For Putin and company, election season in America is open season for meddling.
Earlier this month, Facebook announced it had detected and shut down more than 30 Russia-linked fake pages created as part of a campaign to influence the U.S. midterm elections. In case there was any doubt, Russia’s effort to influence American politics continues.
The Russian government has one overriding objective with regard to the United States: to weaken America so that it loses its will and ability to counter Russian objectives, including establishing a sphere of influence in eastern Europe. To that end, the Kremlin actively exploits and deepens political, cultural, economic, racial, and other societal rifts in America. If Americans are fighting one another, they are less likely to notice, much less press, the government to block Russian action in places like Ukraine, Georgia, or Syria.
Today, the Kremlin is likely employing a three-pronged strategy to achieve its aims: supporting U.S. political candidates friendly to Russian President Vladimir Putin, buying favor by injecting money into U.S. politics and lobbying, and conducting cyberattacks on election systems. Americans also cannot dismiss the possibility that the Russian government will attack critical U.S. infrastructure, or that it may have unpredictable tricks up its sleeve.
First, Moscow will continue to assist Putin-friendly U.S. candidates and seek to hurt his critics through methods such as messaging tailored to suppress voter participation. Russia pulled this off in 2016, targeting African Americans with negative claims about Hillary Clinton. Already in 2018, Russians have continued to support efforts to undermine the Democratic Party. The #WalkAway campaign, purportedly an organic campaign of lifelong Democrats leaving the party, has been amplified by Russian social-media accounts and featured on the Russian propaganda outlet RT. Between now and the election, the Kremlin may set up websites through third parties and post misleading or incorrect information about voting locations and times, or derogatory information about candidates. It could continue to organize demonstrationsthrough Russian agents or unwitting citizens.
Second, political players close to the Kremlin will continue attempting to make financial contributions to U.S. politicians. Moscow could try to use Russian Americans such as Andrew Intrater, who contributed to Donald Trump’s inaugural fund and is a cousin of the Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, or Leo Blavatnik, a U.S.–UK dual-citizen partner of Vekselberg (with his own close ties to the Kremlin) who suddenly became a top GOP donor in 2015–16 with total giving at more than $6 million. This helped Trump and garnered these men invitations to inaugural events where they interacted with incoming policy makers. The FBI is also reportedly investigating whether money from or directed by Russian sources was donated to the National Rifle Association specifically to help Trump.
Russian businessmen will likely attempt to fund think tanks working on U.S.–Russia relations to push a narrative favoring cooperation with Russia and opposition to sanctions—a tactic China appears to have adopted in Australia. American businesspeople will continue to be targeted for their dollars, as evidenced by the Russian spy Maria Butina’s work in 2015 to convince Hank Greenberg to further invest in Investtorgbank, a failing Russian bank. Such big-money relationships could also create advocates for cooperation with Russia and against sanctions. Russian businesses need access to capital, and big donor supporters of political candidates could sway politicians to take a softer line toward Russia.
Third, the Russian government will try to cyberpenetrate U.S. election infrastructure, just as it did in 2016, and could even access and manipulate data. While there’s no evidence that Russia has done so to date, at minimum it will likely use its ability to access voter-registration databases and election-related sites to undermine America’s confidence in its own electoral integrity. As extreme as it sounds, the Kremlin could even shut down power or other infrastructure in key districts, as they did in Ukraine in 2015 in order to alter turnout or sow chaos on election day.
As U.S. officials have said, beginning with a March FBI and DNI alert and continuing in recent weeks, the Russian government has targeted, and in some cases infiltrated, the U.S. power grid, and the water, aviation, and some manufacturing sectors. Russian military doctrine directs the use of propaganda and cyberattacks during peacetime and wartime. Influencing American public opinion, including elections, is just one component of Russian asymmetric warfare. Analysts looking for evidence of this threat need only read Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s reaction to this week’s U.S. sanctions against Russia for its use of a chemical weapon in Britain. Calling these measures an act of “economic war,” Medvedev warned, Russia would need “to react to this war economically, politically, or, if needed, by other means. And our American friends need to understand this.”
In an ideal world, the U.S. president would deliver a clear, unequivocal message about the threat. He would appoint senior leaders to coordinate defensive action and provide resources to bolster electoral and critical private-sector-infrastructure security. He would rally congressional leaders of both parties to expose the Russian influence networks present on American soil. He would encourage his media allies to turn an unflinching eye on the hostile foreign attack on American sovereignty. He would coordinate a joint response with nato and other allies, recognizing that an attack on one is an attack on all. And he would raise the cost of Russian interventions in democracies across the West.
Since this is unlikely to happen, securing against Russian interference will be a difficult, under-resourced battle. Ultimately, it will be up to patriots in state and local governments and private entities to take the lead to protect American democracy.
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