It’s a time of soaring international tension.
Disinformation, censorship and fake news are rampant. The threat of nuclear war looms large.
And the United States, staring down an authoritarian regime in Moscow, launches its vehicle of choice to counter propaganda: the hot-air balloon.
In what must be one of the zanier spy plans, the American CIA used balloons early in the Cold War to drop pro-democracy leaflets on the other side of the Iron Curtain, in the hopes that recipients would abandon the communist ideology spread by the Kremlin across eastern Europe.
Tactics have changed, but the heart of the struggle has not. And as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s campaign in Ukraine continues, the East-West struggle has become a reflection, in some ways, of that conflict from decades ago.
Then, as now, the central question is how to subvert a regime — to undermine an intransigent leader, while avoiding outright conflict whose result might well be nuclear annihilation.
The Cold War was, in great part, an air war. Wind currents for balloons, and the airways — beaming the signals of Radio Free Europe, the BBC and Voice of America, were key weapons in the fight against Communism.
Though the old-time tactics may today seem quaint, the West is again looking for an informational pipeline to into the hearts and minds of potential Russian dissidents. Instead of the hot-air balloon, governments now turn to high-tech tools such as VPNs and encrypted websites.
Earlier this month, the Central Intelligence Agency published on its Instagram page step-by-step instructions — in Russian — explaining how to safely contact and provide information to the American spy agency.
“The goal, at least immediately, is not the overthrow of the Putin government — and that shouldn’t even be the goal, anyway,” says Seth Jones, director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“It’s to get access” — access, for the Russian public, to information about what’s truly going on.
The Russian government has banned Facebook and Instagram. It has clipped Twitter’s wings. It has terrorized political opponents of the Kremlin, driving them to exile or throwing them in prison. Anti-war protest is a crime. Independent journalists and activists are on trial for having veered from the Kremlin’s crooked official lines about the state of the war in Ukraine.
Jones said getting facts to a Russian population increasingly kept in the dark — about its economic degradation, about its poor military performance in Ukraine, about the lies spread by the Kremlin and even the Russian Orthodox Church — could amplify disillusionment as the effects of sanctions and political isolation kick in.
“I find it hard to believe that, eventually, there won’t be a significant backlash in the country,” said Jones, who wrote about U.S. support for the labour and democracy movement Solidarity in Communist Poland in a 2018 book, “A Covert Action: Reagan, the CIA and the Cold War Struggle in Poland.”
Countries have gone to extraordinary lengths to hide their actions, but the history of subversion has been charted back to the end of the Second World War, when the western allies and the Soviets defeated their mutual Nazi enemy, then trained their sights on each other.
Fuelled by daring wartime exploits, the Americans and British initially favoured arming dissident networks with the aim of an armed uprising in Communist countries.
One of the first such examples, Operation Valuable, was an attempt to spark a civil war in Albania and sow chaos throughout eastern Europe. An unmitigated failure, it led to the deaths of 300 people.
Dan Lomas, a British intelligence expert and professor at Brunel University London, said that experience convinced the U.K. government and MI6, the foreign intelligence service, that “it’s pretty pointless to do World War Two-style operations in Europe because it’s not going to get very far.”
Instead, the British Foreign Office launched an extensive effort to counter Communist propaganda with a shadowy unit created in 1948, known as the Information Research Department.
The IRD was a precursor to the Troll Factory. It gathered the most damning tidbits about life in the Soviet Union — its economic and social problems, its repressive tendencies and the Gulag prison system — and distributed them widely to journalists, politicians and other public officials with a pulpit, to spread the word about the harms of the encroaching threat.
Some of that was inevitably pumped back across Soviet borders through the BBC’s Russian-language radio service which, along with U.S. stations Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America, became the main soft-power tools in the fight against Communism.
The American radio stations were initially conceived as a platform for anti-Communist exiles and émigrés to preach about democracy to listeners trapped behind the Iron Curtain, said Benjamin Tromly, a professor and Cold War expert at the University of Puget Sound.
However, the initial business plan needed fine tuning.
“In time, they realized this would be counterproductive and that the Soviet population wasn’t made up of all anti-Soviet listeners and, even if it was, you’d just get these people killed if you stage some kind of an uprising,” said Tromly, a Peterborough, Ont., native.
Instead of spreading blatant pro-Western or even anti-Communist propaganda, the stations adapted. They deradicalized their airwaves and began producing Western-style journalism delivered in the languages of their eastern European listeners, funded by the American government.
The western broadcasts to eastern Europe were seen as a serious threat by Soviet authorities, and as a strategic success by Washington.
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A U.S. National Security Council report from December 1969 boasted that the annual budget of the radio broadcasts totalled $35 million (all figures U.S.), while the Soviet attempts to block the radio signals cost $150 million and “are only marginally successful.”
Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa turned to Radio Free Europe for news of the outside world even when martial law was declared in Poland and he was under house arrest, Jones said.
“That was the one source of information that he knew would be relatively accurate.”
The computer and smartphone are today’s shortwave radio, but choking of independent information sources in Russia has led to an urgent need for technological workarounds.
Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) let a user in Omsk or Vladivostok or Belgorod access websites blocked by the Russian government, such as the BBC; to hear Ukrainian perspectives on the war; or to simply access Facebook, whose parent company, Meta, Russia has designated as an extremist organization.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is also inaccessible to Russians without the use of a VPN.
Tim Weiner, an American journalist and author, said western governments need to focus their efforts on the distribution of VPNs, encrypted web browsers such as Tor and other online lances that will pierce the new Iron Curtain being pulled across Putin’s Russia.
If nothing else, these tools let a conversation take place between Russians and westerners.
“I don’t think you’re ever going to reach the older generation of pensioners whose only source of information is Russian television propaganda. But the younger generation, the more technologically savvy generation — yes, you can get through to them,” he said.
“It’s not going to happen overnight, but it could surely happen.”
Eugene Rumer is less optimistic.
A former intelligence officer for the National Intelligence Council, which advises the U.S. government, he noted that the protest movement in Russia has been crushed; Putin’s approval ratings are relatively unchanged after the invasion; and the failures of the Russian army’s battlefield failures in Ukraine have not sparked any backlash.
“It doesn’t look like the possibility some people hoped for — the Russian people throwing out Putin — is really in the cards,” he said. “We’re looking at Russia with Putin for the foreseeable future.”
Despite some investigative reporting that has attempted to shed light on persistent rumours that Putin is being treated for cancer, or that he is hobbled by a debilitating back injury, the Russian leader’s health remains a closely guarded secret. Nor is there a clear political succession plan in the event of illness or sudden death.
In the absence of a “catastrophic health development,” Rumer, who heads the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and advocates support for Russian exiles and émigrés, as well as those dissidents who have chosen not to flee the country.
“It’s in our interests to see Russia transform itself, and these people could play a positive role in that,” he said.
Cold War efforts to harness Russian exiles resulted in a range of schemes, including the creation in the 1960s of a CIA front group, the Central Organization of Postwar Émigrés, to “exploit evolutionary changes in the USSR favourable to United States policy objectives.”
The émigré group distributed anti-Communist propaganda, made contacts with Soviet citizens travelling abroad and, between July 1959 and March 1960, used those hot-air balloons to drop up to 15 million propaganda leaflets per month on Soviet Army positions in East Germany.
“Maybe they made some marginal difference, but don’t forget that, in a large portion of East Germany, you could actually watch West German television,” Rumer said. “It’s not like you needed a lot of balloons and leaflets to stay informed.”
Another concern in the current standoff with Russia is coming up with countermeasures that don’t end up falling afoul of the Kremlin’s protocol for the use of nuclear weapons, which permits their use when faced with an “existential” threat to the state.
“My concern is that it’s not exactly clear what (western) strategy is,” said Tromly. “When Biden made that slip — ‘how can Putin stay in power?’ — was it a slip? Some people think that it was deliberate signalling.”
Weiner, the author of “Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA,” has no such suspicions. He does not believe Washington is advocating regime change in Russia. But the West is engaged on a battlefield much larger than just the borders of Ukraine, he said.
“This is not simply a military conflict. This is a war between autocracy and democracy,” Weiner said. “If the autocrats win this battle, it will be a significant blow to the fate of democracy around the world.”
The information war may indeed be well underway, but it is being waged with a tricky arsenal of weapons — some of them quite dirty, their effectiveness not at all guaranteed.
Lomas, the British intelligence expert, hearkened back to the words of a government auditor who reviewed the Information Research Department’s propaganda program in the late 1970s, shortly before the controversial unit was exposed to the public and then shut down.
“Propaganda is like manure being put on plants,” the auditor is said to have concluded. “We know to some extent that it has an influence, but we don’t know the exact amount.”
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