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

The "Post-Cold War" Era:
A New Context for Soviet Active Measures

The "post-Cold War" years of 1988 to 1991 were a time of extraordinary, unprecedented change in Soviet affairs, change that was reflected in the form and content of Soviet active measures operations. Some overall observations may help explain the dramatic shifts in Soviet active measures practices during this period.

First, as the Soviets moved away from a reliance on coercive, military instruments in their foreign policy, the political instruments of active measures and traditional state-to-state diplomacy took on added importance for them. As mentioned earlier, according to Soviet officials who defected in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the resources devoted to active measures actually increased substantially during this period, contrary to the popular perception that these types of activities had virtually disappeared. From the Soviet viewpoint, this was entirely natural. If reliance on military power was to be lessened, political methods for making Soviet influence felt in the world had to be bolstered, and this is precisely what occurred. Many Western observers failed to perceive this fact because, as Soviet active measures operations became less anti-Western and instead more conciliatory or alarmist, the new themes fit more closely with Western perceptions of the world, making it much more difficult for Westerners to distinguish between genuine and disingenuous actions.

Second, the Soviets have always used the concept of the "main adversary" or "main enemy" to guide their conduct in foreign affairs. After 1945, following the defeat of Nazi Germany, the Soviets considered the United States to be the USSR's "main adversary," which automatically made it the primary target of a wide variety of hostile active measures operations. During the late 1980s, when Soviet leaders were undertaking extraordinarily difficult and risky reforms in their effort to refurbish the Soviet ability to compete with the West, they no longer could afford to engage in an overtly hostile anti-American policy. Although the United States remained the USSR's main adversary, many active measures operations took on a conciliatory tone, as the "main adversary" was disingenuously courted as a prospective "main partner." Crude, anti-American disinformation was dramatically scaled back, so as not to antagonize the United States, and much more conciliatory, although not always more truthful, themes and messages were substituted.

Furthermore, as the Soviet political system underwent democratization, long-suppressed domestic political opponents began to pose challenges to the communist ruling elite. By 1990, it must have appeared, in Soviet eyes, that the independent democratic and nationalist forces in the USSR had become one of the CPSU's new "major adversaries," along with the United States and NATO. As the harsh "administrative measures" of the totalitarian past were discarded as instruments of internal political control, Soviet leaders placed-increasing reliance on active measures and disinformation as ways to outmaneuver and defeat their domestic political rivals. Thus, the "post-Cold War" era gave birth to a whole new arena of active measures and disinformation operations within the USSR. But precisely because they concerned internal Soviet matters, the details of which were often not known or verifiable in the West, it was often very difficult for Westerners to discern when the Soviet authorities were being truthful or deceitful on such matters.

Finally, as the specter of the disintegration of the Soviet political system began to emerge as an increasingly real possibility from 1990 onward, Soviet disinformation and active measures operations naturally took advantage of concerns in the West about the unpredictable effects that such a course of events might have in an effort to forestall this eventuality. Soviet active measures themes became increasingly alarmist in tone, with predictions of supposedly apocalyptic events that would accompany the removal of Gorbachev or the disintegration of the Soviet Union reaching a crescendo just before both events occurred in December 1991.

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