It’s a name you need to know, if for no other reason that it works so well. A Cold War innovation from behind the Iron Curtain that has found new life. Unlike that other enduring socialist innovation of mass famine (which really is only possible with lots of central planning) Zersetzung can be exported. And boy is it.
For all our focus on China – Russia is missing the love: Its glory days are over. Without that mountainous Eastern Bloc buffer-zone, its borders are wide open – far too wide to defend with the army it’s got. Given the drug-addled demographics of the place, increasing its army, or working age population, may be a lost cause. It has some nukes saved for a final act – but it would be the final act. Vladimir Putin doesn’t like this.
At the risk of oversimplifying – Putin isn’t part of the problem, he is the problem. The aging fan-boy of the hero-spies of an old empire whose lights have largely gone out. But not completely. Zersetzung offers a handy tool for the dictator of an empire past its sell-by date to make itself obvious.
It’s a German word – generally translated into English as “decomposition” – used by East German secret police, the Stasi, for a form of psychological warfare. The aim being to cause opposition groups to decompose or corrode by malicious external forces. As a young KGB officer, Putin was not in the middle of things in East Berlin, but stationed in the GDR at the Dresden desk, collecting to the endless heaps of clipping and reports young intelligence officers stockpiled to justify their existence. Putin was no spy-master, understand, he was more a fan of them. And other than the Big Man’s feel for oily and violent politics, disinformation – Zusammenwirken or the application of Zersetzung – is Vladimir Putin’s only real skill in a fight.
AFTER A JUNE 1953 popular uprising in East Berlin – violently put-down by Soviet troops – the Stasi relied on the typical physical repression to keep opposition groups in line. By the late 60’s – and you can credit it to television as much as anything else – the GDR wanted to cast itself in a kinder, gentler light. Brutalizing an opposition group just looked bad – and unless you wiped it out in one try, tended to strengthen the groups resolve. Better then, to develop tactics to facilitate the “decomposition” of a group via paranoia, distrust and rumor. Which is exactly what the Stasi did.
While they worked at the behest of the Soviets, the East Germans were masters of the craft. If, for example, the Soviets want to drive a wedge between the US and its Western European allies with a faked US State Department nuclear weapons report – a wildly aggressive one that triggers worst-fear scenarios that America is gunning for a final showdown: It would be highly suspicions if the leaker is Russian. Even if you did get around that, there are translation problems – not just technically, but idiomatically.
All of those issues were side-stepped if you whip up the reports, or at least German translations of them (plausible because of the US presence in West Germany), and “leak” them to West German papers without any translation or idiomatic hurdles. Then story will spread from one concerned Western ally to another – through a free press. First, France, then its picked up by the British and Italian press. The trick is to fake documents that have an element of truth to them – or are even mostly true. Then, even if the supporting documents are exposed as fakes, it hardly matters, the rumor has taken root with that tiny seed of truth in it.
This is the grim tactical beauty of Zersetzung – unlike most sabotage efforts, it really doesn’t matter if the operation is exposed during or after its active life – certainly not in the age of the internet. The mere fact that it happened at all sews paranoia and fear through the target group that saps both confidence and will.
WHICH BRINGS US back to the weirdly named Fancy Bear operations running amok in the 2016 election cycle: Yes, Russian hackers broke into databases of the two political parties that matter. Then, hackers leaked the information of only one of the parties, leading to speculation that the other was in the pocket of foreign actors. After that, the outside influence doesn’t have to do too much before social media started churning out hyper-partisan click-bait.
Perversely, the fact that most of America seemed to know that most of what they were seeing was at least partly faked did not blunt the effectiveness of the campaign. It actually amplified it. It triggered national handwringing and non-stop news headlines over how we can’t trust anything we see or read (save the one doing the report just them). Being human, it was always the smart bet that only half of the 2016 lesson would be learned: We’ll still believe what we want to believe. And if there is a kernel of truth about a group we don’t like, then humans will believe the whole story. If there is approvable falsehood in a mostly true story about a group we love, then the whole story is rendered false.
A bit off-sides as tactics go, but it’s hard to argue its effectiveness against humans, so it’s here to stay. As for defenses, what do you do but try to think things through. If I have a personal beef, it isn’t mith social media – a hundred years ago we still had mass scares, they just came out of bars and church - but the establishment press, you guys should know better.
C’mon, it’s your only job.