By Alex Finley, John Sipher, and Asha Rangappa
It’s Just Too Easy for Putin
“There is no such thing as a former KGB man.”Vladimir Putin
FBI Director Christopher Wray testified to the House Judiciary Committee last week that Russia’s disinformation campaign to interfere in the 2020 election is underway. This isn’t surprising, given that Russian active measures are about the long game: Ex-KGB officer and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goal was never simply to place a Manchurian candidate in the Oval Office, but rather to permanently destabilize the West, damage U.S. credibility, and undermine those very things that make democratic countries special.
Putin aimed for chaos, and Donald Trump was the chaos candidate in 2016. But Putin will continue to attack, namely because his objectives haven’t changed and the United States has not done anything to defend or deter him from this course of action. The only difference this time around is that, after four years of Trump, generating chaos will be even easier to achieve, as Trump and his surrogates have adopted the same playbook. Republicans know they are working in parallel with Russian intelligence, even if they are not working hand in hand. Republicans may insist to themselves there is a difference, but practically speaking, there isn’t. The only way to neutralize this threat is through public awareness of Russia’s tactics and increased civic participation: To that end, read on.
The best way to assess the Russian threat in the future is to assess the data we already have from the past. From our experience in 2016, we know Russian intelligence probed election computer systems in all 50 states. We also know the Kremlin stole emails from the Democratic Party, fed the material to WikiLeaks and others who could disperse it publicly, and then leveraged the information in a massive propaganda and influence campaign.
Russian intelligence ran a further influence campaign using social media, trolls, and bots to amplify the propaganda and to influence individuals to take actions in the United States, including hiring actors to portray Hillary Clinton in a mock jail cell on the back of a pickup truck at rallies. Russians with links to the Kremlin infiltrated conservative groups, such as the National Rifle Association and American evangelical organizations, and made various approaches to the Trump campaign. Russian intelligence also stole Republican Party material which it has yet to weaponize.
This same Kremlin playbook was deployed outside the United States as well – from Britain to France, Spain to Italy, Hungary to Montenegro, and elsewhere. For those who study Russian intelligence modus operandi, the pattern is clear.
As such, we can be confident that the 2020 election cycle will provide the Kremlin opportunities to pursue further subversion, disinformation, and deception. We should expect to see a barrage of disinformation, from fake think tanks, fake media outlets, false social media accounts, false identities, trolls, and bots to launder fringe narratives into the mainstream and hijack the public discourse. Lies will target the Democratic nominee (as the corruption conspiracy about former Vice President Joe Biden shows, this step began long ago), as well as seek to divide the Democratic vote.
While we are more aware of the existence of this manipulation than we were in 2016, it will remain difficult to separate fact from fiction and to critically assess information. Russian disinformation efforts will be hidden amidst the flood of angry partisan wrangling spread organically by Americans. Even Fox News has internally raised a red flag that its own commentators, like Sean Hannity and Joe diGenova, are actively using their platforms to spread disinformation. Furthermore, Trump proved willing to accept Russian help last time around. He is sure to welcome it (or even solicit it, in the case of Ukraine) again now, meaning the convergence of foreign interference and Trump’s disinformation apparatus will be complete.
Of course, seeking to stoke chaos and outrage is one thing, but physically manipulating vote counts is another altogether. Today’s antiquated and decentralized voting system is vulnerable, as we learned in 2016. State and local governments run elections, and some have been hesitant to work too closely with the federal government to secure their election systems. Yet they lack the resources and know-how to protect those systems from a State-sponsored attack. Many states are left vulnerable.
Voting is the foundation of any democracy. Trust in the results is paramount. In 2016, despite Russian interference, we generally accepted the vote count. Despite Trump suggesting the 2016 vote might be rigged, the public has generally accepted the result, lulled by official reports that the Russian operation did not change any actual votes tallies, while its effect on voters’ preferences remains unknown.
But with the Trump administration eroding the public’s trust in all U.S. institutions, including the press, law enforcement, the Intelligence Community, and even the courts, Russia’s job is made even easier. It doesn’t even need to change vote counts, since the mere knowledge (or suspicion) that Russia might have tampered with the voting infrastructure in any way will undermine faith in the outcome of the election.
Additionally, Trump’s penchant for conspiracy theories and instinct for lying has signaled to a large part of the population that they should not trust officialdom, and has also conditioned us all to be wary of anything we learn. It doesn’t help that the president himself sometimes pushes the narrative that the vote will be rigged, priming us for his possible rejection of the results should he lose in November.
In fact, for precisely this reason, it may be in Russia’s interest to interfere more overtly this time around. Even if election systems are secured and actual vote tallies remain untouched, foreign disruptors could still sow discord and chaos by changing numbers on public-facing web sites or spreading rumors that vote tallies are illegitimate. In 2016, for example, several public websites for local vote tallies malfunctioned. As Vox reported, in one Florida county, “online precinct results were delayed and then fluctuated wildly. In Broward County, the results displayed 30 minutes before polls closed.”
The recent foibles surrounding the Iowa Caucus, and subsequent comments from Trump and others seeking to delegitimize the outcome, provide further exploitable fodder for Russian intelligence operatives to manipulate and amplify. As we approach the 2020 election, it is becoming clear that the mere perception of a problem can be used to undermine confidence in the outcome of elections. In this sense, Putin doesn’t need to do much to manufacture trouble, he merely needs to “nudge” a population already inclined to believe the worst about their domestic political opponents. Like the devil on Bluto’s shoulder in “Animal House” imploring him to follow his base instincts, Putin doesn’t have to do much to set us against each other.
It is easy to imagine the disinformation that would spread like wildfire were anyone to suggest the existence of irregularities. At what point would the public know the results were official? Would the public accept anyone saying they were official? Will any loser be confident that his or her vote totals were correct?
Even more likely, a few well-placed stories or rumors can have the same effect. Intelligence services utilize these low-cost operations for exactly this reason. They can easily play on Americans’ trust and confidence, and the effect continues long after the initial assault is over. These days, the Kremlin hardly needs to do much to stoke Americans’ fears and distrust of each other, especially with a U.S. president working to divide Americans along political, religious and citizenship lines. Russia also knows that the American system is predicated on trust, and that trust is fleeting and easy to bruise. All it needs to do now is continue to “nudge” the U.S. in the direction it is going naturally.
A recent Axios article highlighted a significant lack of trust in the official institutions that manage U.S. elections. “If the 2020 presidential election is close enough to trigger a fight over the results, the public’s confidence is so low in key people and institutions that no one is likely to be a trusted referee,” according to the report.
A tight election result could easily lead to drawn-out fights over who is the legitimate winner. And the conditions are right for neither side to have full confidence in whoever is ultimately declared the winner. In a worst-case scenario, this could make a peaceful transition of power difficult.
That situation is ripe for the covert actions of a hostile actor. Putin does not care if Trump wins. He simply wants to weaken the U.S. Making the country question the outcome of the most sacred part of democracy is a good way to do it.
But it is also incumbent on us not to overreact to Russian actions aimed at outraging us, or to become so despondent by assaults on our institutions that we give up. The only defense against the onslaught of disinformation and fomentation—no matter the source—is a return to provable fact. And the only antidote to the political situation we find ourselves in is informed participation in the political process.
Beyond Russian Disinformation
FBI Director Christopher Wray recently testified that the Bureau had made domestic terrorism a higher priority in its national threat matrix. As he stated,
Trends may shift, but the underlying drivers for domestic violent extremism such as perceptions of government or law enforcement overreach, socio-political conditions, racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and reactions to legislative actions—remain constant.
How does this intersect with Russia’s goal to interfere in the 2020 election?
First, the big picture: While there has been much discussion about Russia’s use of disinformation as a weapon to interfere in Western elections, it is only one piece of Russia’s larger use of political warfare. Russia’s full active-measures toolkit—one that goes back to the Soviet Union’s KGB—includes subversion, espionage, sabotage, propaganda, deception, provocation, spreading of rumors and conspiracy, weaponization of social media, and even assassination and promotion of violence. These tools are used together to weaken the Kremlin’s enemies and advance Russia’s political and foreign policy interests. As we discussed in our last article, Russian disinformation will be used to exploit an already polarized U.S. society and to manufacture outrage. Of course, as anger in the U.S. grows, the threat of political violence also builds, providing the Russian government another opportunity to use a familiar tactic to divide the country.
We know from 2016 that Russia’s disinformation campaign applies pressure precisely on the most politically divisive issues that will most effectively drive Americans apart. But as Special Counsel Robert Mueller detailed, some of its efforts went beyond encouraging passive consumption of divisive material to encouraging people to take action. For example, Russia manipulated Americans to participate in protests on opposite sides of emotionally charged issues—like immigration, or Black Lives Matter—at the same time and same place, likely with the hope that the confrontations might turn violent. In the lead up to the 2018 midterm elections, the FBI uncovered Project Lakhta, a disinformation campaign that had as one of its talking points encouragement of “civil war” in the event that President Donald Trump was impeached as a result of Mueller’s findings. This exhortation has alarmingly been echoed at times by Trump supporters and Fox News commentators. Trump himself has pushed the notion that the country could fall into civil war if he is removed from office. On cue, Russian state media repeated this, no doubt thrilled that their agitations had entered the mainstream.
So, what would the next iteration of this effort look like? A look at Russia’s actions in Europe and past practice suggests the United States should prepare for the worst. Russian military intelligence has been involved in destabilization efforts across Europe, including assassinations and insurgencies.
Russian intelligence has a history of building relationships with many far-right groups, in order to exploit their anger and drive violence. As Michael Carpenter wrote in The Atlantic, Russian President Vladimir Putin exploited fight clubs, motorcycle clubs, neo-Nazi soccer hooligans, anywhere and everywhere you find angry white men ready to fight. Carpenter wrote, “These groups serve as the perfect unwitting agents to accomplish Moscow’s twin goals of destabilizing Western societies and co-opting Western business and political elites.”
The October 2016 parliamentary election in the small Balkan country of Montenegro serves as a stark warning. According to government documents, the GRU planned to assassinate the prime minister and place the country in the hands of pro-Russian opposition politicians. The plan called for GRU officers to use WhatsApp and other messaging apps to spread disinformation claiming the vote was rigged, with the aim of inciting the public to take to the streets in protest, at which point a group of mercenaries – dressed in stolen Montenegrin police uniforms – would open fire on the crowds. Chaos would ensue. The prime minister would be assassinated, and the pro-Russian opposition would then swoop in to fill the leadership vacuum.
To hide the fact that the GRU was behind the operation, Russian intelligence officers hired far-right groups to carry out the coup on their behalf. In the end, Montenegrin authorities foiled the plan, reportedly after receiving information from Western intelligence services. Two alleged GRU officers were later convicted for their involvement and sentenced to 15 and 12 years in prison.
Another example, as Elizabeth Grimm Arsenault and Joseph Stabile documented recently for Just Security, is the Hungarian National Front, a neo-Nazi paramilitary group that has done more than play a role in Russia’s disinformation apparatus. The group has participated in paramilitary training directly with Russian military intelligence officials who were in Hungary under diplomatic cover. As one Finnish observer put it, Russia’s training support to the group fits the pattern of Russia supporting “fringe groups in an effort to destabilize or simply disorient the European Union.”
More recently, at least one member of a GRU group was tracked to Spain, where authorities are investigating if he has connections with an anonymous online group that organized thousands of people to take over the Barcelona airport during political protests last October, resulting in the cancellation of more than a hundred flights.
Again, the pattern is clear to anyone who follows Russian intelligence modus operandi closely. They have rallied masses of people to take action, with violence as a goal.
While no data has been released publicly about ties between Russian intelligence and extremist groups in the United States, we should not underestimate the possibility that such ties exist and that these groups could be used to further polarize society and to scare off protesters, demonstrators, and eventually voters. We know Russian intelligence has aimed to infiltrate conservative groups in the United States, including the National Rifle Association (NRA) and evangelical groups. Putin has an image of himself as the embodiment of masculine and conservative values. His topless photo shoots are a laughable component of this, but he has used this kind of propaganda to insinuate “Russian values” into conservative groups across the globe. The Kremlin trys to appeal to far-right sensibilities in the U.S., portraying Russia as a white, Christian, anti-immigrant and anti-homosexual country. Maria Butina, who presented herself as a Russian gun rights advocate, tapped into this as she courted Republicans through the NRA and at events like the National Prayer Breakfast.
In addition, just last month, a BBC investigation found that the leader of The Base, a white nationalist group in the United States that the FBI is investigating for terrorism, is currently living in Russia, from where he runs the group. The FBI has said The Base is a “racially motivated violent extremist group” that “seeks to accelerate the downfall of the United States government, incite a race war, and establish a white ethno-state.”
According to the BBC, last year, the group’s leader, Rinaldo Nizzaro, who is currently based in Saint Petersburg, “was listed as a guest at a Russian government security exhibition in Moscow, which ‘focused on the demonstration of the results of state policy and achievements.’”
We would not be surprised to learn that rallies, like the recent pro-gun gathering in Richmond, had gotten a boost—in money, in people, in messaging—from people with connections to Russian intelligence. These groups are primed for exploitation and Russian intelligence has a history of doing just that.
The American public needs to be aware of the tactics our enemies are likely to utilize as we barrel toward November. The more we understand their actions and our vulnerabilities, the better we can control how we consume and share information and how we react to those trying to bring out the worst in us.
Originally published by the Just Security, 03.09.2020, New York University School of Law, under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivs-NonCommercial license.