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


During the "post-Cold War" era, the Soviets used a wide variety of conciliatory, derogatory, alarmist, and other active measures themes - whatever they believed would work best in influencing their target audiences to take actions advantageous to the USSR.

Perhaps the most difficult task when analyzing active measures operations is to gauge their effectiveness. Soviet active measures were such an integral part of that nation's foreign policy operations and so broad in scope and intended effect, that it is impossible to rigorously isolate their effects with any degree of precision. But broadly speaking, they seem to have been effective in influencing foreign opinion. one recent article in Moscow News (issue number 14, 1992) provides some anecdotal evidence of this. It was written by Jim Doran, an American now living in Moscow. He stated:

Having lived in Moscow for just over one year now, I have had a unique opportunity to compare what was being said in the West about the former USSR with the reality that I have experienced on the streets each day. Unfortunately, there has often been a huge gap between the two.

...our Western analysis of the former USSR was beset by three broad misconceptions. The first, of course, was an immense overconcentration on the role of Gorbachev and a concomitant overglorification of the man. Much of Western thinking was so centered on Gorbachev that it failed to notice, as Hedrick Smith observes in The New Russians, that by mid-1989, Gorbachev had been overtaken by events and had ceased to be the main propellant for change in this society. It thus failed to appreciate the rise of Boris Yeltsin, noting only his character faults and completely ignoring the fact that on all the bread and butter issues, Yeltsin was clearly a more desirable leader than Gorbachev for both the Russians and the West.

The second misconception was that the USSR was a real country; that its existence was justified and that therefore its break-up was something to be avoided. The Soviet Union has been with us so long that many of us forgot that it was nothing more than the last European empire; an artificial, coerced entity, the majority of whose constituent parts wanted out.

The third misconception ... was that the Soviet people could do no better than reform communism. "They are just not ready for democracy" or "they should be satisfied with Gorbachev," many of our observers seemed to be saying. I have always found such thinking insulting and all the more so after having lived with the Russians.

It is perhaps more than coincidental that the beliefs in the West that Doran found to be the most mistaken about the USSR coincide, in large part, with the most important Soviet active measures campaigns of the "post-cold War" era, as described by former KGB major Mikhail Butkov, who defected to the West in May 1991. The December 15, 1991 issue of the British newspaper The Independent described Butkov and the active measures campaigns he helped run during 1989 to 1991:

After 10 years in the KGB, two of them on active service in a NATO capital, Major Butkov had decided he could better serve his country by defecting. The "discrepancies," as he describes them, between the publicly-stated reformist policies of Mikhail Gorbachev and the realities of an unreconstructed intelligence network bent on keeping the Communist Party in power were what prompted his decision.

...He told his debriefers about the dirty tricks used by the KGB on behalf of the Gorbachev regime as late as the spring of this year (1991) to try to undermine Boris Yeltsin and other key opposition figures.

...Their main task from the late 1980s was to blacken the names of Mr. Gorbachev's opponents and, through disinformation, to persuade the West to back him.

He spent ... three years at the KGB's Andropov Institute in Moscow. "These were the times of perestroika. But nevertheless we were taught that we were the Party's political warriors and should be proud of it."

...By the late 1980s some of the more extreme tactics of the old KGB were redundant. Department 8 of the Directorate S - the special assassination unit - had been dormant for more than a decade. The chief role of the KGB became and remained, even as late as this year, to attack internal opponents of the Gorbachev regime.

On the political front, the KGB stations were under orders to destabilize the opposition. Those around Mr. Yeltsin were to be quietly accused of taking money from the CIA, while the Lithuanian president, Vytautas Landsbergis, was marked down for "active measures" to portray him as a "member of the Mafia, a profiteer, an incompetent, ambitious megalomaniac with dictatorial tendencies." "On the strength of such directives, we would arrange meetings with sources and pass this information on," Mr. Butkov said.

Other active measures involved spreading the idea in the West that Gorbachev's disappearance and the break-up of the Soviet Union would lead to the creation of a number of aggressive republics with uncontrolled access to nuclear weapons. Mr. Butkov observes: "In his appeals to the West, Gorbachev used all the arguments that we were ordered to plant."

The era of Soviet active measures is gone forever, now relegated to history. But active measures operations continue, on the part of other totalitarian regimes and groups, extremist, anti-Western states, some Soviet successor regimes, and states in extremis.

The propensity of Soviet successor states to use the manipulative and deceptive techniques of active measures will depend to a large degree on the extent to which they act as what might be called "post-totalitarians," i.e., those whose ethics, habits, and methods of operation have been shaped in a totalitarian tradition and who continue to operate according to these rules of behavior. Hopefully, this will be a diminishing phenomenon and those who consciously repudiate and reject totalitarian methods will gain greater power and influence in the former USSR. The more influence that genuine democrats have in a Soviet successor regime, the less likely it is that it will engage in active measures.

Russia is a special case, because it has inherited the vast bulk of the assets of the Soviet active measures apparatus, by virtue of its central position within the former USSR. This alone will lead to the temptation to use these assets. But probably more important is the extent to which the Russian government, at all levels, is governed by genuine democrats or those who continue the totalitarian tradition in form, if not in its previous communist content.

As in the past, active measures will focus on the tasks of primary importance to the states that run them. For the USSR, this task was weakening the "main enemy," the United States, and increasing support for Soviet policies in the international arena.

Russia and the other CIS states have much different priorities. Their main tasks are, broadly speaking, to consolidate power at home, evolve advantageous relations with their CIS neighbors, and to win as much economic aid and assistance as possible on the most favorable terms. Active measures by CIS states are therefore most likely to be concentrated on achieving these goals. Thus, just as the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service now appears to be concentrating on economic and technological espionage, Russian active measures operations aimed at the West and the world community would likely focus heavily on improving Russian access to foreign funds and technology. But Russian concerns are not merely economic. For example, according to an ITAR-TASS report on May 8, 1992, then-acting Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev had told Russian military leaders that one of his primary tasks was to coordinate efforts with Russian military industry in developing advanced high accuracy weapons based on "new principles." Both espionage and active measures operations would logically be designed to help achieve this important Russian national goal.

Given the nature of the main tasks that the CIS states face in the immediate future - survival, consolidation, and revival - there is little reason for the active measures of Russia or other CIS states to be predominately anti-American in tone, as was the case during the Cold War era. They are more likely to be conciliatory, alarmist, or simply diversionary - whatever will work in order to achieve their economic, political, military, and other goals.

As long as foreign governments and groups continue to use active measures and disinformation campaigns to try to manipulate and deceive foreign governments and publics, there will be a need on the part of the U.S. government to monitor and analyze these activities, in order to try to separate fact from fiction, distinguish between genuine and disingenuous proposals, and to expose and counter cynically launched campaigns that are either openly anti-American or otherwise inimical to U.S. interests.

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