The list of Russian grievances is long, but they can basically be reduced to two: The country is disrespected and denied its rightful place on the world stage, and Western democracies, and the United States in particular, have violated Russian sovereignty by promoting their ideological and political preferences for human rights and democratic political systems. In recent years, Russia has launched political and diplomatic offensives to raise Moscow’s international stature and counter the Western assault on its political institutions. The effort has been waged with particular vigor in cyberspace, where Russia has worked to undermine Western democracies and challenge their legitimacy. The chaos, confusion and tumult that have engulfed the U.S. presidency of Donald Trump are testimony to the success of this program and should be ringing alarm bells throughout the West.
It is widely believed that Russia actively attempted to influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Those efforts ranged from breaking into voter registration rolls — there is no evidence that they changed them — to hacking the accounts of senior Democratic Party officials to meeting with Republican activists and spreading disinformation during the campaign.
Of particular concern is the Russian government effort to use thousands of internet trolls and bots to spread fake news. According to U.S. experts, Russian hackers created fake social media accounts in key election states and precincts in the 2016 election, and then pushed propaganda from state-controlled Russian media outlets such as Russia Today (RT) or Sputnik. The accounts mimic those of voters from those districts to make them more believable. Stories from those dodgy accounts and sources would then be repeated by candidates and their surrogates in the mainstream media, allowing them to gain wider exposure and credibility. Trump’s eagerness to parrot those tales gave them still greater currency and velocity throughout the campaign.
The Russian programs look to historians like an updated version of old Soviet disinformation campaigns. During the Cold War, both superpowers struggled to shape public opinion, using disinformation as well as the creation of new communications channels — the CIA created magazines and radio stations, and facilitated the dissemination of samizdat literature — to challenge accepted media narratives on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
Just as those efforts became a fact of life, so too are the new programs. As one expert explained in Senate hearings held last week to understand the problem, Russian disinformation and hacking campaigns were “not a crisis, not something that will pass soon.” Instead, they are “the new normal. We will see Russia relying on this toolkit in the months and years to come.” FBI Director James Comey agrees, warning that the Russians will “be back. They’ll be back in 2020. They may be back in 2018.”
The U.S. is not the only country in Russia’s cross hairs. Moscow’s fingerprints have been found on the election in Montenegro, after that country suffered a series of coordinated cyberattacks during its election campaign. Dutch officials were so concerned about the possibility of Russian meddling in their election in mid-March that the government issued paper ballots rather than relying on machines that could be hacked.
Now, governments in France and Germany worry about Russian attempts to influence elections that they will be holding later this year. Russian President Vladimir Putin had a congenial meeting with National Front candidate Marine Le Pen last month in Moscow, during which he insisted that “We do not want to influence events in any way, but we retain the right to meet with all the different political forces, just like our European and American partners do.” Those words deserve more than a grain of salt. In addition to a photo-op that put Putin’s stamp of approval on Le Pen’s candidacy, the National Front received a €9 million loan from a Russian bank in 2014, an amount that would seem to warrant the charge that it influenced events. In Germany, a Russian hacker group has been accused of stealing 16 gigabytes of date from deputies in the lower house of parliament, a theft that could result in a steady drip of leaks that discredit German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her allies, Putin’s principal antagonist in Europe.
Putin similarly dismissed any accusations that he has tried to influence U.S. elections. Asked directly if that was his aim, he replied, “Read my lips: No.” He argues that the “anti-Russian card is being played in the interests of some political forces inside the United States with an aim to strengthen and consolidate their positions.”
The weight of the evidence suggests otherwise: Moscow is working hard to influence the domestic politics of its adversaries and this is one way that war is waged in the 21st century. Sapping the political will of opponents remains the pre-eminent objective of international conflict and governments have new tools to unnerve, destabilize and confuse their enemies.
While Russia is the focus of attention today, hackers in China and North Korea have demonstrated a skill and aptitude for just this kind of work as well. The recriminations and confusion that today consume politics in Washington are proof that Moscow excels at this game.
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