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.
British officials say they believe that in 2015, Russia “interfered directly in UK elections “with a series of attempted cyber hacks and “clandestine online activity,” according to The Independent. German intelligence officials say that “‘large amounts of data’ were seized during a May 2015 cyber attack on the Bundestag…which has previously been blamed on APT28, a Russian hacking group,” according to Reuters. In July, Germany’s interior secretary, Thomas de Maiziere, and Hans-Georg Maassen, the country’s spy chief, warned that Russia will “start publishing compromising material on German MPs…in order to destabilise elections in September,” according to Andrew Rettman at EUobserver.
In May, NSA Director Michael Rogers testified under oath before Congress that American officials had found evidence of Russian involvement in the recent French elections, which they shared with their intelligence officers in Paris. “We had talked to our French counterparts,” he said, “and gave them a heads-up: ‘Look, we’re watching the Russians, we’re seeing them penetrate some of your infrastructure.’”
The list of countries targeted by Russia goes on. Earlier this year, Dutch Interior Minister Ronald Plasterk announced that all votes cast in the March election in the Netherlands would be hand-counted because of “software problems and fears of Russian hacking,” according to Politico’s European edition. The Norwegian Police Security Service informed that country’s Labour Party that it had been hacked, and Norwegian media reported that the group behind the cyber-attack was the same one that breached the DNC’s computers last year. Russia is believed to have been involved in similar attacks throughout what it views as its sphere of influence.
Some skeptics have seized on reports that French and German intelligence officials were unable to confirm that Russia was behind recent hacks in those countries. But officials in both countries treat Russian attacks as an active and ongoing threat to their democracies. And Mark Galeotti, head of the Centre for European Security at the Institute of International Relations Prague, says that while the intelligence agencies were not able to establish direct ties to Russia, his sources in the French and German intelligence remain confident that they were behind the hacks. “In any cyber case it’s very difficult to be absolutely conclusive, because even if it’s coming out of a machine that’s situated in Russia, it could have been controlled by someone in North Korea or China or Belgium for all we know, and you’d really need a forensic examination of the machine where the attack originated.” And while people “expect the kind of standards of proof that one would expect in a court of law—proof beyond a reasonable doubt—there comes a time when you have to talk about the balance of probabilities. Intelligence agencies very rarely rely on single-point information—a single source. When intelligence agencies say, ‘We’re pretty confident it’s X,’ it’s because they have alternative sources, whether it’s signal intelligence or human intelligence, inclining them in the same direction.”
In the case of the recent US election hacks, it wasn’t US intelligence agencies that originally picked up the scent. According to The Guardian’s Luke Harding, Stephanie Kirchgaessner, and Nick Hopkins, it was the GCHQ—the UK’s version of the National Security Agency—that “first became aware in late 2015 of suspicious ‘interactions’ between figures connected to Trump and known or suspected Russian agents.” Then, as the Guardian piece outlines, “Over the next six months, until summer 2016, a number of western agencies shared further information on contacts between Trump’s inner circle and Russians.” That included intelligence officials from Germany, Estonia, Poland, Canada, and Australia. According to one source, French and Dutch spooks also passed on signals intelligence to their American counterparts.
Analysts say that the Kremlin’s motives are relatively straightforward. As its post–Cold War “hard power” declined, Vladimir Putin’s government has pursued its interests by stepping up its cyber-warfare and disinformation campaigns in order to divide, destabilize, and demoralize its geopolitical opponents.
According to Paul Goble, a former official with the State Department and the CIA who now teaches at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC, “Putin doesn’t believe in democracy, and he wants to send the message to other people that democracy is a system that outside forces can manipulate, and therefore cast doubt on its legitimacy.” A related goal is “to weaken the transnational political, economic, and military institutions that have been the basis of American foreign policy for a very long time. The weakening or destruction of NATO, the weakening or destruction of the EU, dividing Europe from the United States—this has been Russia’s goal since the creation of NATO.”
Galeotti agrees, telling me that when Vladimir Putin “looks at these international institutions, what he sees are institutions created by the West, to serve the West’s interests. When Putin talks about sovereignty, his notion is ‘nobody gets to tell us what to do within our own borders.’” Galeotti doesn’t think Putin “has a grand agenda,” so much as he “wants to be able to opt out of the post-1945 world order.” With an economy roughly the size of Spain’s, Russia’s no longer a superpower, but, says Galeotti, “Putin is clearly committed to making Russia great again,” and “one way to assert Russian power is to get everyone else divided and weakened. If you can’t make yourself stronger, at least you can try to make others weaker.”
Natasha Kuhrt, a Russia specialist at King’s College, London, is herself skeptical of claims that “the Kremlin is pulling the strings of certain groups in certain countries.” While she does believe that Russia has tried to influence other countries’ elections, she says that the media have overstated the impact. But she says the Russians “have been very adept” at exploiting anxieties about European integration—the “general trend of questioning certain values, let’s say, partly for economic reasons and partly for other reasons.” As for our election, Kuhrt adds that “there is a kind of anti-Western discourse within Russia that is used mainly for domestic purposes.” With most Russians’ living standards flat or in decline, “the regime’s legitimacy to a large extent rests on that now. So it’s also about showing what idiots Americans are for electing a buffoon like Trump.”
Russia and the United States have attempted, and in many cases succeeded, to influence other countries’ electoral processes for the past hundred years. But analysts say the scale and sophistication of Russian attacks have taken this practice to a new level. Today’s lightning-fast communications and low barriers of entry into online publishing represent a departure from the kind of influence campaigns countries waged in the past. Back in January, Max Fisher argued in a New York Times piece that our media are highly susceptible to being duped by dark PR campaigns, noting that while “[r]eporters have always relied on sources who provide critical information for self-interested reasons,” in 2016 the source was often “Russia’s military intelligence agency, the G.R.U.—operating through shadowy fronts who worked to mask that fact—and its agenda was to undermine the American presidential election.”
US investigators are currently looking into “whether Trump supporters and far-right websites coordinated with Moscow over the release of fake news, including stories implicating Clinton in murder or pedophilia, or paid to boost those stories on Facebook,” according to Julian Borger at The Guardian. A Pew study released last year found that six in 10 Americans get news from social media, mostly from Facebook.
Here at home, the growing evidence that Russia’s intervention in our elections was only the most recent, and successful, example of an international campaign that dates back George W. Bush’s presidency is a serious problem for those who dismiss or discount the US intelligence community’s findings.
For some on the left, including a number of voices at The Nation, the real story involves one or more of the following: Democrats hyping a story line in order to excuse their embarrassing loss to Donald Trump; Hillary Clinton loyalists defending their candidate from the same charge; rogue elements within our intelligence agencies either fabricating or exaggerating Russian involvement to undermine Trump’s legitimacy after he compared them to Nazis, or those same elements of the “deep state”—inveterate cold warriors—sabotaging Trump’s efforts to bring about détente with Moscow.
But these narratives don’t hold up when viewed in a larger geopolitical context. It’s unlikely that in 2015 British intelligence tipped off US spy agencies about those suspicious contacts because it wanted to absolve Hillary Clinton for her future loss to Donald Trump. The Dutch aren’t interested in what lessons the Democratic Party took away from their defeat, nor are the Lithuanians invested in the idea that Bernie would have won. And it’s highly unlikely that Germany, which was torn apart during the Cold War, is chomping on the bit to launch a new one.
In recent months, one intelligence official after another has testified before Congress that the Russians will take the lessons they learned in the US election last year, and in previous campaigns elsewhere, and use them again in the future. Last week, CNN reported that, “emboldened by the lack of a significant retaliatory response” to its attack on the 2016 election, “Russian spies are ramping up their intelligence-gathering efforts in the US, according to current and former US intelligence officials who say they have noticed an increase since the election.” According to the report, “US intelligence and law enforcement agencies have detected an increase in suspected Russian intelligence officers entering the US under the guise of other business.” Former director of national intelligence James Clapper warned on CNN about potential Russian intervention in the 2018 midterm elections. “They are going to stretch the envelope as far as they can to collect information and I think largely if I can use the military phrase, prep the battlefield for 2018 elections,” he said.
The fact that there’s a significant amount of skepticism on both the left and the right is blunting calls to prepare for the next attack. The president has hesitated to even acknowledge that this is a serious issue. And, while a recent analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice found that just $400 million invested in replacing paperless voting machines with machines that read paper ballots—less than the Pentagon spent last year on military bands—would help secure our election infrastructure, no such funding is in the works. In fact, in late June Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee voted to defund the Election Assistance Commission, which Ari Berman says is “the only federal agency that helps states make sure their voting machines aren’t hacked.” The level of concern should be even higher now that we have evidence that the Russian military intelligence did target election systems specifically: The Intercept reported last month that leaked NSA documents showed that Russian military intelligence launched cyber-attacks against an election-software vendor’s internal systems. A subsequent report by Bloomberg said that US investigators had found evidence that “Russian hackers hit systems in a total of 39 states.”
Compare our lackadaisical response to the seriousness with which Europe is taking the issue. Dana Priest and Michael Birnbaum reported for The Washington Post that “European countries are deploying a variety of bold tactics and tools to expose Russian attempts to sway voters and weaken European unity.” Across Europe, “counterintelligence officials, legislators, researchers and journalists have devoted years—in some cases, decades—to the development of ways to counter Russian disinformation, hacking and trolling” that they’re now trying to use to safeguard their own democratic processes.
France and Germany have pressured Facebook to take down thousands of automated accounts that spread fake news. In Sweden, school children are learning to spot fake news. Fourteen hundred Slovakian companies have agreed to boycott a list of fake-news sites. The EU is employing hundreds of volunteer researchers to expose false stories on the Internet. “In Lithuania,” write Priest and Birnbaum, “100 citizen cyber-sleuths dubbed ‘elves’ link up digitally to identify and beat back the people employed on social media to spread Russian disinformation. They call the daily skirmishes ‘Elves vs. Trolls.’”
While Russian interference in last year’s election was all about us, Moscow’s use of asymmetric tactics to undermine multilateral institutions and aid pro-Russia parties in so many other countries is not. The difference is that with some Americans across the political spectrum insisting that we should simply move on, we aren’t doing much to counter it. Doing so doesn’t mean creating an environment of “neo-McCarthyite hysteria,” escalating hostilities with Moscow or blundering toward a shooting war in Syria. It simply requires that we acknowledge the reality of the problem and work with our allies to address it in a sober and serious way.