Like it or not, the land of the free and the home of the brave has found itself smack dab in the middle of another Cold War with Russia. This time, the Russians have hit our shores with something we thought we had invented: social media such as Facebook and Twitter.
An obscure company called the Internet Research Agency, the so-called Troll Factory, carried out one of several efforts to meddle in the United States 2016 elections, which led to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russian nationals on February 16. Other efforts included hacking into the databases of both major parties as well as the emails of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and sharing the results with WikiLeaks. The CIA told Congress in December 2016 that the Kremlin was behind the hack of the Democratic National Committee. Department of Homeland Security has reported that Russian hackers targeted the voting rolls of 21 states in 2016, breaching the rolls of Illinois and partially breaching the election database in Arizona.
Such attacks were not unprecedented, but more troubling was the stealthy disinformation efforts of the trolls, who may have put their propaganda into the eyes of 140 million users of Facebook or Instagram, thus subverting an asset that every democracy needs to survive: trust. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg gave his mea culpa and his side of the story to the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearings this week.
“Democracies in the digital era are under attack from six or seven vectors. The way we do democracy is under threat,” warned Toomas Hendrik Ilves, a former president of Estonia and a current fellow at the Hoover Institution. The cyber-attacks to move public opinion have targeted other democracies in Germany, Spain, France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, and Mexico. “We see this massive attack on democracy using digital means. These are the ones we know. Our responses have remained national, and there is no coordination. Digital threats do not recognize distance. And this is completely new. From St. Petersburg you can disrupt democratic elections or even in between elections by spreading rumors,” he added.
The thousands of trolls hunkering in buildings in St. Petersburg were hired bloggers laboring day and night to post fake news on social media and news platforms in many countries. The 2016 election was over before US intelligence agencies had figured out what had hit them, and the damage done is still under study.
All hands agree that trolls got the unwitting alliance of campaigners and bloggers associated with alt-right websites, although evidence of knowing cooperation between the Trump campaign and Russian agents hasn’t been shown. Nonetheless, the thousands of impersonations of Americans seeking to make their voices heard has left America’s body politic with feeling violated.
“Russia has been meddling in America’s elections since before you were born,” says Thor Halvorssen, president of the Oslo-based Human Rights Foundation. “Their goal is to weaken our civil society, and they will never stop doing it,” he said. “The only way that will change is when it becomes a democracy,” Halvorssen said to Providence in a phone interview. The HRF brought 26 Kremlin watchers to PutinCon, a day-long conference in Manhattan in mid-March to examine Vladimir Putin’s motivation for launching the attack on the US, his goals, and vulnerabilities in coming years. The consensus of most was that Putin was a threat to his own people and to the West but that democracy activists in Russian cities have a chance to topple him over time.
Espionage and disinformation campaigns work hand in hand with military clashes in Russia’s near abroad. Russia has used proxies and agents of influence to reclaim de facto territorial control in portions of the former Soviet Republics of Georgia and Ukraine and threatens civil unrest in the Baltic republics, whose nervous presidents stood with President Trump at the White House on April 3 to pledge their strong support for NATO.
Before the massive attack on the presidential campaign of 2016, trolls successfully bombarded social media in Poland and Ukraine in 2014 to tilt public opinion against the new government in Kiev after public demonstrations forced the pro-Russian president to flee the country. As The Guardian reported in 2015, the fake news campaign was massive and utterly disorienting for Ukrainian readers. Ukrainian journalists and students tried to fight back by posting refutations on the website “StopFake,” but to little avail since Western media had already taken the bait, too, and promulgated the false narratives in clouds of misleading stories.
The armies of trolls represent the implementation of Russia’s new wave of information warfare, which has been in the making for at least 20 years. Since 1997, Russian military planners have been developing ways to defeat the United States’ technological and economic superiority with tactics they referred to as “hybrid or new generation warfare,” according to Geoff Weber, a US Senate Defense Fellow.
Unlike before, information attacks today do not need to serve as an adjunct to military combat but can form the first line of combat in the “psycho-sphere” itself. Tools include false narratives, fake nonprofit site sponsors, photoshopped images, fake news picked up by respected media, and millions of impersonated posts. The strategy has worked for Russia in the Ukraine conflict. How many Americans think that Ukraine is fighting a “civil war” in its eastern provinces where thousands of Russian tanks and approximately 2,000 Russian soldiers are stationed?
Valery Gerasimov, head of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, admitted to the new tactics in 2013. He proudly claimed that the Russian military could overwhelm its opponents through a “combination of political, economic, information, technological, and ecological campaigns.” Russian analysts regularly argue that the psycho-sphere is the front line, a particularly soft belly for Western democracies that depend upon an informed citizenry to function.
The judo expert in the Kremlin has taken the openness of the West and its unfettered free marketplace of ideas off balance, a shrewd application of asymmetrical warfare.
“We do need some form of a Cyber-NATO, not a North Atlantic Treaty Organization which is regionally based, precisely because of old forms of warfare, involving tank logistics, columns, fighter jet range, [are] irrelevant,” according to former Estonian President Ilves. He went on to say, “We do need a community of democracies that can cooperate on defending democracy. The threats to democracies are asymmetric. We can’t do to them what they are doing to us. We have to use our asymmetrical advantages,” he said.
At a Senate Select Intelligence Committee hearing on February 13, CIA director Mike Pompeo spoke to the need to make the aggressor nation pay for the strike against the US election system. “We do have some capability offensively to raise the cost for those who would dare challenge the United States’ elections,” Pompeo said. The CIA director also warned that US intelligence had taken note of “Russian activity and intentions to have an impact on the next election cycle here.”
According to Christianity’s just war tradition, a legitimate authority is responsible for its citizens’ security and can act in self-defense. Because there was a strike against the US election system, a proportional response is appropriate and necessary to prevent further wrongdoing. For, as General Omar Bradley said after World War II, “to ignore the danger of aggression is simply to invite it.”
The counter-responses that the Russia hands mentioned at PutinCon included application of the Magnitsky Act, which allows denial of visas to family members of Putin’s oligarch allies, prohibiting purchase of properties by shell companies, and putting the name of Putin and his cronies on a US sanctions list, which could result in seizure of their assets sheltering in Western banks.
Hitting Putin where his money is would be a first step.
Douglas Burton is a former US State Department official in Kirkuk, Iraq, and writes news and commentary from Washington, DC. Queries to [email protected].
Photo Credit: St. Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square. By Julian Macedo, via Flickr.