Russia ‘brazenly assaulting foundations of Western democracy’: how to counter Kremlin’s information warfare


The Kremlin-backed Russian Internet Research Agency operated dozens of Twitter accounts masquerading as local American news sources that collectively garnered more than half-a-million followers, Bloomberg’s Selina Wang reports:

More than 100 news outlets also published stories containing those handles in the run-up to the election, and some of them were even tweeted by a top presidential aide. These news imposter accounts, which are part of the 2,752 now-suspended accounts that Twitter Inc. has publicly disclosed to be tied to the IRA, show how the Russian group sought to build local communities of followers to disseminate messages. ….Researchers have concluded that many of the IRA-linked accounts were created to sow social discord, by trying to “put left-wing people further to the left and right-wing people further to the right,” said Ben Nimmo, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council Digital Forensic Research Lab. “It’s that attempt to amplify the differences in society.”

“Social media companies such as Twitter, Facebook, and Google must provide greater transparency about who funds the political advertisements on their platforms, work harder to eliminate automated and bot-generated content, and invest in the technological and human resources to root out fake foreign accounts that spread disinformation,” says a former U.S. Vice President.

Today, the Russian government is brazenly assaulting the foundations of Western democracy around the world. Under President Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin has launched a coordinated attack across many domains—military, political, economic, informational—using a variety of overt and covert means, according to Joseph R. Biden, Jr., and Michael Carpenter. To safeguard its kleptocratic system, the Kremlin has decided to take the fight beyond Russia’s borders to attack what it perceives as the greatest external threat to its survival: Western democracy, they write for Foreign Affairs:

By attacking the West, the Kremlin shifts attention away from corruption and economic malaise at home, activates nationalist passions to stifle internal dissent, and keeps Western democracies on the defensive and preoccupied with internal divisions. This allows Moscow to consolidate its power at home and exert untrammeled influence over its “near abroad.”

The United States needs to reset its posture toward Russia to recognize that it now confronts a global ideological competition not seen since the Cold War, argue analysts Max Bergmann and Carolyn Kenney. In Acts of an Adversary: Russia’s Ongoing Hostilities Toward the United States and Its Allies, a new report for the Center for American Progress, they propose several actions and approaches, including:

  • Protect America’s elections from foreign cyberattacks
  • Aggressively implement U.S. sanctions against Russia
  • Bolster U.S. intelligence and cyberdefense capabilities
  • Stand up for democracy and human rights
  • Hold social media companies accountable
  • The United States should take action against money laundering
  • Establish an Eastern European Security Assistance Initiative
  • Fight the information war by significantly expanding public diplomacy efforts
  • Deter state-sponsored cyberattacks by sending clear message about U.S. cyber redlines

The strategies that authoritarian regimes use to extend influence beyond their borders, is the focus of a new blog, Power 3.0, writes Shanthi Kalathil, director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy. The blog will:

  • look at how the Internet and other communication technologies—originally heralded as the vanguard of democratic ideas and debate—have been used to weaken and divide democracies even as they potentially strengthen authoritarian censorship and surveillance practices around the world.
  • analyze the ways in which facets of the international financial system have enabled authoritarian kleptocrats to loot their own countries and then hide their ill-gotten wealth in overseas shelters, corrupting democratic institutions in the process.
  • examine how authoritarian and illiberal regimes use global culture and education to burnish their own reputations, deflect criticism, and promote their own narratives.
  • seek to shed light on how democracies are drawing on their strengths to respond, from networked, global forensic journalism that uncovers kleptocrats’ worst abuses, to innovative efforts to combat disinformation, to civil society efforts to incorporate internet freedom into the architecture of the Internet itself.

The Digital and Cyberspace Policy program has launched its Cyber Operations Tracker, a searchable database of known state-sponsored cyber operations that have occurred since 2005, the Council on Foreign Relations writes. It is a resource for academics, policymakers, and journalists looking for data on state-sponsored cyber operations.

Countering hybrid warfare demands a risk assessment – a ‘look at ourselves’ – that is sensitive to vulnerabilities across civil society and not just within the military or security sector, according to a recent study from the UK Ministry of Defence, “Countering hybrid warfare project: understanding hybrid warfare.” Aiming to develop a framework under the Multinational Capability Development Campaign (MCDC), countering hybrid warfare (CHW) is a multinational project to help understand the nature and character of modern hybrid threats (HT: Kremlin Watch).

Russia’s information warfare operations, aimed to weaken adversaries’ social cohesion and political systems, are complex and adaptive, but Western governments can take steps to guard against them, argues Keir Giles, a Senior Consulting Fellow at Chatham House, the London-based foreign policy think-tank. In Countering Russian Information Operations in the Age of Social Media, he examines Russia’s capabilities and proposes steps Western governments should take to blunt their effectiveness, including:

To address the specific problem of disinformation, social media companies should continue partnering with journalists and fact-checkers to build trust, even though this is only effective for media-literate users who take the time and effort to assess the legitimacy of sources. The extent that governments can guide such efforts will vary among countries, depending on their constitutional systems and media cultures. In the United States, for instance, the First Amendment greatly limits what the U.S. government can do to vet online media. But where government action is permissible, national media bodies, such as the United Kingdom’s Independent Press Standards Organization and the Office of Communications, should implement proposals for an open review and verification system for online media with the aim of establishing a gold standard for fact-checking and objectivity.

The challenge for those in charge of Western statecraft is how to defend ourselves against the Putinist threat, without Putinizing our own societies, Edward Lucas writes for CEPA’s Stratcom Program:

It would be easy to fall into that trap: forget checks and balances, and have a tight-knit group of people at the heights of power who coordinate a full-spectrum defense on everything: the media, counter-intelligence, criminal justice, the energy sector, universities, and so forth. With a high degree of trust among decision-makers, rapid decision-making and strong support from society, the Putinist menace can surely be dealt with.

Russia’s information warfare is one of the principal threats to liberal values, according to the deputies of the European Parliament’s Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE). While Europe’s liberals are committed to countering Russian propaganda, many believe that Russians themselves must take the steps necessary to produce regime change in Russia, Paul Goble reports. That may seem a distant dream now, one of them remarks, but “one day people will simply be fed up, and if the Russians demand freedom, they’ll get it.”

The massive, uncontrolled, and oftentimes systematic spread of inaccurate and misleading information on the Web and social media poses a major risk to society, Giovanni Luca Ciampaglia writes in Fighting fake news: a role for computational social science in the fight against digital misinformation, an article in the Journal of Computational Social Science:

Digital misinformation thrives on an assortment of cognitive, social, and algorithmic biases and current countermeasures based on journalistic corrections do not seem to scale up. By their very nature, computational social scientists could play a twofold role in the fight against fake news: first, they could elucidate the fundamental mechanisms that make us vulnerable to misinformation online and second, they could devise effective strategies to counteract misinformation.

Pro-Putin ideologues in Central Europe have united the far-right and the far-left in support of the Kremlin’s geo-political agenda, according to Péter Krekó and Lorant Gyori of the Budapest-based Political Capital Institute. While the far-right is rather vocal in its ideological pro-Putinism, the left is deaf and blind to the perceived human rights violations and imperial ambitions of Russia, they write for Visegrad Insight:

  • First of all, an increasing overlap between the narratives of the radical left and the radical right, especially when it comes to foreign policy issues in which Russia is involved. They usually come to the same conclusion on different logical routes; while the radical right, for example, like to refer to Putin as the last real Christian, conservative leader in Europe and celebrate his attempts to dominate this sphere of influence, the radical left in Europe – from Syriza through to the Czech Communists and Die Linke to the Dutch Socialists and Podemos – refer to the maintaining of peace, neutrality and self-determination when justifying, for example, the Crimean annexation. ….
  • The second important point is that converging anti-establishment, anti-EU and anti-NATO narratives on the radical left and radical right often manifest themselves in cooperation…., having zero PR value. Then, not-so-surprisingly, it moved to a Russian server in April 2017.


The debate about post-truth, fake news and manipulation favors the manipulators. Mistrust cannot simply be offset by more information, notes Andres Ortega, a Senior Research Fellow at the Madrid-based Elcano Royal Institute.:

As the German philosopher of Korean extraction Byung-Chul Han says, ‘an accumulation of information cannot generate truth’. He adds that ‘transparency is only required as a matter of urgency in a society where trust no longer exists as a value’. In other words, our weakness resides in our own mistrust. And, as already pointed out, we find ourselves in a time of general distrust, distrust in the institutions and in the media, which is exactly what the manipulators are exploiting.


Russia’s assault on democracy and subversion of democratic political systems calls for a strong response, say Biden and Carpenter of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement:

  • The United States and its allies must improve their ability to deter Russian military aggression and work together more closely to strengthen their energy security and prevent Russia’s nonmilitary forms of coercion.
  • They must also reduce the vulnerability of their political systems, media environments, financial sectors, and cyber-infrastructure.
  • Every country in the Kremlin’s cross hairs must also better coordinate its intelligence and law enforcement activities to root out Russian disinformation and subversion and find ways for authorities to cooperate with the private sector to counteract such meddling. 
  • Western democracies must also address glaring vulnerabilities in their electoral systems, financial sectors, cyber-infrastructure, and media ecosystems.
  • The United States also needs more transparency in its financial and real estate markets, which have become havens for corrupt foreign capital, some of which undoubtedly seeps into politics.
  • The United States’ cyber-infrastructure, most of which is owned and managed by the private sector, remains vulnerable to foreign hacking—or, worse, a crippling system-wide attack.

Meanwhile, journalists and activists in the United States and Europe must do more to expose and root out disinformation, especially on social media. Civil society initiatives have taken the lead on this, they add:

Hamilton 68

The University of Pennsylvania’s, Ukraine’s, and the German Marshall Fund’s Hamilton 68 have all exposed propaganda by debunking falsehoods and shedding light on the sources propagating them. Social media companies such as Twitter, Facebook, and Google must provide greater transparency about who funds the political advertisements on their platforms, work harder to eliminate automated and bot-generated content, and invest in the technological and human resources to root out fake foreign accounts that spread disinformation. In countries with extensive experience of Russian information warfare, such as Estonia and Finland, officials and media professionals alike have learned that the more light they shine on the methods foreign actors use to sow disinformation, the less successful the propaganda becomes. 


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