In today’s era of great power competition, it is not Russian ICBMs or hypersonic vehicles that pose the greatest threat to U.S. national security, but rather Moscow’s covert influence and destabilization operations.
In terms of hard-power correlation of forces, the U.S. and its NATO allies have a significant conventional military advantage over Russia, which will likely extend into the foreseeable future. Both sides have a credible nuclear deterrent that provides for strategic stability. But this advantage does not extend into the area of covert political influence, where, not only has the United States failed to establish a credible deterrent against Russia’s malign activities, but it is failing to address the vulnerabilities that are being exploited on an almost daily basis by Russia, China and other state and non-state actors. Russia’s growing reliance on influence operations, combined with our lack of pushback and failure to address crucial governance gaps, has led us into an era of dangerous strategic instability that increases the likelihood of escalation.
Yet, in much of the Western world, including in the United States, we seem unable to fully grasp the fact that Russia is waging war on Western democracies. While it is not an overt or declared war, it is a war nonetheless. And, while Russia’s successes are sometimes exaggerated, those who dismiss Russian tactics as marginal or insignificant simply fuel our own inaction. Russian Chief of the General Staff Valeriy Gerasimov’s much-discussed 2013 article on hybrid warfare was seized on by Western pundits for its explicit articulation of the need to develop “hybrid” or unconventional tactics. However, it is not the tactics themselves that are noteworthy, but rather Gerasimov’s tacit declaration of an asymmetric war on the West.
Exploiting Asymmetric Advantages
Although Russia used military force to try to achieve its geopolitical goals in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, the Kremlin appears to be realizing now that even successful military action can result in strategic failure. In both Georgia and Ukraine, despite occupying a large chunk of both countries’ territory, Russia has come to be seen by a large segment of society as an implacable enemy. This is one of the reasons why Russian President Vladimir Putin has increasingly turned to covert influence operations or “active measures” (aktivnyye meropriyatiya) to achieve his geopolitical aims.
The goal of such measures is to cripple or weaken an adversary without it fully realizing it is under attack, or as the Chinese strategist Sun Tzu put it, “to subdue the enemy without fighting.” When they are most successful, active measures not only change the target’s behavior but also alter its perceptions of what constitutes a threat and who is an ally and an enemy. As KGB defector Yuri Bezmenov described it, the ultimate goal of influence operations is “to change the perception of reality of every American.” Or as Kremlin strategist Vladislav Surkov boasted to a Western audience, “Russia [seeks to interfere] in your brains, [to] change your conscience.”
Putin’s various successes with covert action in the last five years show that such operations are not only more effective and cheaper than conventional military operations at weakening an opponent, but they have also resulted in far fewer international repercussions.
Here I will sketch out three main types of influence operations – information operations, elite infiltration, and destabilization operations – and discuss some of the steps the U.S. and its allies should be taking to counter them.
Most Americans are by now familiar with Russian information operations, and particularly those run by the Internet Research Agency, an organization bankrolled by Putin crony Yevgeniy Prigozhin. Much media attention has been devoted to the fact that these operations were geared towards supporting the candidacy of Donald Trump, but Russia’s information operations have a wider purpose. In addition to trying to suppress turnout for Hillary Clinton and supporting anti-establishment candidates like Trump and Bernie Sanders, the Russian online propaganda machine tried above all to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the 2016 election (an effort that was ceased as soon as Trump was elected).
Additionally, it sought to divide Americans by amplifying racial, cultural, political and religious cleavages. So, while particular political candidates may offer Russia convenient targets of opportunity, the real aim has been to undermine U.S. democratic institutions.
Information operations have also been used to directly influence targeted geopolitical outcomes. In the Netherlands, Russian proxies posing as Ukrainians were engaged in successful media efforts to sway a 2015 referendum on Ukraine’s Free Trade Agreement with the European Union. In the United Kingdom, Russian trolls and bots sent out a blizzard of propaganda supporting the Leave campaign in the run-up to the June 2016 Brexit referendum.
Russia’s elite infiltration operations are efforts to secure access to key Western political, media, business and cultural elites. Although some of these operations are managed by Russia’s intelligence services, they are just as often carried out by oligarchs, politicians, academics or even organized crime bosses who have connections to the ruling elite. To maintain plausible deniability, the Kremlin, in fact, prefers to leverage non-official relationships whenever possible. For example, Maria Butina, who was convicted of conducting an influence operation in the United States, posed as a gun enthusiast with no direct ties to the Kremlin. Similarly, Russian oligarch Pyotr Aven told Special Counsel Robert Mueller that he was given an “implicit directive” by Putin to make inroads with the Trump transition team in spite of parallel efforts by Russia’s formally accredited ambassador to the United States, Sergei Kislyak.
A slightly different model of infiltration can be seen in the deployment of private contractors. Private Russian military contractors from the Wagner corporation have for example been deployed to a wide range of countries, including the Central African Republic, Libya, Sudan, Madagascar, Syria and Venezuela. In most of these countries, Wagner has provided a suite of services, ranging from personal security to technical support for manipulating elections (in the case of several African countries). In return, Wagner and similar private companies have usually received a cut of mineral extraction revenues. Most importantly, however, these companies give the Kremlin enormous influence over the client regimes that employ them.
Finally, a third model of conducting influence operations involves using Russia’s state-owned enterprises – Rosneft, Gazprom, Rosatom, Rostech, etc. – to offer foreign government officials preferential deals in return for influence.
While bearing many similarities to influence operations, and often using many of the same techniques, Russia’s destabilization operations aim not just to influence, but also to stoke or amplify divisions and disorder among Russia’s adversaries. One way to do this is through divisive online disinformation (as discussed above), but another way is by using proxies to foment violent activity.
In Montenegro, Russia’s military intelligence service, or GRU, launched a classic influence operation in 2015 to try to stop the country’s NATO accession process by laundering funds to the leaders of a small pro-Russia political party and by engaging in disinformation operations to cast doubt on the benefits of NATO membership. In the fall of 2016, however, this operation took a more sinister turn as the GRU sought to foment a violent coup d’état against the country’s prime minister. Two GRU agents, Eduard Shirokov and Vladimir Popov, were sentenced this year in absentia for masterminding the plot.
A similar destabilization operation took place in nearby North Macedonia, where, according to multiple media reports, former Duma member and Kremlin-connected oligarch Ivan Savvidis paid demonstrators to engage in violent protests against an agreement between Greece and North Macedonia. The goal of these efforts, which were likely coordinated with parallel operations conducted by intelligence agents based in the Russian Embassy in Athens (several of whom were later expelled by the Greek government), was to block North Macedonia’s membership in NATO.
Russia’s Illicit Financial Ecosystem
As can be seen from the North Macedonia example, Russian influence operations are financed through a financial ecosystem that exists in Western countries thanks to the investments of Russian oligarchs and businessmen. While we do not know how much illicit Russian money is in the U.S., in 2015, the Treasury Department estimated that $300 billion is laundered annually into this country from different sources around the world. Meanwhile, total private Russian holdings abroad are estimated to be in the range from $800 billion to $1.3 trillion.
The Panama Papers and a number of other sources have helped reveal the precise mechanisms through which illicit funds are laundered into Western financial and real estate markets. The Russian Laundromat is one such scheme that used an offshore network of shell companies and financial institutions to enable Russian oligarchs, officials and organized crime syndicates to launder over $20 billion into Western financial institutions, mostly through banks in Moldova and Latvia. Another well-known enabler of Russia’s illicit financing schemes is Denmark’s Danske Bank, which facilitated Russian money laundering through an Estonian correspondent bank that resulted in the transfer of a staggering $225 billion in illicit funds into Western markets.
So how does laundered money end up being used to fund influence operations? The Special Counsel’s indictment of 12 GRU agents involved in hacking operations in the United States in 2016 provides one snapshot. It shows how laundered funds were used to lease servers, register domains and buy virtual private network accounts. In this case, the GRU purchased the services themselves. More often, however, the Kremlin takes advantage of its diverse network of oligarchs living (or investing) abroad to channel money – both licit and illicit – to front organizations that carry out the desired influence operations, such as pro-Kremlin think tanks, lobbying organizations and nonprofits.
Countering Russia’s Malign Influence
To combat Russian malign influence, the U.S. needs to work with its allies to: (1) coordinate law enforcement and intelligence activities to weed out malign networks of influence in Western societies; (2) proactively address our vulnerabilities to foreign malign influence by plugging governance gaps and creating greater transparency within our financial, real estate and media ecosystems; and (3) impose greater costs on Russia whenever we discover Russian interference in our democratic process. Let’s consider each of these.
First, with regards to weeding out Russian networks of malign influence, the U.S. needs better coordination between the National Security Council (NSC) and national security agencies on the one hand, and domestic law enforcement agencies and U.S. attorneys, on the other. Currently, NSC staff are often unaware of ongoing investigations by U.S. attorneys, while the latter often lack crucial information on the latest Russian active measures operations. A standing interagency task force on malign Russian influence chaired by an NSC senior director would help to coordinate such information.
Second, we need to address our vulnerabilities to Russian and other foreign influence operations. The most important task is to reform our campaign finance system, which provides numerous back channels for foreign dark money to make its way into our political process. Legislation to identify the beneficial owners of limited liability companies (LLCs) is also necessary and urgent, since many LLCs function as shell companies whose sole purpose is to mask covert financial transactions. Similarly, stricter anti-money laundering regulations are needed to tighten illicit financial flows, particularly between the U.S. and offshore tax havens. In the real estate market, more transparency is needed for high-end real estate transactions, which are also used to launder money. Lastly, law firms also need to be subjected to greater transparency so that attorney-client privilege does not become a loophole through which foreign entities channel funds to their U.S. legal representatives for malign purposes.
The third and final major task for the U.S. and its allies is to impose more significant costs on Russia for its brazen interference in our democratic processes. In January, the director of National Intelligence and the FBI director both testified to Congress that Russian interference in our democratic process is ongoing. Clearly, our current patchwork of sanctions on oligarchs, government officials, and a few select companies is not deterring Russia. To impose real costs, it is time to look at much more forceful measures such as full-blocking sanctions on select Russian banks, as I have suggested elsewhere.
If we root out Russia’s networks, address our vulnerabilities to foreign influence, and impose costs whenever foreign powers interfere in our democracy, we will deny our adversaries the asymmetric advantage they currently enjoy.