Virtually all of the debates over the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia waged a multifaceted campaign to influence the 2016 election look at the issue through a prism of US domestic politics or the bilateral relationship between the United States and Russia. That’s understandable, given what a shocking outcome the election produced. But it also sidesteps the troubling reality that the Kremlin’s attempts to influence other countries’ electoral processes have been a problem across Europe for over a decade, and that our intelligence agencies weren’t alone in sounding the alarm. And that’s a serious problem for those who are dismissive of the evidence of Russian intervention. Russia’s effort in our election may have been its most dramatic—and arguably its most fruitful—but evidence suggests it was hardly an isolated event.
The US intelligence community’s conclusions about how Russia intervened in our elections fits a pattern that European analysts say dates back to 2007, when Vladimir Putin told the Munich Security Conference that American dominance in a unipolar world was “pernicious,” and that NATO’s expansion “represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust.” The Kremlin saw a pressing need to confront a series of anti-Russian “color revolutions” in the former Soviet states during the early 2000s. Sebastian Rotella reported for ProPublica that “Russian leaders believed the United States was using ‘soft power’ means, such as the media and diplomacy, to cause trouble in Russia’s domain.” The Russians decided to fight fire with fire, as they saw it. USA Today international-affairs correspondent Oren Dorell reported that “Russian sabotage of Western computer systems started that same year.” It was also in 2007 that “Russians began experimenting with information warfare” in Estonia, followed soon after “by attempts at disruption in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Finland, Bosnia and Macedonia,” according to The Washington Post’s Dana Priest and Michael Birnbaum.
Priest and Birnbaum reported that “Russia has not hidden its liking for information warfare. The chief of the general staff, Valery Gerasimov, wrote in 2013 that ‘informational conflict’ is a key part of war. Actual military strength is only the final tool of a much subtler war-fighting strategy, he said.” Earlier this year, Russia’s Ministry of Defense announced that it had established a new cyberwarfare unit.
Classified documents from Macedonia’s intelligence agency that were leaked to The Guardian showed that “Russian spies and diplomats have been involved in a nearly decade-long effort to spread propaganda and provoke discord in Macedonia.” That was just one part of Russian effort “to step up its influence all across the countries of the former Yugoslavia. The Kremlin’s goal is to stop them from joining NATO and to pry them away from western influence,” reports The Guardian.