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What the Catalonian independence vote and the Las Vegas massacre have in common

Both events fit neatly into Russia’s take on life in the West.

Catalonians holding up ballot sheets outside a polling station for the banned independence referendum in Barcelona on Oct. 1.
REUTERS/Susana Vera

The mass shooting in Las Vegas, continuing investigation of Russian meddling in last year’s U.S. election and the vote in Catalonia for independence from Spain all fit neatly into Russia’s take on life in the West.

Think of the case you’d make if you were looking at world events this week from Moscow. The West really is wild. Western Europe and the U.S. are chaotic, sometimes dangerous places where impulses go unchecked. The exception is when the desires of average people threaten the rich and powerful – and the political order they want to impose on the rest of the world.

Even if your critique was essentially self-serving and didn’t hold up in the end, you might well raise a few doubts. You’d also reinforce your own self-image. While Russia may be portrayed here as an authoritarian state, the country sees itself differently — as a bulwark of traditional values and order. 

Some analysts go so far as to say that the current conflict between Russia and the West amounts to a new kind of war, one defined by Washington’s hope to extend Western values and institutions — and Russia’s determination to resist. Sore spots like Crimea, Syria or the 2016 U.S. election are more effects than causes.

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The European and U.S. security experts cited in this Politico piece were preoccupied with Russia, and argued that tearing down the West is Vladimir Putin’s preferred strategy for staying in power. He does have vulnerabilities, and he faces another round of protests on Saturday. But the weaker, more disorganized and self-serving Washington, London and Berlin are portrayed, the less attractive they are likely to be to Russian citizens, most of whom had quite enough chaos after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This also gives Putin more room to maneuver on the world stage.

But how to go about this campaign? A 4-year-old Russian military document, the so-called “Gerasimov Doctrine,” argues non-military means may prove to be the most effective way of achieving Russia’s goals. Even as it rebuilds its army and navy, there is no way Russia can match the military might of the U.S. and its allies.

Among its weapons is information, and now it’s not hard to see why Russia might have messed around in the U.S. election. Even if it didn’t actually plan to — and didn’t — help Donald Trump win the presidency, creating doubts and division in the U.S. would be a win for Russia. 

Both Americans and Russians widely used disinformation during the Cold War. But the internet has presented Russia with a golden opportunity. 

Details of phony Russia ads and news reports are still trickling out (although here is a grab bag of five of them). They show that Moscow’s intelligence agencies probably understand Americans better than we understand ourselves — at least the part of the U.S. population that can’t be bothered to parse fact from fiction. Officially, as far as Russia’s concerned, the whole investigation is just another case of pointing fingers instead of facing up to your own dysfunction.

But if a chaotic, anything-goes internet is a defining feature of 21st-century life in America, why not take advantage? With some understanding and audacity, it’s pretty easy to manipulate different groups with contradictory messages.

Putin quickly condemned the Las Vegas shooting as an act “shocking in its cruelty,” and official Russian media largely appear to have played the story straight. Not so much the far-right fringe websites that share an echo chamber with Russian disinformation efforts.

In any case, the Las Vegas tragedy serves as another example of how chaotic life in the U.S. is, and how self-serving its politicians are. Beholden to special interests — here it’s the gun lobby — politicians won’t regulate something clearly dangerous to many citizens. Instead, an individual is free to buy up dozens of guns and modify them for maximum killing capacity before opening fire on concert goers. In the information war, Russia can largely allow the massacre in Las Vegas to speak for itself.

Not so with the Catalonia referendum. For Russia, Spain’s effort to prevent the vote is nothing more than Western hypocrisy. On the day after the referendum, the main news page of RT, Russia’s news organization aimed at foreign audiences, carried 11 items – seven of them about Catalonia. They included headlines such as: “Has Spain reverted to Franco-style military dictatorship?”

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(RT also does snark pretty well. It has been running an online poll that asks: “So what will meddling, cheating, bullying bad-boy Russia be accused of next?” The possible answers are “Starting the U.S. opioid epidemic,” “Barraging the Americas with hurricanes,” “Inventing homophobia and white supremacy,” or “Existing.” For the record, “Existing” seems to be in the lead.)

The point of this for Russia is that the U.S. and its allies have no problem supporting political protest aimed at upsetting the established order inside Russia or somewhere like Ukraine – which Russia regards as an essential to its sphere of influence. When it threatens Western countries, however, it’s another matter.

Ukraine is not Russia. Western societies, for all their flaws, are more democratic than Russia. Still, in an uncertain age, there is a case to be made. The Russians are more than happy to make it.