Russia’s active measures toolbox used to ‘break apart’ Western democracies


The Obama administration received multiple warnings from national security officials between 2014 and 2016 that the Kremlin was ramping up its intelligence operations and building disinformation networks it could use to disrupt the U.S. political system, according to more than half a dozen current and former officials, POLITICO reports:

As early as 2014, the administration received a report that quoted a well-connected Russian source as saying that the Kremlin was building a disinformation arm that could be used to interfere in Western democracies. The report, according to an official familiar with it, included a quote from the Russian source telling U.S. officials in Moscow, “You have no idea how extensive these networks are in Europe … and in the U.S., Russia has penetrated media organizations, lobbying firms, political parties, governments and militaries in all of these places.”


Russia is using propaganda and disinformation in an effort to “break apart” Europe’s democracies, said National Security Adviser HR McMaster (right). He characterized it as a “sophisticated campaign of subversion and disinformation and propaganda that is going every day in an effort to break apart Europe and that pit political groups against each other … to sow dissension and conspiracy theories.”

Russia’s active-measures playbook, according to public and private-sector investigators, dates back to Czarist Russia and the beginning of the Soviet Union. It has been honed and deployed over decades to advance Russian interests both at home and abroad—and has long been driven by a consistent geopolitical worldview, executed in distinct ways, and guided by a unique tradecraft philosophy at odds with the approach of Western intelligence services, writes Garrett M. Graff, a contributing editor at WIRED, in a must-read survey of Russia’s active measures to undermine democracy:

Indeed, Western intelligence leaders have warned throughout the spring that they expect Russia to use similar tricks in German parliamentary election this fall, as well as in the 2018 US congressional midterms and the 2020 presidential race. “Russia is not constrained by a rule of law or a sense of ethics—same with ISIS, same with China,” says Chris Donnelly, director of the UK-based Institute for Statecraft. “They’re trying to change the rules of the game, which they’ve seen us set in our favor.”

“Looking back at the Soviet Union, they’re establishing an understanding that the world is completely hostile to them,” Donnelly says. “They’re in a constant state of conflict with the capitalist world. They’ve developed from the very start a military doctrine which is a structured framework of thinking, a very disciplined approach, and a precise terminology.”

“Russia’s concept of conflict does not distinguish between hybrid and classical warfare—there is simply warfare,” says Ben Nimmo, who studies Russian influence operations for the Atlantic Council.

In its hybrid war against countries near and far, Russia has fought its share of losing battles, STRATFOR adds:

The country’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, for example, prompted Congress to redouble its sanctions against Moscow, even though the Kremlin’s desired candidate won the race. Similarly, in the Baltic states, Russia hasn’t managed to replicate the success of its disinformation campaign in Moldova, where voters elected a presidential candidate sympathetic to Moscow in November 2016. Hybrid warfare, after all, is not a one-sided game. In each of the three tiers of countries that Russia has targeted, states have responded in kind with a full range of countermeasures. 

Certainly Putin’s army of “political technologists” has been remarkably adept at manipulating public perception in Russia and (through the television channel RT – formerly Russia Today – which has tens of millions of daily viewers) many other countries. In the virtual world fashioned by Putin’s media complex, facts are lost in a wilderness of mirrors, The New Statesman’s John Gray writes in a review of John Lloyd’s The Power and the Story: the Global Battle for News and Information:

This kind of information warfare [“facilitated” by Wikileaks’ Julian Assange], however, is not as new as it seems. Flowing from Lenin’s belief that politics and war are one and the same, deception (maskirovka in Russian) was an integral part of the Soviet state from the beginning. Putin’s strategy of denying the role of Russian forces in eastern Ukraine continues this tradition. Lloyd writes that Lenin “did not adhere to the view that there was an objective truth in events”. But Lenin was no relativist: he was convinced he had understood the logic of history and could use this insight to outwit the West. Believing the West is in retreat and using disinformation to accelerate the process, Putin is not so different.

Recently, the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a bipartisan anti-disinformation initiative backed by an impressive list of former U.S. national security officials, launched Hamilton68, a real-time tracking tool that “seeks to expose the effects of online influence networks and inform the public of themes and content being promoted to Americans by foreign powers,” notes Nina Jankowicz, a George F. Kennan Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute in Washington, DC.

Hamilton 68

Given that government has been slow to “take up arms in the fight against Russian disinformation, this responsibility lies with the media, NGOs, and analysts,” she writes for Newsweek.

Russia’s aggressive international activities are one reason why the regime can’t be dismissed as simply a kleptocracy, argues CEPA’s Edward Lucas.

US lawmakers may mandate a specific strategy for countering Russian disinformation if the State Department does not, according to recent reports.

“It’s the same playbook they used in the Cold War era,” says Clint Watts, a researcher at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “The long-run objective is to have democracy break down,” he tells WIRED’s Graff:

It’s a sophisticated game, one that Russia has played particularly well in recent years, despite the high-profile failures like the arrest of the illegals. It succeeds because Russia knows how to effectively exploit the seams and systemic weaknesses in Western democracies.

“In some ways, it’s very old-fashioned,” says Robert Hannigan, who until this spring headed the Government Communications Headquarters, the British equivalent of the National Security Agency. “The Russians have always used the openness of democracy against us.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email