“The approaches used by Moscow include control of the press in foreign countries; outright and partial forgery of documents; use of rumors, insinuation, altered facts, and lies; use of international and local front organizations; clandestine operation of radio stations; exploitation of a nation’s academic, political, economic, and media figures as collaborators to influence policies of the nation.”
Substitute “radio stations” with “websites” and this excerpt could have come from any number of recent studies on Russian active measures abroad. Instead, it is from a 1981 U.S. State Department report. Moscow has embraced new technologies and forms of communication that have allowed it to take advantage of years of Western inattention to a growing problem. However, the tools Russia uses in its current influence operations are nothing new. Neither are its strategic objectives of subverting NATO and the EU and undermining Western governments and democratic institutions. While for many Americans Russia’s actions seem to have come out of nowhere, it is essential that we understand these actions occurred in the context of a wide and ongoing effort by the Kremlin.
In the United States, much of the focus on Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential election has been on information operations. In fact, the Kremlin has been deploying information operations throughout Europe for years, with a consistent pattern of either highlighting themes that are already of concern to a population or amplifying extremist points of view, exacerbating divisions in a particular society. For example, Russian media have targeted NATO missions in the Baltics in an attempt to turn the local population against the Alliance by fabricating stories claiming that a Canadian mission consisted exclusively of homosexuals and that a German mission harbored rapists. The Kremlin has used propaganda to sow discord in Macedonia since 2008 as part of Moscow’s ongoing effort to pull former Yugoslav republics away from NATO and European integration. The Russian media’s stoking of immigration fears may have helped the far-right Alternative for Deutschland cross the threshold into the Bundestag.
Additionally, last year’s “Renzi” referendum on Italian constitutional reform was marred by a flood of disinformation. Russian outlets also incorrectly reported that the Liguria region of Italy and the Catalonia region of Spain recognized Crimea as part of Russia, while Russian representatives cast doubt on the legitimacy of Western democratic initiatives like the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. Russian sources even published forged letters in public newspapers to discredit institutions and individuals, as in separate incidents in 2015 involving the Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize Committee and Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist. If these incidents are not enough, the EU’s East StratCom Task Force has helpfully compiled a database listing known cases of Russian disinformation.
While disinformation campaigns often take the headlines, Moscow uses a diverse toolkit of techniques, often involving more direct methods to influence the affairs of other states.
Russian cyber operations, now well known for their role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, have also been used to exert influence to achieve policy objectives in Europe. The 2007 DDoS attack on Estonia brought attention to large-scale attacks but network probing and small-scale hacks sometimes go unnoticed. DNC-style hacks have targeted European political figures and institutions in Germany (2015), Lithuania (2016), Norway (2017), France (2017), and Montenegro (2017). Nongovernment actors have also been targeted: in 2015 France’s TV5Monde was taken off the air, and in 2016 World Anti-Doping Agency data was stolen. Crucially, critical infrastructure remains vulnerable, as evidenced by attacks on Ukraine’s power grid in 2015 and 2016.
Moscow has also long understood that money talks. The Kremlin’s financing of France’s far-right National Front best exemplifies its efforts to influence the domestic politics of other nations through direct — or indirect — financial support. However, the Kremlin has also established subtle ties to other political parties, notably with far-right parties like Lega Nord in Italy or Ataka in Bulgaria. Another approach has been to establish connections with individual leaders who have pro-Russian sympathies, such as Hungary’s Bela Kovacs and Poland’s Mateusz Pikorski. Influence also extends beyond formal politics, with the launch of fight clubs linked to Russian military intelligence (GRU) in addition to the state-sponsored mafia networks that have permeated Europe. Most egregiously, Russia’s direction of the recent coup attempt in Montenegro shows Moscow’s willingness to use any means possible to undermine — or even overthrow — a democratically elected government.
These political actions can generate tangible economic benefits for Moscow, which then give rise to networks that influence European politics to Russian advantage. For instance, pipeline projects offer potentially lucrative business deals while simultaneously resulting in greater European energy dependence on Russian exports. While former German chancellor and newly elected Rosneft board member Gerhard Schröder claims that the ongoing Nord Stream 2 project is pure business, Russia’s history of petro-politics suggests geopolitical objectives well beyond profits. Beyond Russia’s use of energy exports to exact concessions from Ukraine, Russia has also pressured Belarus, making the resumption of gas deliveries conditional upon Minsk’s acceptance of Eurasian Economic Union customs policy. Russia’s energy politics do not stop at hydrocarbons — nuclear energy is another instrument of influence. In 2012, through a combination of lobbying, covert political action, and disinformation, Russia’s state-owned nuclear power company Rosatom managed to sabotage a Lithuanian-Japanese deal to build a nuclear power plant in Lithuania. Further, Russia plans to build a nuclear plant in Finland, a country already reliant on Russian gas exports, and to expand existing reactors in Hungary as part of a 30-year secret agreement.
Russian techniques continue to adapt and evolve. Occupied with putting out a seemingly endless set of fires, the West is playing catch-up as Russia continues to implement its strategy of undermining democracies. But with Russia using the same toolkit and exhibiting similar tactical patterns on both sides of the Atlantic, the United States has much to learn from our European partners and allies. We need to develop new mechanisms to share information about threats and effective countermeasures, and work in concert to develop a playbook to defend against, deter, and raise the cost of Moscow’s activities. This needs to include building resilience and shoring up our own vulnerabilities. It also needs to include addressing the toolkit of Russian active measures holistically and breaking out of stovepiped responses to each Russian tactic to devise countermeasures to the range of hybrid threats. We also need to recognize that Russian strategic objectives go well beyond the 2016 presidential election, and that the threat we face is to the foundations of our democracy.