Russia’s ‘active measures’ – worse than you thought


Russia’s efforts to hack the 2016 presidential election were much more widespread than originally thought. The Russian campaign hit 39 states — twice as many as originally reported — and in one case hackers tried to delete and alter voter data. That’s the startling revelation from Bloomberg this morning, Vox reports:

The scope of the attacks was so broad that in October of 2016, then-President Barack Obama directly called Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin on the “cyber-hotline.” The cyber-hotline “red phone” was set up in 2013 by Obama and Putin as part of an effort to reduce the risk of a “cyber incident” escalating; Obama used it to present evidence of the attacks and warn Putin that the intrusions could trigger a larger conflict between the US and Russia.

Russia has dramatically increased its “active measures” — a form of political warfare that includes disinformation, propaganda and compromising leaders with bribes and blackmail, Ben Schreckinger reports for POLITICO:

Thus far, congressional committees, law enforcement investigations and press scrutiny have focused on Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin’s successful efforts to disrupt the American political process. But a review of the available evidence and the accounts of Kremlin watchers make clear that the Russian government is using the same playbook against other pillars of American society, foremost among them the military. Experts warn that effort, which has received far less attention, has the potential to hobble the ability of the armed forces to clearly assess Putin’s intentions and effectively counter future Russian aggression.

“What Russian active measures do is they exploit the weaknesses that we present, and partisanship is a great weakness,” said Heather Conley, a senior vice president at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former deputy assistant secretary of state. “Slowly,” she said, “you are eroding your faith in your leaders and the institutions and that is exactly what the Kremlin is interested in.”

No one is systematically speaking about the tactics of Russian hybrid warfare, and that these go beyond “fake news” and “hacking” into far-reaching intelligence operations and initiatives to destabilize Western countries, economies and societies, information warfare expert Molly K. McKew writes for POLITICO: 

No one is talking about how Russia provides training for militants and terrorists in Europe, even as U.S. generals say it is supporting the Taliban as it attacks American forces in Afghanistan. No one is leading a unified effort to roll back Russian influence in Europe or Asia or the Middle East. No one is commenting on Russia’s new efforts to entrench its presence near eastern Ukraine, escalate the fighting there and destabilize the government in Kyiv.

The Kremlin is also deploying non-state actors in the form of organized crime networks – a Crimintern – as part of its hybrid warfare repertoire, notes Mark Galeotti, a senior research fellow at the Institute of International Affairs Prague. We are seeing more and more cases, especially in Europe, where local counterintelligence services believe gangsters are acting as occasional Russian assets, he writes for Foreign Policy:

Some work on behalf of the Russia state willingly. In other cases, these criminals have been turned into assets without their knowledge, thinking they are simply doing a service for a Russian gang. And yet for others, they are made an offer they can’t refuse. In a recent report for the European Council on Foreign Relations, I call these “Russian-based organized crime” — whether ethnically Russian or not (because many are Georgians or the like), they are criminals with business or personal interests back in Russia, a fact the Kremlin can use as leverage.

Investigating the role of Russian disinformation requires understanding the layers of deception in which Russian intelligence specialize, notes David Satter, author of “The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep: Russia’s Road to Terror and Dictatorship under Yeltsin and Putin” (Yale). Russia’s 2015-16 hacking operation was also carried out in a way that would have made a focused and tightly held conspiracy nearly impossible, he writes for The Wall Street Journal. Last October my emails were stolen by Fancy Bear, he notes, adding that “Citizens Lab, a University of Toronto cybersecurity project found that I was part of an operation aimed at 218 unique targets—officials, journalists and military—in at least 39 countries.”

What the EU can do

Censorship is not and will not be the answer to fake news, argue social media analysts Nicolas Vanderbiest and Gary Machado. This does not mean that there should not be a regulation but a regulation or any action should focus on giving the tools to the ecosystem so that they can better source and combat fake news. What should be done?:

  • NGOs, foundations, academics and media organisations should be given better access to social media data to be able to better source and combat fake news;
  • Furthermore, the Parliament’s proposal for an EU-funded anti-Russian propaganda pilot is an excellent idea and should be supported. The Commission is expected to send its feedback in the coming next weeks. Anything but a positive answer would be a sign of defeatism;
  • Lastly, the EU institutions must get themselves organised internally to debunk ‘Euromyths’. They also have to provide the necessary support – including financial – to an ecosystem of external organisations who know how to source, debunk and fact-check. It is surprising to observe that many member states and other countries around the globe are moving much faster on this matter than the EU.
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