Lithuanian Ministry of Defense that instructs its citizens to call 112 in case they
Lithuanian Ministry of Defense
A page from the manual distributed by the Lithuanian Ministry of Defense that instructs its citizens to call 112 in case they notice a strange group of armed men (an implicit reference to Russia's little green men that were seen in Crimea).
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