Olga Lautman: Bad actors are attacking democracy using hybrid warfare. It’s time we fought back.
In this timely episode, Olga Lautman discusses the many way that Russian disinformation and division campaign's are impacting western society, and the surprising solution that she believes can turn the tables.
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It happened in the 21st century. As I write this, just yesterday in fact, in Ukraine, February 25, 2022. On Snake Island, a 40-acre strategic outpost of Ukraine, approximately 300km west of Crimea, in the Black Sea. The 13 Ukrainian defenders of the island were approached by what Vladimir Putin has called their ‘brothers’ – in the form of a Russian naval warship, that in turn demanded their immediate surrender. Pausing for just a moment, where in the background a soldier is heard to whisper ‘well, this is it’, the Ukrainian commander responded, “Russian warship, go fuck yourself”. Moments later, all were killed in the subsequent assault.
In the 21st century. In Europe. Yesterday.
It’s simply incomprehensible. Sad. Clearly courageous. Beyond infuriating. Profoundly unnerving.
Again, and yet still, Russia is an existential threat to the international order, with Putin’s spittle flecked, pre-dawn rant, just minutes before the first rockets fell, making it clear that his real target was democracy. From that moment, one thing at least is certain. The so-called normal world, already ravaged and reshaped by COVID, is now beyond returning. A new world faces us.
Like so many of my generation, this contest with Russia is both personal and generational. Fortunately, unlike so many of my fellow boomers, my experience was modest, remote, and yet in its way, impactful. Of course, I remember the ‘duck and cover’ drills of the early 1960’s, where, as trusting 5 year olds we were told that our desks ‘could’ save our lives when we saw the flash of a nuclear fireball, the first admonition being not to look at the fireball for the certainty of being blinded.
In 1974, as a high school student, and also a lowly corporal in the Canadian militia, our equivalent of the army reserve, I was excited to be selected to go on a two-week school trip to Moscow. My excitement was tempered by being called in to the armoury to meet with a military intelligence officer, who advised me matter-of-factly that it was a certainty that I would be the subject of special attention by our Soviet hosts. That my room – and telephone - would be bugged, that I would be followed, and that I would almost certainly be approached to determine if I might be a prospective asset of the KGB. I recall feeling both frightened and excited, as with what I thought was some considerable elan, I offered to take notes for ‘our’ side, an offer that was laughingly rejected by the officer. In the end, it proved irrelevant, as the trip was cancelled.
In 1980, now an undergraduate student taking what today would be called strategic studies, I recall the angst-laden drama, not unlike of today, of watching as Soviet Russia invaded Afghanistan and threatened to do the same to a Poland destabilized by the pro-democracy Solidarity movement. The difference between then and today is that Russia and its Warsaw Pact subjugates then fielded 6 million personnel, comprised of 250 divisions, 61,000 tanks, 13,000 aircraft, 290 submarines and amazingly, 30,000 nuclear weapons – in almost all cases numerically superior, but thankfully qualitatively inferior to NATO. I recall too writing in an essay something that has stuck across all of these years – that is that to understand the USSR’s quest for hegemony, had nothing to do with communism, but rather, it was to deeply, profoundly understand the trauma of Russia’s history.
I, along with most in the West, was elated when the Wall came down in 1989, when Yeltsin stood atop a tank outside the Russian Duma ‘saving’ Russia’s democracy in 1991, and especially when Francis Fukuyama heralded that we all were now standing at the foot of ‘the end of history’.
But not everyone was celebrating. Infamously declaring that “the breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century”, KGB-spawned Vladimir Putin set about the reconstitution of Russia as the exemplar – and nexus - of 21st century kleptocracy.
One thing Putin has done that might be considered positive, is to bring into the open the very active war being waged on democracy, in which he is one of the leading, but not the only generals. He is the principal and most expert agitator of a cohort bound by the adage – the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Moreover, they are not bound by ideology or ideals, but by an Orwellian quest for naked power and the wealth and control that power brings. Their NorthStar is found in the perceived glories of the past. The wonderous, inclusive future that today appears possible to so many of us terrifies them. A purposeful assault on the institutions and peoples of civil society is clearly underway with the power and resources of nation-states and of too many of the world’s ultra-wealthy propelling it. And I posit, they are winning.
There are few who are more intimately familiar with this hydra and the threat it presents, than New York-based Olga Lautman, my guest today. A Non-Resident Senior Fellow with the Center for European Policy Analysis, Olga specializes in researching Russian organized crime, Russian elites and Russian hybrid warfare – and the gordian web that connects all three. Olga was lead researcher for Malcolm Nance's best-selling book The Plot to Betray America: How Team Trump Embraced our Enemies, Compromised Our Security, and How We Can Fix It, and for Craig Unger’s American Kompromat: How the KGB Cultivated Donald Trump, and Related Tales of Sex, Greed, Power & Treachery and House of Trump/House of Putin: The Untold Story of Donald Trump and the Russian Mafia. Both best sellers.
Olga is, as I write this, also a frequent commentator on BBC World News with regard to the crisis in Ukraine.
So, what's your big idea?
My big idea is that we need to find the tools and use them, to fight Russia's information warfare. They have a hybrid playbook, which consists of many different strategies and tactics, from cyber-attack to economic capture, political capture. But one of the ones that are affecting all of us, regardless of where you are, is their information warfare, their division campaigns, and their disinformation campaigns.
They have become successful at weaponizing social media, weaponizing our own media, by so many narratives that even our own journalists aren’t aware of the region they're covering, or the backstory of what is happening, that they end up repeating Kremlin talking points. I think we need to really gain a foothold, both United States, Canada, Europe, we have to figure out a way to fight this warfare that Russia has launched on us. I mean, it's a very old tactic, going back to KGB days.
Can you talk a bit more about that then? A lot of people won't be familiar with the term hybrid warfare. So maybe a primer would be helpful.
Hybrid warfare is basically anything that Russia deploys, under the threshold of kinetic warfare, where there's actual conventional war. Hybrid warfare includes cyber-attacks, which we have all seen, whether it be them attacking our infrastructure, the Colonial Pipeline last year in the United States, banks, social media, hacking, economic capture, which is basically what we're seeing right now with Germany, where they create reliance on them, so when it comes to responding back to Russia, the country is so reliant that they cannot fully respond, or, you know, they have their own interest at stake.
Political capture, again, what we see with Germany, with Schroeder, who is in charge of this, infamous Nord Stream Two pipeline that is at the center of everyone's attention. He was a former chancellor, and Russia co-opted him a while ago. And now they use him to basically conduct their warfare through the Nord Stream Two pipeline, which is warfare, it is a weapon that they have, they've weaponized energy. Even though the Nord Stream Two pipeline isn't operational yet, we saw over last fall, as Europe was going into winter, how they cut supplies, causing prices to shoot through the roof. It was basically, lining up for what we're seeing today with Ukraine and Russia, on the verge of full-scale invasion, or at least some kind of another incursion, because they invaded Ukraine in 2014.
And then you have the disinformation operations. That is basically just putting, disinformation out into the information space. It could be anything. I mean, we've seen it with protest. I remember in Portland, when they had protests, they were circulating a video that basically showed protesters burning a police officer. That video circulated so quick, because Russia has control of excellent algorithm tools and bots and trolls who help amplify their message. It circulated so quick, and that's dangerous because anybody any police officer, who, outside of Portland who might see this on their social media might say, ‘oh my God, they're burning police officers!’. Meanwhile, that video was from Guadalajara, Mexico from a few years before.
They use social media to spread disinformation. With COVID they have weaponized social media to cause all these divisions to the point that they have truckers that were blocking the main roadways into the US delivery routes. Because of the vaccine mandates to the mass burnings, we're seeing across the world they latched on to COVID very early on at the beginning of the pandemic Their first operations were the reopen protests, division campaigns, because right now, if you look, in the West, we are the most divided that we've ever been. Right now, families are divided, families are split, and you see this division, where it's like, people just have this hatred that's built up because they're cultivating these people online.
...amplified by the Russians. When you and I were talking in the pre brief a few days ago, I thought an interesting point was that this isn't being executed from a position of strength. Russia is using asymmetric strategies and tactics, really, because they're coming at this from a position of weakness. They’re going backwards by almost every measure. Their economy is smaller than Canada's and a little larger than Texas, which makes this all the more concerning. In the cold war, we were dealing with a country that thought it was at least working with a stronger hand than perhaps it had, but they were fairly confident. Whereas in this case, I'm more concerned about dealing with an actor that is approaching this from a sense, at the end of the day, from insecurity.
I absolutely agree. And it is insecurity. There's no ideology, because, as you know, with the Soviet Union, their ideologies drove their actions, whereas here its Putin's desire to hold on to power, even more so now. He's getting older, his desire is to build his legacy, this is why we see what's happening today with Ukraine, with Belarus, the threat to Moldova, the threat to the Baltics, because he wants to leave behind a legacy, a very important thing for him. He has been in power for 20 years; he has nothing to show for it. Yes, personally, he has a few hundred billion dollars, but he can’t publicly state that, that is all hidden through shell companies, and his money people who move it around. So he has nothing to show for it. And you're right, the economy is horrible. The conditions there are horrible, the infrastructure is collapsing, COVID has wiped out any gains to the economy, they're even lying about the death toll. The death toll unofficially is way over a million people, so it is a big concern, because they are acting like a rogue actor. And it's more dangerous because, people in the West use our own western values and thoughts in order to analyze the situation. So I hear, even with this impending war, that ‘Russia – Putin - is going to have to explain all the body bags going back to Russia’. Putin doesn't care about body bags, and the Russians will never know because of what they deploy into the West. They're, doing this domestically, people aren't going to know the real number. There's going to be so much disinformation, and so many fake videos surrounding what's happening. And there, if your son dies, you make one wave, and you'll get banned from being even able to visit his grave site.
...shades of the Chinese social credit program. When you're at a cocktail party these days, although none of us do that anymore because of COVID, but imagine yourself at a Zoom cocktail. And people are doing the oh-whataboutism or saying you're paranoid. Is there a factoid, or piece of information that you think people really need to know, right now that they probably don't?
My most important is that they really, really need to pay attention, because so many people spend their time on social media, they absorb this disinformation, and they really, really need to somehow go back to critical thinking, and verifying before mentally turning it into a fact, and then physically repeating it as a fact. And that is one of my biggest concerns.
We've discussed even with COVID, how people who are educated are repeating, disinformation. So people have to be very, very mindful of disinformation. Cyber-attacks obviously are not going to touch everyone, or maybe touche someone temporarily if you have a power outage, or phone outage, or social media outage. Economic capture doesn't really affect us - it does affect us in the bigger scheme of things, but it's not affecting us. The disinformation we are seeing and absorbing all day long, I mean this is all-day. People open their Facebook, their Twitter, their Instagram, their TikTok, and their chances are that out of ten things that appear, probably six or seven of them are disinformation.
Estonia did a great job because, they have Russia as a neighbor from hell, and they've gone through cyber-attacks and whatnot. They had a plan where they started educating people on how to spot disinformation, how to verify the patterns, and this is something I think the rest of us really need to learn because it becomes dangerous, and it does go from something you see online to truckers blocking the main delivery routes and disrupting economies.
Something that really registers certainly is, here in Canada, there was a complacency about ‘that's an American phenomenon, that's not a Canadian phenomenon’, and we're seeing very quickly amplified, the same division that you're talking about. What I have found so concerning, is, I had assumed, so many of the people that I've worked with over the last 30 years, more or less shared my sense of reality. This exercise has been troubling in finding out just how many people actually don't share in that ‘common’ definition of democracy. Just this morning, I watched on LinkedIn an article being circulated by some people that I have had a lot of respect for in the past, and as you're suggesting, I actually looked at the source of the media. ‘Where's this coming from’? And it's really hard to call it anything close to credible media. What well educated, and certainly well-intentioned people are circulating amongst themselves, and getting all angst-ed up about, to me, was borderline bogus media, something that would be really hard to imagine being able to be described as credible.
And that's the problem because it's circulated through media articles. We all remember growing up and having five TV stations, and then you had your nightly news. Now you have disinformation floating through probably tens of thousands of outlets. You can literally go online, create an outlet, and just start spreading disinformation. And if it's in line with the Kremlin, they'll quickly pick it up and make sure that that article is amplified. That is a very, very big problem because it touches every single one of us. We see it, we feel it, our emotions are invoked over this, and Russia does everything in order to target your emotions. There's no coincidence that when they stage false flag operations, they use hospitals and children and schools, because they want to get that emotion from you, they want you to operate from emotion instead of from critical thinking and from actually trying to evaluate the situation. It's easier to get someone's emotions, that happens instantly, you see a school bomb, and you say, ‘Oh, my God’, whereas, if you actually sat down to look at what happened, you might actually say, ‘well, this doesn't make sense, that doesn't work, this timeline doesn't work’. And you can start processing it. They do it very easy, very quick, and the sad part is, it's like cancer, it spreads through the military, spreads through every single household, spreads through government, spreads through everything.
Cyber security, I think is number two, because we need to have our lights on. I think this is the one area that we don't even know how to gain control of it. I'll show you the importance of information warfare. We're not going to prevent an attack by Russia on Ukraine, because this was planned, this is part of Russia’s strategy. They've been planning it the past year, and regardless if we went through ten thousand negotiations, this is something they've been putting into place over the past year. Russia has always held the narrative, whether it be MH 17, whether it be what's happening in Syria, Libya, you name it, they hold the narrative. And they always control the narrative, and they control what they want people to see. Here, in the United States we finally decided to play at their game. It's not going to prevent the attack, but it was extremely skillful of how they took the information, and for the first time, put Russia on defense, because Russia always has smooth messaging, their smooth propaganda, talking points. The fact that our intelligence agencies, which by the way, all the intelligence to revealing is actually online on open source for anyone who's following the situation closely. But because they were revealing it, it became official instead of holding on to it, and it threw Russia off. So they say, ‘oh Russia is preparing false flags’. We all know Russia does this. They did it in Crimea in 2014. They do it in Syria, and Libya, and so forth...
...starting with the apartment bombings and blaming it on the Chechens.
...yes absolutely, there you go. That's how Putin got into power, by blowing up his own citizens – 317 of them - in order to cause a false flag and go to war with the Chechens. For the first time, they're now on defense because they don't know how to respond, and now they have to go and work around their narrative. It shows you that it does work, where we have a twofold process, one to educate citizens and what disinformation looks like, how to verify, not to just quickly spread, people are so quick retweet or because it's sensationalistic but they have to stop, think, process ‘see, is this real, is this not real’? If they do want to share it, say ‘this is unverified, but it should be documented’. I share Russia’s chatter and disinformation, but I do it in order to document, to show patterns. I say this is to document, not that this is fact. And too, we need to have all the countries working , and start putting Russia on defense - putting out every single move that Russia is going to take, and then actually having to go back to defend themselves. That is how we need to do it. And we need to do it 10 times more.
So that imaginary cocktail party we were talking about earlier? What does failure look like if you're talking to those people and they're saying, ‘climate change is the most pressing issue, or social justice issues, or income inequality or education - this is just another of those issues that are thrown on to the pile’? What do you say to those people?
I say that we're not going to solve any of the other issues until we deal with the disinformation aspect. You cannot get clear messaging on climate change, because Russia is very reliant on the only thing that they produce, is the energy, supply of energy...
...yeah, yeah. So you're not going to get messaging and strong backing for climate change until you cut out the disinformation. They're not the only ones, everyone who's vested in fossil fuels, is artful and making sure to debunk the whole climate change thing as a conspiracy, despite us seeing wild storms, now increasingly, tenfold. The racial issues, same thing. It was documented that Russia was involved in the Ferguson riots in 2014. They were setting up pro-Black Lives Matter and pro-white lives matter protests, at the same time, at the same location in order to cause conflict. And they do this with anything, whether it be masks, guns, whatever they are involved in, creating disinformation. This, again, goes back to Soviet days, the KGB’s main job was to seek vulnerabilities in the West. So they will latch on to anything. Whether it be if we're arguing about lettuce, whether it be if we're doing about masks, whatever it is that they see, there's some kind of division, they will come in and amplify it to a point that you're arguing over milk, and now you don't speak with each other, and now, next thing, you want to kill each other. This affects every single aspect of what we need to do, which is disrupting the agenda that we need to do, which is pushing climate change, solving racial inequalities, dealing with the social issues inside of our countries. Instead, we are very distracted, we're collapsing within, instead of strengthening and trying to work together and figuring out how to solve these problems...
...right. It's really important to remember that, certainly of any of the world leaders that we know of, Putin's the only one who cut his teeth, his formative years, in intelligence and the KGB, and that he was in East Germany when the wall collapsed. Clearly, that's something that's impacted him a lot. It's probably obvious to anybody who's listened this far, but I'm going to ask the question anyway. As it is today, how optimistic are you about the state of the world that you're interested in, and that you read about every day?
Not optimistic at all. I mean, we see the far right, this authoritarian movement, going through Europe, going through the US, and these tendencies to step away from democracy. Once autocrats take control, we had a very close, if Trump won the election right now, we wouldn't even be talking - I'd probably be jailed. But we came very close to losing our democracy. Now, had Trump won the second term, do you really think anyone would even be focused on fixing social justice, infrastructure, anything for that matter? If you look at Russia, you have Putin as the leader, who hijacked all the institutions, put all his cronies into them, all the businesses are his cronies. Meanwhile, you go to a hospital, and it looks like it just got bombed like post World War Two, and has never been fixed. They come into power, and they want to take all the resources out of the country, profit off of them, and steal money, and once that happens, they don't care about the citizens, they don't care how people feel, what people do. If anything, you saw for instance, with Trump, or with Orban, and with several leaders, their main thing is to cause as much pain and division in the country, while people are distracted, fighting. They're busy siphoning resources and, and filling their coffers...
... right. To close this segment, what is perhaps more concerning, is that the Russian playbook that has been updated and significantly refined since the Soviet time - that playbook is the one that other bad actors are using now, as their source of inspiration. As competent as Western intelligence agencies are, they simply have not functioned in any way, shape, or form as the as the bad actors have. Not a good thing, and not, at least at this stage, reason for any sense of optimism. But that could change, because you have a really interesting call to action that you think is possible. It's kind of overwhelming to say, what can the average citizen do about all of this other than be aware, but I think you have a call to action that might inspire some folks. What is it?
Thinktanks, centers and other groups who are actually focused on this, they don't get mainstream attention. Most people will look at their reports and say, ‘what is this, I don't understand what hybrid warfare is, I don't understand what the threat is, what do you mean Russia's a threat’? The problem is, going back to Soviet Union days, there was a clear enemy, the enemy was clearly marked, we knew the Soviet Union was a threat to democracy, to our ideals, ideologies, to everything. People understood that. If you chose to deal with the Soviet Union, you will feel like a traitor against America, because there was this Cold War. Now, Russia has muddled the waters so much that you have a third of the country, who is loyal to Putin, you have another percentage of the country - pretty big percentage of the country - who just doesn't understand and have an opinion. And then you have a small group of people like me, who are focused on trying to explain why he's bad and how it's affecting everyone. I remember being online, I think it was a few years ago, when Chernobyl came out. We all read about Chernobyl and...
... you mean the TV show...
...yeah, the TV show. We all read about it, something like, ‘oh, yeah, there was a nuclear leak’, and that’s it, it didn't absorb. Then the TV show came out, and it really, really impacted people. People saw, what was happening, not covering it from a historical perspective, but more personal - where they're actually characters that you can get attached to, to show what was happening, to cover up the damage, what happened to the people, and that touched on people's emotions. Hollywood is the master of touching on people's emotions. Everyone watches a movie or TV show, and it evokes some kind of emotion, either you're crying in the movie theater or you're happy or you are wishful, you know, for this ending.
I think that we need to partner with Hollywood so they can start producing, more movies, more series to show what the threat of Russia is, and not from a textbook case, but more from personal, experiences. Of a family who has split up because of the division campaign that is being directed by Russia, or what it's like to have a cyber-attack and be stuck in an elevator and the fear you have when you can’t reach your child. They need to start taking Russia's hybrid warfare playbook, the damage they're causing, and this goes for any authoritarian regime, we could do the same for China. Making it more relatable to people and touching on their emotions to make them understand that no, Russia is not a friend. We're not talking about the Russian people, we're talking about Putin and his regime, they want to destroy us. The quicker people understand that this is where the Kremlin is coming from, this is their military strategy, the better they will start reacting, participating and helping spread the message of Russia being a threat. Same thing with disinformation campaigns. If CNN shows a family who lost someone from COVID because they were sitting in rabbit holes on Facebook, listening to all the disinformation being fueled, this would touch at someone, help them get a perspective - you can lose your family member. We need to take this more to the mainstream and bring it in a way that is, relatable to people, and that can be spread wide.
Right. So, what I'm hearing is that the challenge is to all of the principal actors in Hollywood or the entertainment space - the funders, writers, producers, actors, for sure. To leverage the moral authority that they have in defense of what - the truth?
Yeah, the truth. It is their, citizen duty, it is their duty to humanity to do what they have used, the tools that they have, different set of skills, different tools, different reach, different contacts, to help spread the truth, to show what is happening, to educate people. The reason I say Hollywood, is because people easily can get captured into Netflix series, or HBO series or movies. And they'll get a way better understanding than taking a class in Russian disinformation or Russian hybrid warfare. I think that Hollywood has the responsibility to do this. They did it during World War Two. We had Mickey Mouse, running around fighting Hitler, we have to go back to that. We are in a war, even though it's a silent war. You don't see the bombs falling, the damage is 10 times more, because even though you don't see the bombs falling, you see countries weakening, people splitting up, and while we are all dealing with this, our climate is like melting, so we are not even able to focus on the main things.
An important takeaway here for listeners is that this is a war. We all talk about an assault on democracy or many of us do, the Russians do see it, and other bad actors see it, as you call it hybrid war, or non-kinetic, but it is still a war that democracy needs to prevail at. But it begs the question, truth is a loaded terms these days. With an irony that needs to be noted, ‘Pravda’, the official newspaper of the Communist Party up until 1991, meant ‘truth’. And so, where is the line? Where's the line between alternative facts and non-alternative facts? I mean, actual truth?
Olga Lautman 35:25
Well, by documenting the situation that's happening. Right now, you have in Ukraine, Russia preparing an invasion, you have this talk of false flag operations. This is something they've done before and it's part of their playbook. But we also have Western media, who send their journalists, not to have an opinion, they're there to come evaluate what's happening and report on it without opinion. This is what we need to do, we need to take out our bias and just show what is fact and get back to facts, because truth can be very easily twisted. There is no coincidence, that the first thing any autocrat does is seize state media. First thing Belarus, the minute Russia sent in their National Guard to assist Lukashenko, first thing they did was seize state media. And at the time in Belarus, the Belarusian media, employees went on strike. Russia sent their own from Moscow to report the news. We had Trump. First thing he did, his tactic falls right into the autocratic tactic, was attacking truth, attacking media. And it's very bold. I'll give you two examples. You have Trump, for instance, who would say something one day, and then when media asked him about it, he would say, I never said this – ‘fake news’. But you can go back to the prior day and replay it. You know that its true, because it's verifiable. It's right there, he said it. In Russia, same thing. When they sent their humanitarian ‘peacekeepers’ - whatever they were - to Kazakhstan, their main media outlet, not a conspiracy outlet, their main state media outlet, said “70+ planes are being sent to Kazakhstan to assist with this peace keeping mission”. Okay. A few weeks later, “we have received all 19 back of our planes, they have all returned”. Same media outlet. They didn't even erase the prior article of how many they sent. It is our job to verify, to use different sources. When I was growing up you had to go to a library, pull index cards and go through a million bookshelves. Now you have the internet, you have every book, every encyclopedia, every media outlet, everything at the touch of your fingertips. So, we'll take that extra minute to do due diligence before spreading or repeating something. That's it. Same thing with Hollywood. They know what is truth. Take Leonardo DiCaprio. He fights for climate change. He did that movie Don't Look Up - I think everyone watched it. I saw it through social media and everyone was commenting on it. It was a powerful movie. But it's talking about truth. We cannot deny that our planet is melting. We cannot deny that the water levels are rising. I mean, this is truth. That's facts. You can go and measure it and see the changes that are happening, you know,
This moral authority that Hollywood has, it's not about being anti anybody, it's about being pro democracy. It's for Hollywood to understand that they have an important or perhaps critical role in presenting a narrative that, yes, address all of the warts of democracy, but at the end of the day, in a competition, which this is, you can't prevail if society crumbles or erodes. There has to be a degree of unity, an agreed sense of threat. Hollywood, from the sitcoms they do, to the movies they produce, they need to be unapologetically pro-democracy, unapologetically globalist in the humanist sense. What resonated with me about your point was that they don't seem to be aware, or they don't seem to admit the power that they have, and the power that they need to leverage.
Absolutely. Besides regular media, they probably are second in line to having the most power, no, I would say even more than media because they have the reach from everyone from young, to the elderly. These messages can be spread through everyone, through every single household. It has to be pro-democracy, pro humanity, pro human rights, pro people being treated equal. It’s all for the better of the planet and for the better of society, this is where they have the power to do it. And there are two things that unites Americans, it's movies and sports. That's it. They can do this, that Chernobyl, I mean, I watched it just to see the accuracy and to see how it is. I was crying, my goodness, this is my country, and I was crying. This is so evil - are they lying? No, they are reporting the truth. These are the facts that happened during Chernobyl. So they're not skewing it, they're just humanizing, and taking any event and putting it into, the set of facts that is relatable for the person, and then the person can say, ‘wow, how could a government like that do this to their people, shouldn’t their number one instinct be to go and protect the people, to evacuate people, not to hide it and cover it up? You know, and, and we're seeing it right now everywhere. We're all facing the same challenge on this planet.
Now, one of the points you made in our discussion, before we went on the air was a subset of the call to action to Hollywood. It's not only to be pro-democracy or build faith and trust in the institutions of democracy. You raised the issue that we need to be very careful about where the funding for, entertainment comes from. Just as we need to be very cautious in the in the realm of information, we need to be careful about where the money comes from. Do you want to talk about that?
Well, hence the problem of why Hollywood's not fully using all the resources available to them. A lot of the money comes from the Kremlin, comes from China, comes from other actors who want to push their own agenda. If you're operating on US soil, you have these values you believe in, you should not be able to take money that is basically stolen from the Russian people to push their agenda against United States, against democracy, against humanity. That is a very clear line that needs to be, created that you cannot cross. If you take money from El Chapo, and he's funding you, how accurate is your movie or report going to be?
Could you just mention who he is?
Oh, El Chapo is a drug lord in Mexico, who is now jailed in the US. If you take money from him - one of the bigger drug distributors - is your movie going to be fighting against drugs, showing the effects of drugs, and what it can do from households to cities to a country? No! Same thing with Russia - they flood a lot of money to Hollywood, they flood a lot of money. They've attempted to grab a lot of our celebrities, to wine and dine them. They already owned Oliver Stone. Steven Seagal, who now literally sits there and spews Kremlin propaganda against America, through their movies like they did with Kazakhstan, and Maidan, and Ukraine, which was the protests that came out when Ukraine's former president Yanukovych betrayed Ukraine at the last minute, he was being run by Putin. He betrayed Ukraine and said he was not going to sign papers to continue looking at exploring and joining NATO. So, protesters came out, and they legitimately came out and said, ‘No, we are not going back towards Russia, we are moving towards democracy - this is where we've been, this is what we want’. And that's it. Then Maidan happened, and Russia used it as one of their biggest disinformation tools at the time, and shortly after, invaded and annexed Crimea. Then they used Oliver Stone to write a hitpiece on Maidan, basically a whole conspiracy, how it was CIA funded, and this funded, and I don't even know, I never watched it. But I saw the premise of what it was, what the talking points were because it was the same Kremlin disinformation circulating in their media and online. We can't allow that to happen. If you are operating in California, when you have ideals that you want a better planet, that you want a safer planet, that you want your grandchildren to even have a planet, that you want injustices to be addressed, and worked on. If you want all the good things, of living in a democracy, then you need to support it, and use the tools you have to, push the message, but at the same time, not take the money from the Kremlin. And we saw yesterday, I actually thought of you, what is his name, Brad Pitt? He is suing Angelina Jolie. Basically, the headline was that she betrayed him and sold something. They had an interest in some company, and she sold it to a Russian oligarch. And now he's suing her because he said, ‘I don't want this business sold to a Russian oligarch’. That is an American stand. This is blood money coming from the Russian oligarchs, this is money stolen from the average Russian, used for operations against the West.
That's what I like about your proposal, of looking at Hollywood. One of our previous guests talked about trying to get at the world's major advertisers through advertising associations. I think what is appealing is, as you and I discussed before, if you think about the people that make the entertainment world work it's a pretty small number. Who knows, but I would guess, if the cutoff was at the top 25,000 individual's, you've probably captured most of the ones that matter. And so there are 25,000 people in the democracies, that if they could be persuaded and supported and influenced, you could affect real change in a short period of time. How would you imagine our BoomXer audience responding to this? What would you like to see them do? Or how should they be thinking after they've listened to your call to action?
There are several things. The most important thing they need to do is contact a celebrity. Everybody has their favorite celebrities that they follow, they love, so reach out to them, their press people, tell them this is an issue that's very important, a global issue, that's very important. Use your power to do it. And like I said, Leonardo, DiCaprio is a perfect example of it. He is a huge champion of climate change. He uses his power and he has influence because, then you said 25,000 people, but if you boil it down, it's even less, because it is the celebrities who mainly have the power. A celebrity can say, yes, I will do this, or no, I will not do this, and chances that the project will not go through, or at least won't go through in the way that they imagined it to. So, I think the first thing is to get in contact with celebrities, get in contact with their agents, send them information, tell them ‘we want you to focus on democracy. In America, we have this one third of the country – MAGA - who is sitting and craving for an autocracy. They celebrated, you know, when the Myanmar military took over and put the sitting government under house arrest. They said ‘yes, we need a military takeover’. They don't understand what that is. They really don't understand what a military takeover is, and this is something Hollywood can be very instrumental in showing them that no, you don't want the military coming in and shooting at mass protests, and going house through house, and taking anyone who differs with their opinion, dragging them out never to be seen again. This is where Hollywood can make a difference in educating people at least. Next, they'll be like, yes, we want concentration camps. They don't even understand what it is.
What happens if we if we don't do this? I asked you before how optimistic you are. Not to end on a negative note, but I think for sure, this is a somber discussion, or sober discussion and probably should end on that basis. You're urging us to be more thoughtful about what we read and watch, but also, that the entertainment industry needs to do its job by inspiring some sense of unity and common purpose. If we don't do that, how do you see the next five or 10 years playing out?
We're just going to continue deteriorating. Look, I wake up every morning and I put out the information to show what's happening. A lot of times it feels helpless. It feels like I'm like banging against a steel wall. But if I stop, then that's it. That's the goal. They want you to stop, or not to participate or to ignore. You have to keep going. That's the only way - you keep going, keep going, keep going. To end on a more positive note, Ukrainians have a motto, they will fight to defend their land, which they have been doing, to improve the future of the country. Not so they could see it in their lifetime. Not so their children can see it, but so their grandchildren can see it. They will sacrifice their life today, to leave their grandchildren the potential to have a better country. This is what we have to do. This is a hands on effort on everything, whatever the cause that is dear to your heart, you need to participate. That's the whole point of democracy. This is why we're seeing democracy teetering, because for too long, all of us, including myself, are like, ‘we have our institutions, they're safe, everything's wonderful’, without realizing that democracy is people. If people give up, or just ignore or are too busy worrying about their hair, or nails, or whatever else it is that is occupying their time and don't put the time to work on it, then we're going to wake up and say, ‘wait, what happened to our democracy’?
Thank you for a great close. It really is to say that all of these existential issues we're dealing with, from climate change on, are clearly existential, but the backstory or the common thread to all of them is that they need to be mindful of the war of ideas, and certainly the war of action, that all of those things are happening in the context of, and no matter what your area of interest, you need to be aware of the work, and effort, and resources, the bad actors are putting into thwarting all of this, and so I think your warning is particularly powerful.
Here’s my take on Olga’s big idea and her call to action.
It’s impossible to write this, and not note that I’m doing so while stopping every few seconds to glance at the TV news. On this the fourth day of fighting in Ukraine, the comedian turned hero Volodymyr Zelensky has rallied his people to deny the Russians what surely were their first day military objectives, the world has imposed historically crushing sanctions on Putin and his oligarchs with the collateral victims being the very people they first robbed, and an even odder, puffier looking Vladimir Putin has just announced that he has put his strategic rocket forces – their nuclear strike forces – on the highest level of alert. The reason? Because western countries were saying mean things about him.
Aside from being informed, I’m not sure there is much that I can – or should do – to help frame this particular moment in time. In the days, weeks, and months ahead, we need to trust in our current leadership to steer us through whatever transpires, to trust that we come out the other side whole and secure.
But never fucking again. That a country with an economy smaller than Canada’s, and just barely larger than Texas, can so threaten and destabilize our world, and especially the democracy’s within, is simply unacceptable in the 21st century. It’s farcically, tragically, absurdly, silly.
Yesterday, on one of my favourite podcasts, one of my favourite commentators – a well known expert on Russia – made the observation that it was really unfortunate that the United States was so divided in this time of crisis. I have to say, I was stunned when he stopped at that.
For the one thing that Olga made clear is that this was NOT a coincidence. The subtle, silent, pernicious divisions in western society, are as much an elemental part of the Russian battleplan, as was the carpet bombing of Chechnya or Syria in recent years, and very likely very soon, Kiev.
Active measures, as they are collectively known, place disinformation and division campaigns at the top of the order of battle. What Putin has always pursued as war, we in the west have too often, for too long interpreted as nothing more than autocratic mischief making.
Olga has reminded us of the many ways that Putin has waged asymmetric, hybrid warfare on our democracies, marrying almost a century of experience literally writing the book on active measures with the power of peer generated, on-demand media – and it needs to be said, unlimited financial resources. For at least a decade, Putins proxies have been exponentially amplifying divisions that already exist in our societies – from the Brexit and Trump ‘victories’ to the trucker protests in Canada. The efficacy of his active measures were such, that it had the effect of coalescing an eco-system of bad actors around those efforts, from Roger Stone and Steve Bannon to Victor Orban.
It's not a surprise then, that having acknowledged the corrosive and insidious power of disinformation and division campaigns, that Olga would look to an even greater power to combat it and prevail – Hollywood, or more broadly Hollywood as the shortform for western entertainment media. Olga’s call to action, that is for the entertainment media to ‘do it’s part’ to defend the democratic principles that have allowed it to thrive and prosper, is timely and existential. Societies with divided or hollowed-out souls, or with no souls at all, by definition cannot survive. But clearly too, the call to action is troublesome for a democratic society wherein the sense of the truths at the center of the national soul is so contested and fragile.
Janice Stein, a frequently consulted professor of international security studies that I have a great deal of respect for, this afternoon declared on the CBC that we live in a new world order, that Putin’s adventurism marks a return to a far more dangerous time of great power politics – and conflict.
Certainly, there is more than ample evidence to prove Professor Stein right, but that amounts to an admission of surrender for all of us humanist-globalists who believe that our birth-right includes not only the place we were born, but the world we share with all. I can’t and won’t consent to that submission.
If you feel likewise, consider how you might support the call to action that Olga has tabled. Do you have the time, experience, connections and/or resources to commit yourself to a 10 year effort to reach, influence and impact the 25,000 or so people who lead the entertainment media space, and enlist them in the fight – not against autocracy, but rather for a new democracy.
I have argued that we must assume that we have just 10 years to manage our way through not only the issue presented today by Olga, but all of the pressing challenges facing us, from climate change to income inequality. And I have argued we have the tested roadmap to scale the solution – the civic movement – needed to combat and prevail over the bad actors Olga has illuminated, while successfully addressing all the existential issues that demand our attention. That roadmap is to be found in the work of Leaders Expedition, the four-year journey where nearly 1,000 members, from over 35 countries, invested 20,000 hours of time their time to the endeavor.
While the outbreak of COVID led to the suspension of that work, the BOOM! podcast and livestreams are meant to elevate, leverage and amplify that mission, by provoking actionable discussions, and challenging BoomXers’ especially to facilitating the solutions that result. To use their time, expertise, connections etc. to make possible a new age of wonder.
My mission here is to find the founding investors/donors who likewise see a world of wonder as possible and within our grasp and are willing to be the first to fund a civic movement with the scale, scope – and power – needed to prevail.
As you reflect on the current events in Ukraine, see through the pessimism and concern that is absolutely warranted, and look through to that world of wonder, that can be, MUST be made real by 2035, and reflect what you are prepared to do about it. To assure that in 20 years the tragedy of Ukraine can never, ever, ever be repeated and visited on any nation. It’s not naive, it’s not a dream, it’s not a fantasy. It can be. Checkout our site at Boombigideas.com and check out our Mission and Core Assumptions tabs at the top. If you’re interested, click on the LEx Archive to see more information on our work at Leaders Expedition.
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