Right-Wing Authoritarians Are Waging A Hybrid War On Democracy

Members of the Radical Right are allying with authoritarian regimes like Russia to undermine the liberal world order as we know it.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and U.S. President Donald Trump give a joint news conference at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, on Monday, July 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and U.S. President Donald Trump give a joint news conference at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, on Monday, July 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Dr. Chamila Liyanage is a Policy and Practitioner Fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR) and a Researcher/Content Developer at Radical-R: Radicalisation Research, UK.

Civilizations tend to exist either in a state of war or peace. Clausewitz reminds us that war is none other than “the continuation of politics by other means”. However, war does not stay the same; it changes, evolves, and grows depending on the context and time period it’s situated in.

One person to examine the evidence regarding a changing character of war in the late 1980s was William S. Lind. He discerned a change in the evolution of war from a third to fourth-generation. Third generation warfare was characterized by maneuver warfare and military confrontations involving air, sea, and land battles. World War II is an example of a third-generation war. Lind’s Fourth Generation Warfare thesis (4GW) explains a form of war, but not as we know it: the Battlefield, he said, is: “likely to include the whole of … society … [;] the distinction between war and peace will be blurred to the vanishing point [;] the distinction between ‘civilian’ and ‘military’ may disappear.”

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4GW explains the character of conflicts since the end of the 20th century. With these changes, subversion came to the forefront of contemporary conflicts, and became a way of undermining democracies by targeting their strengths, values, principles, rules, and conventions. It is a fundamental threat similar to cutting the blood vessels of a system: it weakens citizens’ values and unravels social cohesion. Simply put, if there is no one to believe in liberal democratic ideals or if too many people doubt them, liberal democracies cannot be sustained in practice. This is why democratic values and principles become the key targets of subversion.

After Lind’s 4GW thesis, strategists (Colin Gray, Max Boot, Frank Hoffman, John Arquilla, T.X. Hammes) identified what they describe as a shift towards a Fifth Generation Warfare such as Hybrid Warfare. This discussion started to appear in the field of War Studies in around 1997–98. Hybrid warfare creates opportunities to undermine liberal democracies and advance an authoritarian ethos in its place. This context also explains some of the drivers behind the rise of a global radical right discourse. It is necessary to understand the current geopolitical forces that play an unabating role in bringing back the pre-war ghosts of the radical right from their long slumber in the political margins and into the centers of power, as we’ve seen in Austria, Hungary, Italy & Poland.

How This Hybrid Warfare Began

Core values of the post-war liberal world order were established through “blood, toil, tears, and sweat,” as famously told by then Prime Minister Winston Churchill depicting the reality of World War II. Many forget that humanity walked through ancient empires where headhunting and gladiatorial battles were accepted as the norm. That is the difference between authoritarian and liberal value systems.

Currently, the ethos of liberalism and nationalism are at loggerheads mainly due to liberal values sustained by an exponential rise of global interconnectedness. Globalization left many marginal communities and social segments behind: namely, the deprived and the unskilled who take comfort in what is old and familiar. This provided the right-wing parties with a base to organize themselves as defenders of the nation-state, and of racial and religious identities. As Baylis explains, globalization has weakened the “national forms of identity”. In return, the post-soviet Russia stepped in introducing itself as the protector of traditional values. With Russia vying for global influence, hybrid efforts – between liberalism and authoritarianism – are in full swing with the aim of undermining liberal democracies.

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Russia’s Multi-Faceted War On Liberal Democracies

Based on this background, this article raises a specific question: does hybrid warfare play a role in the global rise of the radical right? If yes, what is the evidence? First, what is hybrid warfare?

Hybrid warfare refers to any number of measures that bring the fight to society and its networks. If used by authoritarian states, these measures can include: cultivating social and political alliances within democracies, manipulating public opinion, creating a climate in which politicians with extreme agendas can come to power, creating divisions that undermine social cohesion, misinformation campaigns, cyber warfare, spreading conspiracy theories to confuse the public, promoting emotive politics, and attempting to destabilize democracies by weakening their citizens’ trust in the political system amongst others.

As the evidence shows, Russia’s cozying up to Europe’s radical right parties is an open secret. Marine Le Pen’s National Front (now National Rally) was bankrolled by Russia in 2014. Alternative for Germany’s (AfD) nativist and anti-European ideology made them partner with Russia as it sought to network with European populist parties. This alliance led the AfD leader, Alexander Gauland, to meet Kremlin-backed neo-fascist ideologue Aleksandr Dugin, who propagates a vision for the renaissance of a Eurasian empire against Western liberal values. Matteo Salvini’s Northern League, now the ruling party in Italy, was investigated for alleged negotiation with Russia to procure funds. In Austria, Sebastian Kurtz’s coalition government collapsed due to the coalition partner, far-right Freedom Party of Austria’s (FPÖ) alleged links with Russia. The evidence suggests that Russia actively seeks to cultivate radical right parties in Europe.

Evidence also shows that Russia interfered in the 2016 US presidential election, and the Trump Campaign was receptive to their help. The conspiracy narratives such as QAnon and Pizzagate spread like wildfires online. Moreover, the evidence shows that Russian troll accounts and bots engaged in harvesting hashtags to create mass hysteria with the aim of weakening public trust in the US political system. Hacker groups, such as Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear, have been alleged to be operated by Russian intelligence. Hacker Guccifer 2.0, which targeted US government figures, also had Russian links.

Alex Jones’ InfoWar, the subversive media outlet that spreads misinformation, once hosted Alexandr Dugin, the brains behind new-found Russian nationalism. According to Matthew Heimbach, “Putin is the leader … of the anti-globalist forces around the world”. It seems that, after languishing in the ideological void created by the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia found its mission on the world stage as the protector of traditional values against freedoms espoused by neoliberals and progressives. This mission, without doubt, aims to divide and set differences alight. One such example is the uproar that Russia directed at the transgender Eurovision contestant, Conchita Wurst, creating a hostile climate against LGBTQ identities. Moreover, the EU’s Chief Parliamentary Brexit lead, Guy Verhofstadt, has also presented evidence for “a broader hybrid war that Russia is waging against the West”.

All evidence suggests that Russia engages in hybrid warfare efforts by cultivating the Western radical right in a web-like multi-channel operation to subvert the foundational values of Western liberal democracies. However, it can be argued that Russia is only exploiting a wave of opportunities that fell into its lap. At times of great social transformations, degenerate forces have always tried to exploit the survival instincts of people, creating a culture of fear. Only history can witness whether such archaic forces will succeed in a contest between fear and reason. For our own sakes, one can only hope that that the latter succeeds.

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News // Authoritarianism / CARR / Donald Trump / Radical Right / Russia