Ivana Stradner and Jason Smart

Vladimir Putin, a spy, now confronting ongoing military losses on the Ukrainian battlefield, is not being a military man capable of devising a path forward, and thus his natural inclination is to turn to his black bag of hybrid tricks to weaken Ukraine and fracture its Western backers.

Putin, to divide the West, sows fear and discord, which generates protests, which he calculates will halt the West’s support for Ukraine out of fear of causing World War III, or due to domestic chaos in his adversaries' cities.

Marching across dozens of capitals, thousands of protestors have taken part in celebrating the terrorist attack on Israel while demanding a cease-fire in Gaza. Anti-Israel activists are regularly caught tearing down posters of Israelis kidnapped by Hamas. Universities have seen gross violations of students’ rights as they are chided for their ethnic heritage. But is all of this truly “spontaneous”?

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Last week, in France, buildings graffitied with Stars of David caused an uproar. However, perhaps this story illustrates something worth noting: French authorities now are investigating whether this vandalism was, in fact, a page from the Russian spies’ playbook: The painters, who were caught, have said that someone with a Russian accent offered them cash to do the dirty deed. Was this a Russian active measures operation?

Evan Gershkovich: Determined US Journalist in Russian Prison
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Evan Gershkovich: Determined US Journalist in Russian Prison

Russia has provided no public evidence for the charges against Gershkovich, saying only that he spied on a tank factory in the Urals region.

Russia’s belief that “a house divided cannot stand” remains strong, and so Russia has spent decades working to divide the West along ethnic, religious, and social lines.

In the past, during the Civil Rights movement, not out of a support for his cause, but a desire to further divide Americans, the Soviet Union sought to recruit Martin Luther King, Jr. as an agent; when he did not comply, the Soviet Union actively undermined his cause in the US. Decades later, the USSR concocted disinformation that AIDS and HIV were developed as bioweapons to pit different segments of society against each other. Russian state media, trolls, and online proxies have been exploiting disagreements over social issues like abortion, gun control, ethnic groups, religion, racism or police discrimination to incite social chaos in the United States and push divisive narratives of “us” vs “them” among Americans.

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Current efforts to thwart Russia fall short, partially because the West does not comprehend the exigency at hand.

In response to the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel, as widespread protests for- or against- Israel broke out, Russia was over-the-moon by how distracted the West has become and knows full well that it was the moment to play its Ace card of polarization: weaponizing antisemitism.

The irony, of course, is that Russia has long been a bastion of antisemitism. The Russian intelligence service’s use of antisemitism dates back centuries; From Catherine the Great’s 1791 order to keep Jews on the Pale Settlements, to a century later spreading the fictional Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Vladimir Lenin, in 1914, acknowledged that “No other nationality in Russia is so oppressed and persecuted as the Jews.” However, the victory of Lenin’s communism over Tsarist rule led to a new chapter of hardships for the then-Soviet Jewry.

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The Soviet KGB actively worked on measures to prevent refuseniki, Soviet Jews seeking to emigrate to Israel, from leaving the Soviet Union and kept an eye on the enforcement of the quota used to prevent Jews from studying at institutions of higher education.

Most recently, hundreds of antisemitic rioters stormed the Makhachkala Airport in the Dagestan Republic. People in the mob shouted slurs and accosted people at the airport, demanding that they show their passport to verify their nationality as not being Israelis. However, like the Stars of David painted on buildings in France, it has become clear that Russian authorities may have had a hand in arousing the disturbance.

After the melee subsided, in the traditional Russian tactic of playing the victim whilst perpetrating the crime, Moscow not only denied responsibility for the airport rampage, but quickly blamed the West and Ukraine for using information warfare against Russia. Putin was so presumptuous as to say that “The events in Makhachkala last night were inspired also through social networks, not least from the territory of Ukraine, by the hands of agents of Western special services.”

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A resurgent Russia, doubling-down on its antics to topple the West by turning fellow-citizens into sworn-enemies, it is time to act with reciprocity. Sergey Naryshkin, Head of Russia’s Foreign intelligence Service (SVR), emphasized that the West supports “separatist terrorist structures calling for subversion of the Russian state order and violation of its territorial integrity.” If Moscow believes we are already doing this: Then let’s do it.

The collective West should act now, both offensively and defensively, to put Russia on its heels. Defensively, we must inoculate the world’s nations as to the Moscow-origins of the recent spike of antisemitism and make clear that only our enemies win through this dangerous unruliness. Likewise, offensively, it is time to prioritize information campaigns targeted on people in Russia, as to how their government is manipulating them with cheap, emotionally charged content, for its own purposes. We must push Russians to demand a change – and to ferment the local desire to take the reins of power in the Kremlin.

Rather than continuing to allow Putin to wage asymmetric psychological warfare almost entirely unchecked, the West should make Putin understand that he is playing with fire by continuing to create instability and division across the West.

The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.

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