Soviet Active Measures in The
'Post-Cold War' Era 1988-1991

The Role of Active Measures
in Soviet Foreign Policy

The collapse of the Soviet communist power structure is leading to many revelations about how it functioned, although only the first few tantalizing fragments have so far emerged. one of the more interesting areas is that of active measures, the Soviet term for carefully crafted influence operations, which the Soviets used, in addition to traditional Western-style diplomatic and informational activities, to try to achieve the goals of Soviet foreign policy.

The importance of active measures in the Soviet approach to international relations derived from the totalitarian nature of the Soviet political system. In the USSR, the ruling party elite controlled not only the governmental structure and the economy but also all other formal manifestations of society, including the Russian Orthodox Church, the media, professional associations, academic institutions, trade unions, youth groups, peace groups, and so on. Indeed, control by a single party of virtually all the organized entities of society is the fundamental defining feature of totalitarianism.

The Soviet leaders naturally sought to use all the state and non-state entities at their disposal in the conduct of Soviet foreign policy. The ruling elite of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) was not content merely to exercise its power internationally through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Trade, and other state bodies. It also exerted its influence internationally through its control of the international activities of the Soviet media, professional organizations, trade unions, youth groups, academic institutions, the Russian Orthodox Church, peace groups, and virtually all other nongovernmental institutions. The Soviet Communist Party also had extensive ties with Soviet-aligned communist parties worldwide, both those that had achieved totalitarian control in their countries and those that as yet only aspired to such a goal.

In the Soviet analysis of international affairs, the various strands of international relations were divided into three categories: party-to-party, state-to-state, and people-to-people relations, a hierarchy in which party-to-party relations signified the highest degree of cooperation and understanding. While in pluralistic, free societies, state-to-state diplomacy is normally considered to be the most important aspect of international relations, in the Soviet mind, state-to-state diplomacy was only one of the ways in which Soviet influence could be brought to bear, and often not the most significant way. As then-Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze reminded his audience in July 1988, at a speech at a special "Scientific and Practical Conference of the USSR Ministry of Foreign Affairs," published in the October 1988 issue of International Affairs (p. 19):

The country's foreign policy is not the Ministry of Foreign Affairs alone. All its practical achievements of recent years are the fruit of well-coordinated actions by several foreign-policy departments functioning under the guidance of the party.

Active measures were conducted in the party-to-party, people-to-people, and state-to-people realms of the USSR's foreign policy. They represented, in essence, the non-diplomatic component of Soviet foreign policy. The CPSU ruling elite conducted state-to-state affairs in the sense that the West understands it through the Soviet governmental structure, but only as one component of Soviet foreign policy. The party-to-party, people-to-people, and state-to-people aspects were equally, if not more important. It was often very difficult for Westerners to comprehend this fundamentally different Soviet approach to international relations and, as a result, the centrality to the Soviets of active measures operations was gravely underappreciated in the West.

Another important aspect of the Soviet totalitarian approach to foreign affairs is that Soviet goals in the international arena were much more ambitious and open-ended than the goals pursued by pluralistic societies, in which the beliefs in limited government and the sovereignty of the individual led to a foreign policy aimed at achieving more limited goals.

In contrast to this vision of limited national interests and corresponding respect for the interests of other countries, the CPSU's totalitarian control within the Soviet Union was naturally accompanied by a vision of similar goals internationally. Thus, a standard pre-Gorbachev textbook on Soviet foreign policy, Soviet Foreign Policy: Objectives and Principles, described "the main objective and supreme principle of Soviet foreign policy" as follows:

on the day it made its appearance the Soviet state inscribed the world "Peace" on its banner and made the struggle for peace the objective and highest principle of its foreign policy. When the new communist social system has triumphed worldwide and a classless society established, peace, the dream of the greatest minds throughout the ages, will be the natural situation. (p. 155)

The textbook concluded, "Peace can only be guaranteed through the ultimate triumph of communism worldwide."

Although such straightforward statements of ultimate Soviet aims were muted during the Gorbachev era, high-ranking Soviet officials reiterated them on occasion. For example, in 1989, the following statement by Lenin was cited approvingly in a book issued by the Novosti Press Agency:

The Communists must exert every effort to direct the working-class movement and social development in general along the straightest and shortest road to the victory of Soviet power and the dictatorship of the proletariat on a world scale. That is an incontestable truth. (pp. 49-50)

The book, The Problem of Compromise in Politics as Seen by Lenin in the First Post-Revolutionary Years (1918-1921) was authored by Alexander Lebedev, who was then deputy head of the Ideology Department of the CPSU Central Committee, in charge of international information. Lebedev has privately denied authorship of the book, despite the fact that it appeared under his name. This raises the intriguing possibility that elements within the Soviet apparatus may have been powerful enough to have a book issued under false premises and translated into English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Khmer behind the back of one of the most important officials of the Central Committee. Whether Lebedev actually wrote the book or whether it was issued without his approval, it represents the views of senior Soviet officials - either Lebedev or those so powerful that they could cavalierly appropriate his name.

A third aspect of Soviet totalitarian politics that set the tone for the Soviet approach to international affairs is that the CPSU ruling elite sought to achieve its goals both domestically and internationally by any and all means at its disposal, including the use of lies, deception, terrorism, and aggressive force. The CPSU ruling elite used these methods extensively at home to keep the population of the USSR under control. They also used such methods in international relations. For example, on May 25, 1992, Sergei Shakhrai, who had recently resigned as the senior legal adviser to Russian president Boris Yeltsin, made public the contents of a document that revealed direct Soviet sponsorship of terrorism against Americans during the height of the 1970s detente. According to the May 26, 1992 The New York Times:

Mr. Shakhrai cited a "top secret" directive dated May 16, 1975, which reported that "a shipment of foreign arms and ammunition was delivered by the KGB to the head of external operations of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine on May 14, 1975."

... The weapons were to be used, Mr. Shakhrai said, citing from the document in his hand, "to carry out operations against American and Israeli personnel in third countries, to carry out acts of sabotage and terrorism"

Mr. Shakhrai said that "thousands" of such documents had been found in a special file at the CPSU Central Committee. On June 5, 1992, Russian Information Minister Mikhail Poltoranin told a news conference that such support for international terrorism had continued through 1991. Such an ethic made the use of manipulation, deception, and disinformation standard techniques of Soviet foreign policy as well.

The Soviet totalitarian approach to international relations in terms of the entities utilized, the goals pursued, and the means employed gave Soviet foreign affairs a fundamentally different cast and thrust than the approach taken by pluralistic Western nation-states, which had much more modest goals attuned to limited national interests, and which chose not to employ techniques such as military aggression, terrorism, or the unscrupulous use of lies and other deceptive and manipulative techniques. In short, the Soviet approach to international relations can perhaps best be described as a form of "political warfare," with the manipulative and deceptive techniques of active measures playing an essential and important role.

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