Reading the Roots of Russia’s Political Warfare

BOOK REVIEW: The Folly and the Glory: America, Russia and the Political Warfare 1945-2020 

by Tim Weiner / Henry Holt & Co.

Reviewed by Lt. Gen. Robert P. Ashley (Ret.)

Cipher Brief Expert Lieutenant General Robert P. Ashley, Jr. (Ret.) is a career Army intelligence officer having served over thirty-six years on active duty. He retired from the Army in November 2020.  He final assignment was as the 21st Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency from October 2017 to October 2020 where we reported directly to the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security and the Secretary of Defense.

America is bereft of a strategic vision to replace what it had in the Cold War.  And where there is no vision, as the Book of Proverbs says, the people perish.” – Author Tim Weiner

REVIEW — While documenting a fascinating history of the competition between America and the Soviet Union (Russia) as played out through CIA and KGB intelligence operations, The Folly and the Glory author Tim Weiner sends a “clarion call” to policy makers to change America’s course on political warfare.

In his latest book, Weiner sets the context for decades of successful competition only to describe how we have ceded valuable ground to Russia in the past decade by failing to decisively engage in a domain in which “nations project power and work their will against an enemy, short of launching missiles…”

Weiner lays out the good, the bad, and the ugly of US policy since WWII. Moreover, he vividly illustrates the quip attributed to Mark Twain that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”  He expertly profiles our history of political warfare against the Soviet Union during the Cold War, making a compelling argument that this is a battle the US won in the past and argues that we must change our course if we are to win again.

To the uninformed, many may see the challenges we face with the proliferation of disinformation and political warfare as a new and unique threat.  The author quickly disavows us of the notion and this is new.  What has changed is the scope and scale of how information is delivered instantaneously and globally.  However, the U.S. is no longer going head-to-head against our adversaries as it relates to political warfare.

The author reminds us that our adversaries seek, through covert means, “to disrupt national self-confidence, to hamstring measures of national defense, to increase social and industrial unrest, to stimulate all forms of disunity…Poor will be set against rich, black against white, young against old, newcomers against established residents.”  Sound familiar?  It’s not from today’s headlines, though it could be.  In many ways, it reads as if the challenges we face have been drawn from current news, but the quote is from George Kennan, some seventy years ago.

To provide understanding of the current political warfare challenge, the author provides context by taking us back to 1947, and George Kennan’s, “The Long Telegram” and the Foreign Affairs article, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.”  You’ll find the pages turn quickly as the US begins to design and implement Kennan’s containment strategy to globally contest the Soviet Union via the CIA and other organizations chartered to do battle in the information space.

The author also quotes Kennan to define political warfare as “the employment of all means at a nation’s command, short of war to achieve its national objectives.”  From there, we learn of the early days of political warfare during the administrations of Truman and Eisenhower, up to the 2020 elections.  We learn about the early days of CIA covert actions.  How presidential administrations would embrace the CIA and covert action in operations to overthrow regimes from Guatemala, Iran and The Congo, as well as to “create governments, shore up juntas, swing elections, and sway popular opinions with cash and propaganda all over the world.” We also see the beginning of the Program for World Order that would give birth to Radio Free Europe and its sister organization Radio Liberty.

Juxtaposed against Russian actions today, the author gives the reader an opportunity to reflect on our own history, illuminating operations that today bring into question their alignment to our national values, raising the age-old question, can you achieve an honorable end state with less than honorable means?  The author points out that it is important to understand the context of the time in which these events took place.  To explain his point, he shares an old Balkan proverb often quoted by FDR: “My Children, it is permitted in time of grave danger to walk with the devil until you have crossed the bridge.”

The author also takes us through the Soviet Union’s evolution from propaganda to disinformation, highlighting the initial efforts by CIA to bring Soviet disinformation to light.  In October 1981, the CIA published “Soviet Active Measures: Forgery, Disinformation, Political Operations.”  Shortly after the paper was published, the House Permanent Committee on Intelligence began to hold hearings – reminding us again, this is not new.  Under the Reagan Administration, the US’ Active Measures Working Group was born, prompting a dynamic global attack on Soviet disinformation.  As the Soviet Union falls, the author gives us insights into the leaders that debated and opined on the future relationship with Russia and the merits of NATO expansion. Decisions that would shape Putin strategy, world view, and set the conditions for his narrative and his rise.

Later in the closing chapters, the author begins to paint a picture of Putin’s push to reinvigorate the Russian empire and his strategy to call into question democracy as a form of government.  Putin embraces the lessons of Russian military theorist, Vladimir Slipchenko who said, “information has become a destructive weapon just like a bayonet, bullet or projectile.” Facing the advent of multiple “color” revolutions, the author begins to map out Putin’s “grand ambitions” that would give birth to trolls, televisions stations, and hackers like the Internet Research Agency, driven to weaponize information to divide the west and lead the US to question its own election process.

Finally, the author lays out his premise that Putin fully understood that influencing the 2016 elections in favor of the Republican candidate would prove divisive to our democracy, exacerbating the many US domestic fault lines that Kennan warned about some seventy years ago.

In closing, the author reminds us that we must remain true to our democratic ideals of truth and that the Soviet and Russian goals, during and after the Cold War, remain unchanged. The intent has always been to “subvert the US, undermine its power, poison its political discourse.”

I’m confident you will find this a fascinating read, not only from its historical perspective, but also in how it reminds us that conflict with our adversaries and enemies begins long before the first shot is fired.  As senior advisor to Putin, and an expert in political warfare, Andrey Krutshkikh remarked during a public forum, “You think you’re living in 2016…no we are living in 1948.”  It’s worth reminding how I began this review – with a quote from Mark Twain – “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

The Folly and the Glory earns a prestigious four out of four trench coats.


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