FBI Director Christopher Wray recently testified that the Bureau had made domestic terrorism a higher priority in its national threat matrix. As he stated,
Trends may shift, but the underlying drivers for domestic violent extremism such as perceptions of government or law enforcement overreach, socio-political conditions, racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and reactions to legislative actions—remain constant.
How does this intersect with Russia’s goal to interfere in the 2020 election?
First, the big picture: While there has been much discussion about Russia’s use of disinformation as a weapon to interfere in Western elections, it is only one piece of Russia’s larger use of political warfare. Russia’s full active-measures toolkit—one that goes back to the Soviet Union’s KGB—includes subversion, espionage, sabotage, propaganda, deception, provocation, spreading of rumors and conspiracy, weaponization of social media, and even assassination and promotion of violence. These tools are used together to weaken the Kremlin’s enemies and advance Russia’s political and foreign policy interests. As we discussed in our last article, Russian disinformation will be used to exploit an already polarized U.S. society and to manufacture outrage. Of course, as anger in the U.S. grows, the threat of political violence also builds, providing the Russian government another opportunity to use a familiar tactic to divide the country.
We know from 2016 that Russia’s disinformation campaign applies pressure precisely on the most politically divisive issues that will most effectively drive Americans apart. But as Special Counsel Robert Mueller detailed, some of its efforts went beyond encouraging passive consumption of divisive material to encouraging people to take action. For example, Russia manipulated Americans to participate in protests on opposite sides of emotionally charged issues—like immigration, or Black Lives Matter—at the same time and same place, likely with the hope that the confrontations might turn violent. In the lead up to the 2018 midterm elections, the FBI uncovered Project Lakhta, a disinformation campaign that had as one of its talking points encouragement of “civil war” in the event that President Donald Trump was impeached as a result of Mueller’s findings. This exhortation has alarmingly been echoed at times by Trump supporters and Fox News commentators. Trump himself has pushed the notion that the country could fall into civil war if he is removed from office. On cue, Russian state media repeated this, no doubt thrilled that their agitations had entered the mainstream.
So, what would the next iteration of this effort look like? A look at Russia’s actions in Europe and past practice suggests the United States should prepare for the worst. Russian military intelligence has been involved in destabilization efforts across Europe, including assassinations and insurgencies.
Russian intelligence has a history of building relationships with many far-right groups, in order to exploit their anger and drive violence. As Michael Carpenter wrote in The Atlantic, Russian President Vladimir Putin exploited fight clubs, motorcycle clubs, neo-Nazi soccer hooligans, anywhere and everywhere you find angry white men ready to fight. Carpenter wrote, “These groups serve as the perfect unwitting agents to accomplish Moscow’s twin goals of destabilizing Western societies and co-opting Western business and political elites.”
The October 2016 parliamentary election in the small Balkan country of Montenegro serves as a stark warning. According to government documents, the GRU planned to assassinate the prime minister and place the country in the hands of pro-Russian opposition politicians. The plan called for GRU officers to use WhatsApp and other messaging apps to spread disinformation claiming the vote was rigged, with the aim of inciting the public to take to the streets in protest, at which point a group of mercenaries – dressed in stolen Montenegrin police uniforms – would open fire on the crowds. Chaos would ensue. The prime minister would be assassinated, and the pro-Russian opposition would then swoop in to fill the leadership vacuum.
To hide the fact that the GRU was behind the operation, Russian intelligence officers hired far-right groups to carry out the coup on their behalf. In the end, Montenegrin authorities foiled the plan, reportedly after receiving information from Western intelligence services. Two alleged GRU officers were later convicted for their involvement and sentenced to 15 and 12 years in prison.
Another example, as Elizabeth Grimm Arsenault and Joseph Stabile documented recently for Just Security, is the Hungarian National Front, a neo-Nazi paramilitary group that has done more than play a role in Russia’s disinformation apparatus. The group has participated in paramilitary training directly with Russian military intelligence officials who were in Hungary under diplomatic cover. As one Finnish observer put it, Russia’s training support to the group fits the pattern of Russia supporting “fringe groups in an effort to destabilize or simply disorient the European Union.”
More recently, at least one member of a GRU group was tracked to Spain, where authorities are investigating if he has connections with an anonymous online group that organized thousands of people to take over the Barcelona airport during political protests last October, resulting in the cancellation of more than a hundred flights.
Again, the pattern is clear to anyone who follows Russian intelligence modus operandi closely. They have rallied masses of people to take action, with violence as a goal.
While no data has been released publicly about ties between Russian intelligence and extremist groups in the United States, we should not underestimate the possibility that such ties exist and that these groups could be used to further polarize society and to scare off protesters, demonstrators, and eventually voters. We know Russian intelligence has aimed to infiltrate conservative groups in the United States, including the National Rifle Association (NRA) and evangelical groups. Putin has an image of himself as the embodiment of masculine and conservative values. His topless photo shoots are a laughable component of this, but he has used this kind of propaganda to insinuate “Russian values” into conservative groups across the globe. The Kremlin trys to appeal to far-right sensibilities in the U.S., portraying Russia as a white, Christian, anti-immigrant and anti-homosexual country. Maria Butina, who presented herself as a Russian gun rights advocate, tapped into this as she courted Republicans through the NRA and at events like the National Prayer Breakfast.
In addition, just last month, a BBC investigation found that the leader of The Base, a white nationalist group in the United States that the FBI is investigating for terrorism, is currently living in Russia, from where he runs the group. The FBI has said The Base is a “racially motivated violent extremist group” that “seeks to accelerate the downfall of the United States government, incite a race war, and establish a white ethno-state.”
According to the BBC, last year, the group’s leader, Rinaldo Nizzaro, who is currently based in Saint Petersburg, “was listed as a guest at a Russian government security exhibition in Moscow, which ‘focused on the demonstration of the results of state policy and achievements.’”
We would not be surprised to learn that rallies, like the recent pro-gun gathering in Richmond, had gotten a boost—in money, in people, in messaging—from people with connections to Russian intelligence. These groups are primed for exploitation and Russian intelligence has a history of doing just that.
The American public needs to be aware of the tactics our enemies are likely to utilize as we barrel toward November. The more we understand their actions and our vulnerabilities, the better we can control how we consume and share information and how we react to those trying to bring out the worst in us.