The ultimate manifestation of the authoritarian ultra-nationalism we see arising across Europe from Russia to Great Britain is not the nation state, walled off from the rest of the world. It’s far worse … the nation prison. This reverse utopia isn’t just an abstract concept … it’s a reality. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is an example of a country that thought it had escaped totalitarianism only to become trapped behind a digital Iron Curtain.
So, why should you care? As we enter 2020, we’re at war. Putin has stated that liberal democracies are “obsolete.” His intelligence services have pioneered low-cost, low-risk digital espionage, exploiting the vulnerabilities – free elections and the freedom of speech and travel – of open societies.
Putin’s 2020 to-do list includes undercutting the foundations of the West by proxy, using armies of Internet trolls in Russia and the Balkans to promote and encourage nationalist extremists across Europe. In turn, those authoritarian leaders are pressuring the liberal democracies such as Germany and France as Putin’s ally President Trump pulls support for Europe, weakening freedom and rule of law across the continent.
The European Union, bogged down with Brexit and bureaucratic niceties, can’t cope as reactionary EU member states such as Hungary nationalize their media, then institute greater censorship.
For Putin, it’s all about control
As the EU capitulates, Putin’s success in keeping control in Russia – sealing it off from the outside, killing dissidents and jailing all opposition – emboldens anti-liberal forces across Europe. This tendency to control everything Russians see, search for and talk about online has become increasingly aggressive, and now it’s crossing borders.
This really hit home earlier this month when I pinged a Russian friend via LinkedIn about a business opportunity. Silence. Which was weird because this person is super-responsive. I found out later my friend was back in Russia where LinkedIn, of all things, is banned.
I mean like, who knew?
This I did know … Dispatches Europe is banned, as well. In three-plus years, we’ve gotten traffic from 193 countries. The only places we’ve never gotten any traffic? Not one reader? Russia and North Korea.
Last week, Putin announced his most audacious plan yet … he’s unplugging Russia from the larger Internet, replacing it with a “sovereign Internet.”
From the BBC:
The initiative involves restricting the points at which Russia’s version of the net connects to its global counterpart, giving the government more control over what its citizens can access.
The real genius of the Putins, the Victor Orbáns and Jarosław Kaczyńskis is how they always get away with justifying the most outrageously reactionary and restrictive policies with benign assurances that curtailing freedom is simply in the best interests of the people.
Putin signed legislation in May 2019 requiring Internet providers to install equipment to give his security services centralized control of data to prevent access to banned non-political websites such as LinkedIn. His excuse is that central control will protect the Russian network in the event of an attack.
But the real reason LinkedIn is banned is perfectly reasonable in Putin-think … the social media network stores Russians’ data outside of Russia. And not only that, but LinkedIn allows people to build business networks, networks that might be leveraged for political purposes.
That’s a huge no-no because Roskomnadzor – Putin’s censorship bureau – demands that Russia’s intelligence agencies have direct access to all data. Just in case they need to track down some dissident who might – even inadvertently – write, say or think the wrong thing.
It’s not just LinkedIn, of course.
Theses social media sites have been the targets of at least temporary bans:
Of course, if anyone understands the power – and threat – of social media, it’s Putin. His GRU Unit 29155 gave the U.S. Donald Trump as president, his Internet Research Agency successfully manipulating the 2016 election in Trump’s favor.
Western leaders don’t fight Putin … they emulate him
So, you’d think the Free World would be waking up, coming together to figure out what to do about Putin. Nope … more and more leaders are adopting his methods including Trump and Boris Johnson. Trump famously invited the Russians to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and invites his supporters to physically attack the media whom he vilifies as “the enemy of the people.”
He’s instituted crack-downs on individual groups entering the United States, banning Muslims. Boris Johnson is threatening to defund the BBC while creating a special immigration and borders department.
As an expat and globalist, I took personally Theresa May’s cheap shot that citizens of the world are “citizens of nowhere.” All I could think at the time was, “How many Jews loaded into the cattle cars bound for Auschwitz failed to flee the Nazi threat believing they were protected as loyal German, Hungarian or Polish citizens?”
As an unrepentant globalist, I believe in the global mobility of talent and capital, the right to pursue opportunities wherever they present themselves.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the 1985 Schengen Treaty opened borders across Europe. Not coincidentally, the European Union realized the greatest increases in affluence and standards of living Western Europe has ever known. A Golden Age that didn’t include Russia, which has a gross domestic product per household half the size of Greece. Or as Henry Kissinger so famously put it, Russia is Upper Volta with nuclear weapons.
The truth is that Putin is becoming more dictatorial is a sure sign his power is fading. Russians’ standard of living is dropping while Putin’s oligarchs snap up mansions and businesses in Switzerland.
His regime is economically incompetent as Putin focuses on expanding his geopolitical influence in Africa and the Middle East and on developing new weapons, ignoring domestic problems. Sooner or later, his replacement will emerge, likely from Putin’s own power structure and that will be that. But it’s his legacy that will haunt free Europe for decades to come.
Putin has figured out how to weaponize information, developing a digital model for future dictators, an approach far more insidious and cost-effective than rolling tanks will ever be.
About the author:
Terry Boyd is co-founder of Dispatches Media, based in Eindhoven, Netherlands. Boyd, a proud Cold Warrior, has been a military reporter, business reporter and an entrepreneur, founding Insider Louisville, a pure-play digital news platform, in 2010.
Boyd & Family are long-time expats and have lived in Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.