Small Wars Journal

Modern Russian Statecraft: Neither New nor Hybrid, Part One

Sun, 12/12/2021 - 9:45am

Modern Russian Statecraft: Neither New nor Hybrid, Part One

By Philip Wasielewski


The current national security elites of the Russian Federation, most having a background in the security services, are inheritors of a Soviet tradition of coercive statecraft[1] and in many cases former practitioners of its darker aspects. Trained in what the Soviets called active measures – propaganda, disinformation, and subversion - they were educated in the history of the Communist Party and the Soviet intelligence services. It is therefore not surprising that there are echoes of the past in their present conduct. We should understand this background to appreciate what has formed their outlook towards relations with states they consider hostile.

When the Bolsheviks took power in October 1917, they were no ordinary political party. Their first step to power was an armed coup and their next step was to win a bloody civil war to secure that power and spread a messianic ideology. Their party had been born as an underground organization designed to survive the massive police intelligence system that protected the autocratic rule of the Tsars. Its members used bank robberies to sustain their movement, secret printing presses to spread their word, and various tools of clandestine tradecraft – safehouses, disguises, alias identities and documents, etc. – to protect themselves. From the beginning, the party’s membership in Russia consisted of experienced clandestine operators willing to kill for an idea. They were hard men, and some hard women, but also a bit naïve about the rest of the world even though many had been exiled for years outside of Russia.

When Lev Trotsky was appointed as the first Commissar of Foreign Affairs in November 1917 his attitude towards diplomatic work was, “I shall issue a few revolutionary proclamations to the peoples and then close up shop.”[2]  Since the party had taken power by subverting the army and mobilizing the masses via propaganda, their leaders believed, and their Communist ideology told them, that their success could be quickly replicated.  Such was their belief that when their first diplomatic delegation arrived at Brest-Litovsk for talks with the Germans, they showered the soldiers at the train station with revolutionary pamphlets and made inflammatory revolutionary speeches during negotiations.[3]  Fortunately for the Bolsheviks, they were saved from the onerous provisions of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk by the defeat of the German Army on the Western front in 1918, but by that time they were fully engaged in the Russian civil war.

The Comintern

Even at the lowest point of their fortunes in the civil war, the Bolsheviks believed in the possibility, or more precisely the necessity, of a world-wide proletarian revolution. Per Marxist doctrine, it should start in Germany, which in 1919 was experiencing many of the same circumstances that brought the October Revolution. To support world revolution, Lenin created the Communist International or Comintern in March 1919. Its first Congress in Moscow was barely attended but put a basic structure in place for Moscow to clandestinely support Communist movements worldwide. The year 1919 did not bring expected success with the failure of the German Communists to seize power and the crushing of a short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic that the Comintern had supported with armed personnel and financial aid.[4] 

The next year initially dawned brighter for world revolution as the Red Army defeated its White Russian opponents and advanced towards Warsaw. Lenin and other Bolsheviks now pinned their hopes for the expansion of Communism on the bayonets of the Red Army. As Soviet forces neared Warsaw, the Comintern held a much better attended Second Congress, which adopted a set of twenty-one conditions for membership of Communist parties in the Comintern. One condition was that all parties must have both an underground as well as legal presence and their activities would be directed by an Executive Committee located in Moscow. As scholar Adam Ulam noted, “The Twenty-One Conditions made it clear that the Communist movement was an open conspiracy against every government outside that of the Soviet Union.”[5]  Former KGB General Oleg Gordievsky put it even more succinctly when he noted that the Comintern Executive Committee considered itself, “the general staff of world revolution.”[6]  It was this organization, more than Soviet intelligence, that was to direct the majority of propaganda and subversive operations for Moscow’s benefit for almost a quarter of a century.

One of the Comintern’s first acts was to incite labor strikes to stop or slow the shipment of military aid to the Poles facing the Red Army. However, the Red Army was defeated in front of Warsaw and forced to retreat eastward until the Treaty of Riga in March 1921 established the Soviet Union’s border with Poland and ended dreams of spreading revolution into Germany via military means. The Red Army was able to spread Communism into the Caucasus, first in April 1920 when it moved into Baku to support a coup by the Azerbaijani Bolshevik Party and next in February 1921 to support an uprising in Georgia by Armenian and Russian minority groups, which declared a Soviet republic and asked for Moscow’s assistance. The Red Army marched into Armenia in April 1921 after a Bolshevik government took power in December 1920.[7]  In 1921, the Red Army would also throw the White Army out of Mongolia and establish it as a Soviet satellite till the end of the Cold War.


            Within the first three years of the Bolshevik regime, a pattern was set for the use of multiple tools of statecraft in its attempt to overthrow governments or support Moscow’s requirements. These tools were military, diplomatic, and subversive via the Comintern, which utilized labor unrest, propaganda, financial aid, and armed men to support foreign communist party actions. This was not lost on the statesmen of the time.  Winston Churchill in his book The World Crisis observed: “The Bolsheviks do not work only by military operations, but simultaneously or alternatively with these, they employ every device of propaganda in their neighbors’ territories …   generally, to destroy every existing form of social order and of democratic government.”[8]

            Bolshevik foreign policy was both practical and philosophical:  survive, be recognized, and see its ideology conquer the world. However, survival was paramount as the new state was threatened on multiple fronts. By early 1921, famine was killing millions, the Tambov and Basmachi revolts had gained hundreds of thousands of armed supporters, sailors had mutinied at Kronstadt, the economy was in shambles, and over a million White Russians were now living in exile and could serve as a formidable army if the Western powers decided to intervene again.

Therefore, Soviet foreign policy was bifurcated into gaining recognition as a normal state to conduct trade and receive financial credits from the West while making sure it would not unite to intervene in Russia with its armies or White Russian exiles. One of the ways to ensure the latter was to continue the efforts of the Comintern to subvert Western democracies, especially Great Britain, which Moscow saw as its greatest threat. These foreign policy goals were at odds with each other, and this would lead to many foreign disasters in the 1920s.

In March 1921, Comintern-inspired unrest in Saxony, in which the German Communist Party (KPD) called for strikes and initiated riots, was crushed by the German army. A similar uprising failed in Hamburg in October 1923 when the Comintern hoped to take advantage of popular discontent over the French occupation of the Ruhr and use a KPD paramilitary force to seize power. For the latter attempt, the Comintern had invited members of the British, French, Czech, and other Communist parties to Germany to “observe and learn” how an uprising was done.[9] 

In April 1924, the Estonian Communist Party began work on a plan to demoralize the army with propaganda, start a general strike, seize the government with its own paramilitary force (reinforced with Soviet military intelligence officers in mufti), and call for the “fraternal assistance” of the Red Army. When it initiated this plan on December 1, 1924, the coup attempt lasted one day before being suppressed and Soviet forces on the border and at sea were left without an excuse to intervene. In September 1923, a Communist uprising in Bulgaria was suppressed after a week of fighting, at which time the party changed its tactics to assassinations and terror. After a major terror bombing against government officials in April 1925, the Bulgarian government crushed the party, arresting 3,000 of its members and hanging three.[10]

Subversion was not limited to violent measures but persuasive ones as well. The Comintern worked through various media to spread propaganda, gain recruits, and subtly influence like-minded persons. The master of Comintern influence operations was KDP deputy chief Willi Münzenberg who established numerous front organizations and “Innocents’ Clubs” at the behest of the Comintern to organize intellectuals and artists without their knowledge under covert Comintern direction. Via Münzenberg and others, the Comintern established its own publishing houses, book clubs, films, and theatrical productions. It controlled directly or indirectly nineteen newspapers and magazines, some published as far away as Japan, and some (certainly to the horror of Communist purists) even made a profit.[11]

Subversion was also not just limited to Europe. In September 1920, the Comintern sponsored a Congress of the Peoples of the East in Baku that attracted over 1,800 delegates from over 20 nationalities.  At the Congress, the (atheist) Comintern summoned the delegates to conduct a holy war primarily against British imperialism. This was more than words as the Bolsheviks were already assisting Comintern agent and Indian revolutionary M.N. Roy in plans to invade India. The plan was to recruit Muslims marooned in Afghanistan after trying to travel to Turkey to fight against the British, then holding Constantinople, the seat of the Caliphate; train them with Red Army instructors in Tashkent; and then travel across Afghanistan to strike into India.  The plan had reached the recruitment and training phase when British intelligence learned of it. London refused to sign a trade agreement with Moscow in 1921 unless it disbanded the force. Lenin, in an act of Realpolitik, sacrificed Roy’s ambitions for Moscow’s higher interests. As compensation, he created in Moscow the “Communist University of the Toilers of the East” to train cadres for future Comintern subversion missions. Some of Roy’s recruits enrolled in this school to prepare them for future missions to India.[12]

Besides trying to weaken Great Britain, the Bolsheviks used the Comintern in China to bolster a foreign policy aimed at weakening its next most dangerous foe, Japan, which occupied Vladivostok and the Russian Maritime Province from 1918-1922. China, wracked by civil war, was comprised of a weak government in Beijing (Peking), a competing government under Sun Yat-Sen in Canton, and several independent regions run by Chinese warlords.  

Moscow wanted official recognition of its international status from the Beijing government, but also wanted to depose it as pro-Japanese. Seeing in Sun Yat-Sen’s Kuomintang (KMT) party a lever for turning China into an anti-Japanese force to balance Tokyo’s power in the region and make it less of a threat to Siberia, Moscow contacted Sun Yat-Sen via the Comintern. Moscow sent Comintern agents to organize the KMT along Bolshevik lines of discipline, and military advisors who trained the KMT army and created its military academy. Moscow also got the KMT to agree to include the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), created with Comintern support in 1921, to enter the KMT but maintain its own identity. Through the Comintern, Moscow supported Sun’s aim of overthrowing the very same government in Beijing from which the Soviet government was seeking diplomatic recognition. In this way, conventional Soviet diplomacy and unconventional Comintern activity pursued common goals by different routes.[13]

During the heyday of KMT-Comintern cooperation, large numbers of Chinese students enrolled in the Communist University for the Toilers of the East to be trained in the arts of insurrection and civil war. Many of them already had combat experience and some taught Indian students in the arts of street fighting, using large models of the cities of Canton and Shanghai.[14]  The emphasis on street fighting was a harbinger for things to come in the KMT-Moscow relationship. 

With the death of Sun Yat-Sen in 1925, the KMT was taken over by Chiang Kai-Shek. He distrusted his Communist partners, Russian and Chinese. The feeling was mutual. After Chiang Kai-Shek scored several victories against warlords in northern China, he turned to deal with the CCP in its urban strongholds. Stalin assisted in its demise by urging an ill-timed CCP uprising to take power in Canton, which was crushed.

As in Europe, the result of Comintern assistance was the physical elimination of many Communist members and a major setback for Moscow’s foreign policy goals. The Soviet Union achieved only the most minor of successes on its border with China. The government of Tuva, nominally independent between the world wars, leaned away from Moscow and was replaced in 1929 by a coup orchestrated by five alumni of the Communist University of the Toilers of the East.[15]


The Comintern, dissolved in 1943 as a wartime concession to the Allied powers, was supported in its coercive acts of statecraft by the Soviet intelligence services, particularly in the areas of covert influence, assassinations, and kidnappings. From 1920-1927, the Bolshevik secret police, the Cheka (later renamed the GPU in 1922, OGPU in 1923, NKVD in 1934, and finally the KGB in 1954), conducted two counterintelligence operations. Known as Trust and Syndikat, they infiltrated White Russian monarchist organizations and a Social Revolutionary (SR) group exiled in the West and plotting to overthrow the Bolshevik regime. As part of each operation, the Cheka established fake resistance movements that lured SR leader Boris Savinkov and British intelligence asset Sidney Reilly into the Soviet Union for arrest.

While the Trust and Syndikat are well known counterintelligence operations, their importance for our study is their role as covert influence operations. As noted earlier, Bolshevik power in the early 1920s was threatened by famine, revolt, mutiny, and economic ruin with the fear that the Allies might again intervene and this time successfully. To counteract this, one of the key messages the Cheka’s fake organizations sent to monarchist and SR exiles alike was that these faux groups themselves were working to undermine Bolshevik rule and they would be successful if the exiles and their foreign supporters did not interfere. The émigré organizations and foreign intelligence services believed this covert influence theme and stood down on most of their actions against the regime. This provided the regime with time to overcome the various revolts and uprisings. When Savinkov was tried in 1924, he admitted the right of the Bolsheviks to rule Russia, which was a great propaganda coup coming from one of the regime’s most erstwhile enemies.

Another propaganda coup was provided by a distinguished Russian émigré journalist, Vassiliy Shulgin. In November 1925, a Trust network facilitated his secret entry into the Soviet Union to search for his son, a former White Army officer who was missing in action. Shulgin was guided throughout his search by OGPU officers who used methods worthy of the former Russian prince Potemkin to convince him that the Soviet Union was strong and on the rise. Shulgin did not find his son but returned to the West to publish in 1926 a pro-Soviet book Three Capitals, which further echoed OGPU covert influence themes.

Following Shulgin, Russian academic emigres also travelled to Moscow for scholarly conferences on Eurasianism and were similarly fooled.[16]  This was just the start of a long line of visitors from the West ranging from John Dewey to George Bernard Shaw who would be taken in by Soviet stage-managed visits and believed, as the American journalist Lincoln Steffens fatuously stated, “I have seen the future and it works!”[17] 

After the Trust operation was exposed in 1927, the OGPU moved from deception to kidnappings and murders to eliminate its White Russian monarchist foes. The goal of destroying Moscow’s enemies remained the same but the method shifted to deal with the changed circumstances. In 1928 in Belgrade, General Wrangel, leader of the Russian Armed Services Union, was poisoned by his cook, an OGPU agent. One of his successors, General Miller, was kidnapped in Paris in 1937, taken to Moscow for trial, and executed in 1939. Earlier in 1930 in Paris, the OGPU tried to kidnap General Kutepov, a former deputy to General Wrangel and the head of his organization’s counterintelligence. The kidnapping went awry and Kutepov was killed in the attempt. In 1945 his only son Peter was lured to the Soviet Union and never seen again. Even Shulgin, who had served as a useful tool for the Soviets, was not spared. He had recanted his book after discovering the Trust subterfuge and was arrested in 1945 by the NKVD when the Red Army entered Yugoslavia. He was tried and sentenced to 25 years in the Gulag for anti-Soviet activities.[18]

When Lev Trotsky lost a power struggle with Joseph Stalin and was exiled, he and his supporters became a new target for the Soviet intelligence services. Real and suspected “Trotskyites” would be executed wherever suspected by Moscow, particularly in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Trotsky himself would be murdered by the NKVD in Mexico in 1940.[19]

Another target for lethal measures were defectors, be they government officials, intelligence officers, or former recruited spies. Most notable assassinations in this era included Georg Semmelmann (Vienna, 1931), Georg Agabekov (Paris, 1937?), Ignace Poretsky, alias Reiss (Lausanne, 1937), Juliet Poyntz (New York, 1937), and Walter Krivitsky (Washington DC, 1941), who left three suicide notes in his hotel room. Attempts to kill Boris Bazhanov, the Politburo secretary who defected in 1928, failed. Assassinations of ethnic leaders included the murder of former head of the Ukrainian People’s Republic (1918-1921) Symon Petliura (Paris, 1926), former prime minister of independent Georgia Noe Ramishvili (Paris, 1930), and Ukrainian nationalist leader Yevhen Konovalets (Rotterdam, 1938).[20]  

By the end of its first full decade of existence, the Soviet Union’s approach to coercive statecraft was set and would remain constant until its demise. Its foreign policy was always bifurcated between a dream of world revolution and a need for survival and international recognition as a great power. After Stalin consolidated control, what was good for the Soviet Union automatically became what was good for the international Communist movement (until the Chinese and Yugoslavs thought otherwise). Increasingly, the interests of the Soviet state showed continuity with the geopolitical interests of the former imperial Russia.

The initial use of coercive statecraft tools to implement policy was influenced by the Bolshevik’s party’s early weakness and its founding as a conspiratorial movement vice a normal political party working via the legal norms of a governmental system. Hence their use of covert tools, such as the Comintern, alongside the normal tools of diplomacy and military power. The use of armed paramilitary forces (sometimes supported by Soviet military intelligence officers in civilian clothes), labor strikes, street fighting, sabotage, terrorist attacks, insurrection, guerrilla warfare, subversion, and civil war were Moscow’s main coercive tools. The one element of soft power was Communist ideology propagated via an extensive network of deniable media fronts.

All of this was years BEFORE the Cold War. When the Cold War began, Moscow’s main enemy switched from being Great Britain to being the United States, but its foreign policy goals and coercive statecraft tools to achieve them mostly remained the same until the collapse of the Soviet Union.


In terms of protecting the Soviet state, the most effective measure was the covert influence operations taken during Trust/Syndikat. The second most effective operation was the physical destruction of the leadership of the monarchist émigré organizations. However, while done in a foreign setting, these OGPU/NKVD operations were more about internal security than foreign policy. White Guards, Social Revolutionaries, and Trotskyites were considered enemies of the state. That they were on foreign soil did not matter; they had to be eliminated for Moscow’s own security.

Assassinating defectors was a security measure to discourage others from following their example. Furthermore, foreign powers needed to be misled to protect the revolution when it was at its weakest. This established the self-image for the security services of being the sword and shield of the Soviet Union. It also helped create the myth for internal consumption of the invincibility of the security services to influence opponents of the regime that there was no way they could overcome such an omniscient and ubiquitous force. In many ways, the covert influence message of its operations was directed as much internally as it was externally.

Messianic Communist ideology attracted numerous followers. As international Communism, via the Comintern, became completely subservient to the Soviet Union’s needs, these followers served useful functions from lobbying foreign governments to conducting espionage. However, when Stalin abandoned ideology for Realpolitik with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939, international Communism lost its idealism and much support. It would continue, but it would never be the force it was in the 1920s and 1930s.

Moscow’s attempts to advance the interests of the Soviet Union via Comintern subversion were a disaster. Comintern efforts at coups and revolutions often left indigenous Communist parties proscribed or decimated. The only reason the Weimar Republic did not outlaw the KDP was to maintain secret military cooperation with the Bolsheviks and use the Soviet Union as a lever against Britain and France in diplomatic effort to undo the Versailles Treaty and reparations.

Stalin further kept the KDP from stopping Hitler’s rise to power believing its time would come after Nazism. This mistake led to the destruction of the KDP after 1933. Soviet activities in Great Britain led to London’s breaking relations in 1927 and freezing the trade agreement of 1921. Attempts to destabilize British colonies were failures and brought increased counterintelligence scrutiny of the British Communist Party and Communists in her colonies. The same played out in many other countries worldwide and limited Moscow’s access to trade and financing.

In fact, the unintended consequences of subversive statecraft were counterproductive to the security of the Soviet Union. Instead of building China into a power to balance Japan, Comintern efforts in China helped stoke the KMT-CCP civil war. This further weakened China and allowed Japan to seize Manchuria and put a modern army along the hundreds of miles of its border with the Soviet Union, creating for years a major security threat to the Maritime Province and Siberia.  In Europe, Soviet efforts via the Comintern to subvert liberal democracies had as its goal delegitimizing them and creating unrest to feed the advance of Communism. It achieved unrest but what emerged instead was not the victory of Communism but of Fascism in Spain, Italy, and especially Nazi Germany, which then became an existential threat to the Soviet Union.

As history would later show, in very few cases did any country move from freedom to Communism via subversive tactics. Almost every Communist party that ever came to power did so by being installed by the Red Army after the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact or in 1944-1945 when the Red Army moved into and occupied Eastern Europe, Manchuria, and North Korea.  The two major countries, China, and Yugoslavia, where the Communist party took power via its own arms and struggle quickly became political and ideological enemies of Moscow.

It was the Red Army and the parallel use of effective diplomacy in Tehran and Yalta, supported by massive conventional military power, which led to the expansion of Soviet power from 1939-1945 and the resulting Cold War. Coercive statecraft played only a modest role in these achievements.



[1] This article eschews the term hybrid warfare and considers such actions as statecraft - the art of conducting state affairs – and the means of subversion and other pressures as “coercive” (i.e., hard power tools that compel rather than soft power tools that attract or inspire) tools of statecraft.

[2] George Kennan, Russia Leaves the War, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1956, page 85.

[3] George Kennan, Russia and the West under Lenin and Stalin, Mentor Books, New York, 1960, pp 43-45.

[4] Stephane Courtois, et al, The Black Book of Communism, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1999, pp 272-274.

[5] Adam Ulam, Expansion and Coexistence: Soviet Foreign Policy, 1917-1973, Praeger Publishers, New York, 1974, page 116.

[6] Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky, KGB: The Inside Story of its Foreign Operations from Lenin to Gorbachev, Harper Collins Publishers, New York, 1990, page 65.

[7] Firuz Kazemzadeh, The Struggle for Transcaucasia (1917-1921), Philosophical Library Inc., New York, 1951, pp 283-328.

[8] Winston Churchill, The World Crisis, Thornton Butterworth, London, 1929, Volume V.

[9] Andrew and Gordievsky, Op Cit, page 71.

[10] Courtois, et al, Op Cit, pp 276-280; for Estonia see also Merle Maigre, Nothing New in Hybrid Warfare: The Estonian Experience and Recommendations for NATO. The German Marshall Fund of the United States Policy Brief, February 2015.

[11] Andrew and Gordievsky, Op Cit, pp 81-82.

[12] Peter Hopkirk, Setting the East Ablaze: On Secret Service in Bolshevik Asia, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1984, pp 108-119; 137-139. The Communist University of the Toilers of the East existed from 1921 to the late 1930s as a Comintern institution. Its alumni included Deng Xiaoping, Ho Chi Minh, and Jomo Kenyatta.

[13] Alvin Z. Rubinstein and Nicolai N. Petro, Russian Foreign Policy: From Empire to Nation-State, Longman, New York, 1997, page 26.

[14] Hopkirk, Op Cit, pp 177-178.

[15] James Forsyth, A History of the Peoples of Siberia: Russia’s North Asian Colony 1581-1990, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1994, page 281.

[16] The Trust, Security and Intelligence Foundation, Arlington, Virginia, 1989; Andrew and Gordievsky, Op Cit, pp 93-106.

[17] Paul Kengor, Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century, ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware, 2010, pp 53-103.

[18] The Trust, Security and Intelligence Foundation, Arlington, Virginia, 1989; Andrew and Gordievsky, Op Cit, pp 93-106.

[19] Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB, Basic Books, New York, 1999, pp 72-74; 86-88.

[20] Boris Volodarsky, Unknown Agabekov, Intelligence and National Security, Volume 28, Number 6, 2013; John Dziak, Chekisty: A History of the KGB, Ivy Books, New York, 1988, pp 109-110; Andrew and Gordievsky, Op Cit, pp 150-172.

About the Author(s)

The author is a retired 31-year veteran paramilitary operations officer of the Central Intelligence Agency.



Tue, 01/18/2022 - 9:30am

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