Anton Muratov is a first year Geography student at King’s College London, and a policy analyst at the European Affairs Policy Centre in King’s Think Tank. In this piece he analyses Russian cyber operations and the threat they pose to Western democratic governance and society.
10/12/2017 – The government of the United States of America is no stranger to foreign political interference, and has not hidden its affinity for regime change in its pursuit of establishing an American-led globalised world order. Given its military expansion in Europe through NATO, and its domineering decades-long worldwide push for neoliberal reforms, it is unsurprising that Russia feels the need to assert its sovereignty. The distinction between the goals of the two powers is that while the US seeks to impose an economic system that would assure its global supremacy, the Russian government aims to upend the entire Western Democratic order. With a weakened economy and limited power on the international stage, Russia is relegated to guerilla-style strategies with the ultimate aim to create instability and disrupt the status quo in foreign nations. As such, it is important for policy makers and the public alike, to understand the methods by which Russia has carried out its mission, and the existential threat that this poses to Western Democratic governance.
The most discussed and contentious example of Russian political interference in recent history, is the 2016 US presidential election. There is, however, a quintessential detail that is missing in the Western analysis of Russia’s election meddling. Disagreements exist on the role of the Russian interference in electing Donald Trump, with certain punditsbelieving it was significant, while others excused it. This debate misses the point entirely, whether or not the interference swayed the election, it achieved its primary objective of subverting America’s free and fair elections and deteriorating public trust in institutions. By creating instability in the political sphere, it was able to deepen cultural divides and foster malicious discourse.
Inducing chaos and instability within the West through disinformation campaigns, ‘October Surprises’, and aggressive media coverage, are the methods by which the Putin Administration accomplishes two important tasks. The first, is showing its own people, Russian citizens, that the rest of the world, particularly the US and Europe, is no better than them. They aim to show the outside world in a constant state of chaos, with the West being politically unstable, morally dubious, and corrupt. By drawing attention away from the failings of his own country and focusing on that of other nations, as state media overwhelmingly does, Putin can justify the deteriorating economic state, the poor standards of living, and corruption that Russians witness in their own country. The second task of Russia’s interference is undermining political dialogue and inciting distrust within the populace, both of other citizens and the government.
This is part of Russia’s Grand Strategy to combine soft power and political objectives through a loosely tied clandestine campaign, which can be seen in the Gerasimov Doctrine, an article written by a Russian General in 2013 which outlines a hybrid theory of indirect war. This has already seen results, as Paul Waldman of The Independent said, “Donald Trump has left America’s word worthless on the international stage”, both a symptom and goal of Russia’s Western strategy. One must realise that Putin’s objective is both a short-term one of loosening sanctions against Russia by having a friendly in the White House, and a long-term one of building up Russia’s status and role in the international community while weakening America’s global hegemony. It is a zero-sum game where the more the West loses, the more Russia gains.
To comprehend the Russian strategy, one must first recognise that Russia has a history of interfering in the politics and elections of countries, through tactics such as supporting “disruptive political parties”, within its geographic sphere of influence, particularly in Europe. To list some: Germany, France, Georgia, Poland, Ukraine 2004 / 2014, the Baltic states, and many other European countries. Nevertheless, no state’s elections experience greater interference from Putin’s government than Russia itself, a prerequisite of Vladislav Surkov’s ‘Sovereign Democracy’, a term describing a political system in which a single party determines the political landscape of a country. While American liberals focus on a chance at the presidency in 2020, the same cannot be said for Russian elections where it is an absolute given that Vladimir Putin will be President again in 2018. This stark contrast in political natures may foreshadow the authoritarian fate of Western Democracies if foreign interference in their politics continues. However, in these instances, Putin’s obsession with centralising power has been projected and justified to the Russian people as an inherent need for stability in politics. As such, when power dynamics in European countries result in significant political change, Russian media coverage is quick to portray the EU in a state of shambles and mass disorder.
An important medium through which the Russian government can surgically propagate these messages is the internet, where it has an established presence. Russia’s control of information and propaganda evolved alongside the internet, with growing emphasis placed on the importance of developing hybrid means of information warfare. This can be seen in the creation of international news networks that appear legitimate, such as RT and Sputnik, but essentially operate as propaganda tools for the Russian government. The government is also heavily invested in social media, with ‘bots’ and ‘trolls’ making up a large portion of that market, so much so that a ‘troll factory’ has morphed into a media giant with holdings of numerous news and information sites that span the entire Russophone internet.
Russia has had a long and effective history of spreading fake news and propaganda. Given the aftermath of ‘Operation INFEKTION’, it is clear that Russian fake news targeting the US has dangerous implications for public perception of the government. The Russian government implemented a multifaceted approach in dividing public opinion, including malicious tactics such as creating fake Facebook groups and funding protests to incite racial tensions. This campaign served the purpose of aiding Donald Trump in the election, and creating an image of turmoil, in order to make Russian elections seem civil in comparison. This campaign of fake news was exacerbated, or rather magnified, by Republican spin doctors looking to exploit stories for political gain, which have led to violent and tragic outcomes. This cyber-strategy has introduced a new dimension of vulnerability and risk for the US and Western Democratic governments, by directly targeting and manipulating the public’s understanding of current events.
The prospect of political instability and chaos has brought Western Democratic leaders to ask an important question: how does one protect a country and its people against Russian disinformation? Unfortunately, at present it seems widespread access to the internet will always carry an element of risk, and while security and intelligence agencies rush to secure their digital assets and networks, the public is left defenceless in the face of disinformation. However, governments and organisations can implement various strategies to alleviate the effects of such interference. A successful example of this is France’s moratorium on election news, and Emmanuel Macron’s preparedness for an attack by Russian hackers.
Proactive measures such as these show that it is not enough to hope that a country’s citizens will rally against foreign meddling, but that they must be armed with the necessary tools to combat fake news. Governments can encourage safety through legislative action, and by promoting the idea of individual responsibility as a solution to misinformation. Fact-checking and fake news debunking websites such as stopfake, snopes, and infowar, offer the general public a means by which to stay informed. However, with an ongoing debate about free speech in the US, it is difficult to ascertain the future of fact-checking and algorithmic censorship on social media, as well as for the internetat large.
The implications of the new information war are more pressing to Euro-Atlantic security than it may seem. The divisions within the European Union and the United States have called into question the unity of the NATO alliance. If Russia were to invade the Baltic states, would NATO be willing to wage war? Would it sacrifice London for Latvia? Trump’s uncertainty of NATO has only amplified Europe’s worries. All this is a reminder that the world is in a new era, where increasingly, matters of cyber security, as well as foreign psychological operations and disinformation campaigns, have become issues of national security for Western Democracies.
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