Dear Mr. Putin....

Let’s Play Chess

Did you ever imagine yourself as a fighter in a global conflict? Because in today’s world, that’s exactly what you are. 

I’m not talking to those readers who have served in the military, intelligence, or law enforcement. If that’s you, thank you for your service. No, on this occasion I am talking to the rest of you. The retirees. The housewives. The doctors. Students. Therapists. Construction workers. Those who lost jobs in the pandemic and are looking hard for new ones. In short, ordinary people, connecting on social media, who have a couple of things in common - you are patriots, and over the last four years you’ve learned more about intelligence and information warfare than you would ever have dreamed possible. 

Pre 2016 you would likely not recognize the person you are today. But you’ve learned fast, because you had to. 

Russia managed to get Donald Trump into the Oval Office through warfare. Information warfare. And if you think that’s an exaggeration, don’t take my word for it - take theirs. Robert Mueller’s indictment of a Russian woman running ‘Project Lahkta’, the business end of the Internet Research Agency’s troll factory, contained this bald statement:

‘’The Conspiracy has sought to conduct what it called internally ‘Information Warfare against the United States of America.’”

Nor was it confined to private individuals. A separate Mueller indictment of Russian military officers demonstrated just how serious the Kremlin was about the ‘warfare’ part of ‘information warfare’. Two separate military units of the GRU, Russian military intelligence, were entirely dedicated to hacking America and then ‘weaponizing’ the information they recovered. These were no ordinary hackers, pimply teens sitting in Mom’s basement somewhere. These were dedicated Russian soldiers, specialist officers with ranks rising as high as Colonel. And the attack is still ongoing. Both in 2016 and in 2020, the U.S. intelligence community has determined that it is coming from the top... from Vladimir Putin himself. 

Putin is, by training, a KGB spy, and one who hates the United States with his whole heart. He is also a particular aficionado of propaganda operations. His Russian political career began when he prosecuted men “responsible” for an explosion in an apartment building; there is widespread speculation that Putin organized this explosion himself. It certainly made him famous. On the back of such murderous propaganda, Putin rose to power.

As Russia creaked and groaned under the weight of the corrupt oligarchy Putin fostered, and the sanctions imposed over its annexation of Crimea, Putin desperately needed a distraction - and the removal of sanctions. The rise of the internet and ‘Big Data’ offered him an unparalleled opportunity. Russia could barely afford one smoke-belching aircraft carrier, but if kinetic war against the United States was  impossible, information war most certainly was not.

This is the battlespace we find ourselves in. With Donald Trump as President, America is not likely to be tasking its own military to fight the Russian onslaught. Money appropriated by Congress for anti-disinformation efforts has not been allocated. But that doesn’t need to stop us. In 2020, we are the equivalent of the American revolutionaries, the scrappy ‘patriot militia’ that once fought the British army. But this battle does not require guns. There’s no fitness test. No age limits. And as for bootcamp, well, if you made it this far into 2020 without losing your sanity, you already graduated. 

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In 2016, one of Russia’s favorite memes was ‘chess’, that miniature game of logical war that the country excels at. ‘Obama plays checkers, while Putin plays chess.’ The message was this; if words are the new weapons, the American superpower is unarmed. The principle of ‘asymmetric warfare’ is that the weaker opponent can beat the stronger by turning their strengths against them. There’s no realistic scenario where Russia’s military could storm D.C. and take the White House, yet, using America’s strength of freedom of speech, Russia managed to help tip their favored candidate straight into the Oval Office.

But asymmetric warfare works both ways. As individuals we are (probably) weaker than a Colonel in Russian military intelligence, a corrupt oligarch like Prighozin, or the President of the Russian Federation. But we too can use their ideas against them. We can fight back. 

In January 2017, I was ready to leave social media. I had deleted all my tweets and planned to delete my entire account. Like many, my original plan was to get out of that hell-hole as soon as Hillary won. The Kremlin had other ideas, and I stuck around so that Trump supporters couldn’t call me a coward. At the same time, I wrote up a long blog post, directly addressed to Vladimir Putin, calling out what he had done and analyzing that the much-hated James Comey was, in fact, still investigating Trump and Russia, contrary to almost everybody else’s beliefs. I called it ‘Dear Mr. Putin, Let’s Play Chess.’ The afternoon I published it, I thought that was the end of the matter; I would shortly delete my Twitter account and go on with my life. When I woke up the next day, however, the blog had gone viral. It was a top trending topic in the United States. And it had indeed been noticed in the Kremlin. The verified Russian Ambassador to the United Kingdom, and a bunch of other official Russian accounts, started following me. I dropped plans to drop out and started to research Russia and Trump with friends on social media, publishing more blogs about it. In September, 2017, Russia Today, Russia’s official state media, ‘celebrated’ me as the third largest ‘Russophobe’ in the world, after John McCain and NATO (!), and before Hillary Clinton. 

That was nonsense, of course. Like everybody else on the Kremlin’s ‘Top Ten’ list, I love the Russian people, and beautiful Russia. I am the enemy of Vladimir Putin and his corrupt regime. Social media is the great leveler in information war. A couple of military units and a troll factory can massively harm the security of the United States - but using the same principles, ordinary citizens like me and you can leverage social media to strike back against our nation’s enemies, even though we are regular people, and the guy on the other side of the chessboard is a head of state with billions of dollars, armies, and nuclear weapons. 

‘Dear Mr. Putin’, this newsletter, will be carrying on that effort, looking at ‘all enemies, foreign and domestic’, in information warfare, and giving people the facts they need to fight back. This is a real war, and it’s one you can fight from a wheelchair, from a nursing home, from a city studio or a home office, whether you are 18 or 108. And we must not think that the war is won the day America elects Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. The wounded animal, the trapped rat, that Donald Trump will then be, will fight harder than ever until Inauguration Day. And after that? Those that think Putin will give up trying to hurt America when Biden is sworn in haven’t been paying attention. Information operations against our country will continue. As vaccines are introduced, for example, who wants to bet that Russia - and China - will mount enormous disinformation campaigns against them? Who will be the next QAnon? As Biden, Harris and their team move to dismantle the twenty years’ worth of damage that Trump managed to do in four, they are likely to find the sheer size of the task overwhelming. The FBI, we all sincerely hope, will be busy prosecuting. For some time to come, it will be up to us - to you, to me, and to all who care about America - to defend the homeland, and our allies, countering information warfare.

Disgraced Gen. Mike Flynn boasted in 2016 of his ‘digital army’ of trolls. If you want to join the patriots fighting against them, whatever your political party, then this newsletter wants to help. There is no pay, there are no benefits, and you won’t get any recognition for your efforts - unless it’s from the enemy. Sound good? Ok then. Let’s go.