In the late 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Empire, I was privileged to be at a meeting in NYC where the former Soviet General Secretary, Mikhail Gorbachov, was speaking. He told the audience in NYC that the fax machine was a critical tool that helped open the Soviet Union up to broader thinking and was used to begin prying open the door for a revolution to take place.
After the event, when he met a few media, I asked Gorbachov for clarification about what he said about the fax machine, and he explained that the seemingly benign office equipment was smuggled into the Soviet Union and the government began to lose control over the flow of outside information sent to these devices and then distributed to the populace. They used the fax machine to call for resistance and spread information about the actual oppressive practices of the Soviet leaders and called for a change.
Ann Cooper, a teacher at the Columbia School of Journalism, writing about how Russian Reporters helped topple the USSR, wrote these comments in The Columbia Journalism Review on August 15th, 2011:
“This spring, when I talked with my students about social media’s role in the Arab uprisings, I noted that twenty years earlier Boris Yeltsin’s supporters had used what was then the latest technology—the fax machine—to build resistance, just as Facebook and Twitter were used this year.”
Gorbachov’s story of the fax machine’s role in bringing down Soviet leadership struck home with me. In the early 1990s, while on a trip to Hannover, Germany, I met up with some reporters from the USSR who told me about their need to buy fax machines to bring back to Russia. They explained to me that it would allow information from the outside to trickle in and let them spread the message for change.
I was highly sympathetic to the need for change in the USSR because, in 1973, I went with a group to Moscow to protest the lack of religious freedom in the Soviet Union. Our group was arrested for trying to draw attention to the lack of freedom the people of this land had to worship, and to speak and live without fear of repercussions and, in some cases, persecution and even death.
I gave them a contribution for their cause, as did others in our group, and if I remember correctly, they were able to buy two fax machines to smuggle back into Russia when they traveled home.
Of course, many other factors led to the downfall of the Soviet Union, but there is no dispute that a piece of technology, the fax machine, played a role in the break-up of the Soviet Union.
However, the current Russian leadership, under Vladimir Putin, is no fan of Glasnost and the fall of the Soviet Union. It has dramatically diminished Russia’s economic power and impacted its position in the world. I have been talking with people who study Russia, and they are all convinced that Putin has three primary objectives in his long-range plan to make Russia great again.
The first goal is, at some point, to bring back many of the satellite countries under Russian rule that made up the USSR before its breakup. They point to Russia’s annexation of Crimea as an example. They believe the next primary target will be the Ukraine, which is rich in natural resources, including iron, ore, coal, natural gas, oil, graphite, mercury, and arable land.
The only thing that is keeping Russia from marching on Ukraine now is NATO, the EU and the US. My friends who study Russia as part of their jobs tell me that Russia’s interest goes well beyond the satellite countries of the old Soviet Union. For Putin and Russia to gain the kind of economic power and prestige he and his cronies crave, they also want to eventually bring some significant European countries under their influence. The most mentioned by my sources say that Germany, the UK, and France are on his bucket list to bring under some type of Russian influence. Also on his list, I am told, are all of the Scandinavian countries, especially Finland, who they share a border with and is also rich with natural resources and exceptional technical talent.
While this may seem far-fetched today, 50-100 year goals take the long view and cannot be ruled out as possibilities. If Putin and his leadership have this kind of plan in their minds, to them, it is just a matter of time if their adversaries can be weakened.
To gain control of these countries, Putin needs to weaken NATO, the EU and especially the USA. His means to do this is by cyberwarfare. Russia has already meddled in elections in the US, UK, Germany, Spain, and Scandinavia. Russia has also tried to influence the ballot box in all of the former Soviet satellite countries. Putin and pals are sowing discord through social media and direct election intervention to try and weaken these countries and eventually make it possible to annex the ones Russia lost, and at the very least, have more considerable influence over the EU countries.
The second thing on Russian leaders’ agenda is to steal as much technical IP they can to try and control their technology destiny. Russia has always been involved in corporate espionage. I have written in the past how I discovered a Russian spy at Comdex in 1995 and had him followed by Comdex officials while they called in the FBI to apprehend him and his colleague. But they are stepping up their cyber warfare attacks on companies to disrupt them, steal technical secrets and even extract or extort hordes of cash from American companies and individuals through highly illegal means to pad their cyberwar war chest.
Putin’s recent move to take Russia’s Internet private is a significant step to control the flow of information to and from Russia. Whether that will work or not is a big question since trying to control the Internet in his country will be very difficult. There are workarounds.
The third goal I am hearing from my sources suggests that China and Russia have already begun to look at how the impact of a strengthened Russia and China could exert more influence and eventually, marginalize the US and the EU.
There are various political think tanks that look at governmental strategies with an eye on very long-term goals. I am told that these researchers see China and Russia’s strategy is to increase their political and economic influence and try to bring more of the world under that influence, if not control.
In this scenario, they would strive to dominate the world economy so they could call the shots when it comes to world economics and technology. Whether they can do that or not is a big question.
The third goal may be a long shot too but remember, we are talking about long term goals, and this last one is undoubtedly plausible if the US and EU can be weakened.
The US and EU live and die in four year or eight-year political increments. Long range planning to counter 50-100-year plans in Russia and China are not what these democracies do.
But with the US and EU only looking at shorter-term roadmaps, if they are not careful, they could allow both Russia and China to make gains that could impact the USA and the EU’s future.