Of the questions raised by charges that Russia was involved in the release of hacked Democratic National Committee emails, at least one — why would Russia do such a thing? — can be answered with a little-noticed but influential 2013 Russian military journal article. “The very rules of war have changed,” Gen. Valery V. Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff, wrote in the Military-Industrial Courier. The Arab Spring, according to General Gerasimov, had shown that “nonmilitary means” had overtaken the “force of weapons in their effectiveness.” Deception and disinformation, not tanks and planes, were the new tools of power. And they would be used not in formally declared conflicts but within a vast gray between peace and war. Those ideas would appear, the next year, in Russia’s formal military doctrine. It was the culmination of a yearslong strategic reorientation that has remade Russian power, in response to threats both real and imagined, into the sort of enterprise that could be plausibly accused of using cyberattacks to meddle in an American presidential election. Like so many military rethinks, what became known as the Gerasimov Doctrine began as an effort to solve a seemingly urgent problem.
Throughout the 2000s, popular uprisings in Eastern Europe and Central Asia overturned their pro-Kremlin leaders, replacing them with democratically elected governments more inclined to the West. In Moscow, these “color revolutions,” as well as the subsequent Arab Spring, were seen as a wave of hostile American operations, engineered to topple Russia’s allies and weaken Russia itself.
Sergei Shoigu, the Russian defense minister, said in a 2014 speech that such uprisings were “used as an excuse to replace nationally oriented governments with regimes controlled from abroad.”
The Kremlin felt encircled and threatened by what it took to be a vast American conspiracy whose ultimate goal, it concluded, was the subjugation or outright destruction of the Russian state. In December 2011, thousands gathered in Moscow to protest legislative elections that had been marred by accusations of fraud. The demonstrations didn’t come to much, but they engendered a fear among Russian leaders that they were next.