Russian interference and the West: Learning from ‘The Lands in Between’

Mitchell Orenstein argues that politics in countries situated between Russia and the European Union can hold powerful lessons for Western countries affected by Russian interference.

Person holding microphone sitting in blue wing-backed chair looks at another person sitting in a blue wing-backed chair who is speaking into a microphone
Mitchell Orenstein, professor and chair of Russian and East European Studies, left, listens to Russian Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov speak in this file photo from April 30, 2019. In a Penn Lightbulb Cafe talk on Wednesday, Orenstein discussed his new book project, which contends that politics in countries situated between Russia and the European Union can hold powerful lessons for Western countries. (Image: Eric Sucar)

Russian interference, from Ukraine to the United States, has forced citizens in the West to face the problems of election hacking, state-sponsored disinformation campaigns, and influence operations by foreign security services.

In a Penn Lightbulb Cafe talk, Mitchell Orenstein, professor and chair of Russian and East European Studies, argued that politics in the U.S. and other Western nations is becoming more and more like politics in Ukraine, Belarus, and other countries that lie between Russia and the European Union.

These “lands in between” hold powerful lessons for Western countries, he said.

“We’re now enmeshed in the same conflicts, essentially,” he said. “These countries are canaries in the coal mine, and they can show us why all the confusing and crazy things that are happening in our politics seem to be happening.”

It’s a topic Orenstein is explores in his current book, “The Lands in Between: Russia vs. the West and the New Politics of Hybrid War.”

Orenstein described to the audience in Center City’s Suzanne Roberts Theatre his theories about why Russia feels threatened by the West, how Russia has reacted, and the effects those reactions have had on targeted nations.

At a fundamental level, what Russia really wants is to neutralize what it perceives as threatening Western institutions, Orenstein said. In particular it wants to undermine the EU and NATO and it wants to split the U.S. from its European allies and replace the United States in Europe.

It wants to turn the world public opinion against the U.S. and be treated as a great power, he said.

Democracy for Russian President Vladimir Putin “is a really bad thing,” he said. “He’s particularly worried that a democratic revolution, like what has happened in Ukraine in the past, would be a direct threat to his regime. He feels that he could be pushed out of power by a democratic revolution,” Orenstein argued.

Russia began to strike back at this “existential threat” from the West in about 2007, Orenstein contends, but rather than use traditional military means, it has relied on asymmetric warfare: computer hacking, information warfare, covert financing of political parties in Europe and the U.S., and recruitment of other governments within the EU to voice Russia’s positions.

Most Americans are familiar with the allegations of computer hacking and the social media infiltration thanks to the Mueller report, Orenstein said, so he wanted to highlight Russia’s financing of right wing, conservative, and fascist parties. He cited Russian loans to Marine Le Pen’s Front National campaign in France, donations to conservatives in the United Kingdom who were pro-Brexit, and the U.S presidential and congressional elections in 2016.

How such tactics affect a country’s politics, he argued, can be seen very clearly in countries like Moldova and Belarus. They’re very vulnerable to Russian influence, but they see their economic future more in line with Europe, leaving the population deeply divided.

He said the paradox is that the people who rise to the top in highly divided societies are often people who aren’t on one side or the other. He gave as examples Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, who appeals to pro-Europe and pro-Russian sides, and Hungary’s Viktor Orban, whose country is a member of the EU while he himself is very close to Russia, accepting loans for big projects.

Politics in the U.S. and the West has become more polarized as a result of Russian interference, Orenstein contended, and he sees these types of political characters starting to emerge in the West, too, people “who don’t necessarily seem to be on our side nor do they seem to be on Russia’s side,” he said.

“This is a hard concept to explain in a country where every Sunday millions of Americans get together around their television sets and watch a football game where they are rooting very heavily for one team or the other,” he said. “I think that behavior really confounds Americans.”