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In the News

News | Aug. 24, 2022

THE NEXT VARIANT OF RUSSIA’S POLITICAL WARFARE VIRUS

By Joshua Huminski

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has provoked a belated immune response to Moscow’s political warfare campaign to subvert democracy and exploit systemic weaknesses in Europe and the United States. To be sure, there were attempts to halt or roll back the Kremlin’s efforts before the invasion, particularly after Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia and the 2014 annexation of Crimea. It was, however, only after the invasion that countries moved purposefully to close off the broader avenues that had, hitherto, largely remained open.

This response is incomplete and will almost certainly encounter a new variant of the political warfare virus—one that contains the DNA of previous iterations adapted to the post-Ukraine environment. In turn, governments in the West should seek not only to treat the symptoms of the virus but to strengthen their bodies politic comprehensively by developing antibodies to respond to signs of infection and by creating an inhospitable host for this new variant.

The Institutionalization of Russian Political Warfare

Defining Russia’s political warfare campaign is challenging. Hybrid, gray zone, or liminal warfare are all attempts to define Russia’s unconventional activities that sit outside the West’s binary concept of war and peace. George Kennan defined “political warfare” as “the employment of all the means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives [emphasis added]. Such operations are both overt and covert.” Yet even Kennan’s definition allows for a broad interpretation.

Russia’s security and intelligence services exist in a power structure that incentivizes competition and independence of action to a degree not seen in other states. Mark Galeotti writes that Moscow’s political warfare is less of a concerted campaign operating according to a master plan, though certainly guided by national strategies, than a series of ad hoc initiatives in pursuit of what the services define as the Kremlin’s interests. This is unlikely to change. Russia’s leadership encourages a highly risk-tolerant approach to operations. Even when unsuccessful or exposed, operations contribute to the perception of Russia as a strong actor. Success is just that, but a failure is, counterintuitively, also a signal—if one operation was uncovered, how many more might have evaded detection? The aim was, in the main, pursuing national interests, and weakening adversary unity by introducing doubt and political paralysis to prevent responses to Russia’s pursuit of those interests.

The Immune System’s Response

Prior to the invasion, Russia’s efforts arguably achieved some success. NATO was largely divided and “brain-dead.” Russia’s oligarchs bought properties and football clubs, and benefited from the access that came with financial profligacy. Russia’s operations across Europe—poisoning former spies in the United Kingdom, assassinating opposition figures in Germany, and bombing munitions depots in the Czech Republic—resulted in fewer lasting consequences than their actions perhaps warranted. Moscow’s state-run propaganda outlets reached audiences across the West through traditional and social media. The Kremlin cultivated relationships with far-right parties and encouraged separatist movements in Catalonia and Scotland (with uneven success). Here, Russia views politics as an international competition, one without borders, and one in which everyone interferes in everyone else’s activities.

Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine undid much of the success that Russia’s political warfare campaign had achieved in the years prior to February 2022. It is debated why Putin undertook this course of action, which appeared to deviate from existing strategy; it seems to have been a closely held decision, so much so that those outside his immediate circle were unaware of it until the order to invade was issued. Putin’s strategic calculus may never be fully known, but what is clear is that immediately thereafter, many of the avenues through which Moscow operated were closed. The reach of its misinformation and disinformation outlets was sharply curtailed. The United Kingdom and Canada banned RT, and YouTube blocked RT, Sputnik, and other Kremlin-backed media outlets.

Any connection (at least in Western Europe) to Russian politicians and parties has become untenable. In the most recent French presidential election, Emmanuel Macron attacked Marine Le Pen for accepting a loan from First Czech-Russian Bank. In the United Kingdom, the Conservative Party came under fire (and not for the first time) for its acceptance of campaign funding allegedly funneled from Kremlin-connected individuals.

The United States and its allies sanctioned Russia’s oligarchs in hopes of increasing pressure on the siloviki—Russia’s security and intelligence elite. This is not the first time that these figures were targeted by the West—many were sanctioned following Russia’s invasion of Georgia and its annexation of Crimea. But the current sanctions have been applied more widely, and on top of these and structural economic sanctions the West also imposed severe embargoes on Russia’s economy.

Russian intelligence officers were expelled from across Europe, with Poland alone kicking out forty-five officers in March of this year. These expulsions dealt a sharp blow to Russia’s intelligence collection efforts as well as its active measures campaigns. This policy of expelling suspected intelligence and security officers has a long history in bilateral relations, and will likely be used again in the future.

Political Warfare in a Post-Ukraine World

Since the invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s political warfare campaign will encounter a markedly different operating environment: an increased awareness by Western states of the threat and an even more toxic political brand will complicate Moscow’s efforts.

That said, the core DNA of Russia’s contemporary political warfare campaign remains largely unchanged from Soviet tactics and objectives in the Cold War and is unlikely to radically change after Ukraine. It is nonetheless constantly evolving: Moscow adapts (and will adapt) its toolset to new environments and new avenues. The online efforts of the Internet Research Agency echo campaigns like Operation Denver, which in the 1980s and 1990s spread the conspiracy theory that AIDS was a disease created by the United States. Russia’s co-optation of unwitting journalists is only a minor deviation from its use of friendly or semi-witting press outlets. Here, there is a dynamic process by which Russia learns from the West’s innovations and adapts its core objectives to the new tools or environmental conditions.

What is likely to change, however, is the urgency of political warfare within Russia’s toolset. In the near term, a weakened conventional force structure, a depressed economy severed from global markets, and a diplomatically isolated—from the West, at least—Kremlin will close overt avenues and necessitate greater reliance on political warfare to achieve Moscow’s policy aims in the West.

What comes next? Moscow is effective at exploiting the West’s systemic weaknesses to advance its political warfare aims. For example, the West should expect Russia to leverage the effects of food shortages, rising energy prices, and the resulting economic shocks to discredit the West’s response in Ukraine. The West should also anticipate that Russia will weaponize rising inflation against Western populations (echoing some of the West’s own talking points explaining away domestic policy decisions). Russia is, for instance, likely to seed the social media ecosystem with suggestions that the woes of Iowa are the result of Ukraine. Such narratives are already finding a home within more extreme parts of America’s political spectrum. Here, Moscow will amplify and magnify these voices, contributing to their increasing presence in the mainstream. It is important to note, again, that Russia rarely creates whole new narratives; it merely gloms onto existing trends.

The West should expect Russia to weaponize refugees, both in terms of the physical flows of people and the narratives around those flows, to sow discord among host populations. As the war continues and the reconstruction of Ukraine is delayed, the economic pressure that refugees create on host countries may well strain the populations’ willingness to sustain their care and support. It is also increasingly clear that Russia is using food as a weapon to increase instability in hopes of raising pressure on the West in other regions of the globe. Russia will seek to disrupt NATO unity and, in particular, target the internal political cohesion of Finland and Sweden, as it has historically done. Russia will almost certainly target the United States’ forthcoming midterm elections in 2022. It stands to reason that Moscow is likely to also target the presidential election in 2024, particularly if America’s support to Kyiv continues until then.

Moscow will also seek to undermine the West’s sanctions and embargoes. This will likely take two forms: first, by eroding the unity of the West by playing up the domestic effects of the sanctions, and second, by identifying alternative ways of acquiring the necessary equipment, materials, technology, and resources.

Immunizing the West to Political Warfare

The West’s response to previous variants of Russia’s political warfare efforts focused overwhelmingly on Moscow’s tactics. It is easier to address the manifestations of Russia’s behavior rather than the systemic vulnerabilities upon which the Kremlin seizes. Yet tactically targeting the vectors used by the virus merely masks the symptoms—a strategic or holistic response is needed. Without belaboring the metaphor any further, Western governments must strengthen their bodies politic if they are to address the vulnerabilities Moscow exploits.

Mounting a robust campaign to counter disinformation and misinformation is insufficient alone, although measures taken thus far are to be welcomed. Long-term societal resilience and disinformation defense programs, as seen in Finland and Sweden, represent an encouraging start. In the United States, in particular, a national rejuvenation effort must focus on addressing the schisms and issues that Moscow exploits. Alarmingly, given the current political environment, top-down efforts to reinvigorate American democracy and its foundations are unlikely to take place in the near future—indeed, the Department of Homeland Security’s disinformation board barely survived three weeks. This will create new opportunities for Russia to exploit.

In the absence of those efforts, public encouragement of private fact-checking efforts and private investment in reliable journalism to debunk false and misleading propaganda will help erode the effectiveness of Russia’s efforts (and those of other countries, too). The creative use of strategic intelligence as seen in advance of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, and public disclosures of known disinformation (as in the French presidential election) will also undermine the efficacy of propagandists. With the entry of Finland and Sweden into NATO, a societal or political resilience center of excellence would be a longer-term means to centralize key lessons and promulgate best practices.

The lifeblood of any political warfare campaign is finance. As Catherine Belton has argued in her book Putin’s People, the Kremlin appears to have used the West’s financial networks to launder both personal kleptocratic gains and operational funding. While there is, in many cases, no definitive link of impropriety, the appearance thereof undermines the political integrity of many states, parties, and offices. Indeed, one need look no further than the British Conservative Party’s alleged receipt of funds from multiple Kremlin-linked officials to see the potential for political fallout.

Targeting Russia’s oligarchs and kleptocrats by seizing their assets and yachts may appear to be an effective way to constrain the ability of the country’s elite to act in hopes of increasing pressure on the Kremlin, but it is insufficient alone. In addition to the structural sanctions, which are likely to have a longer-term effect on Russia’s economy, the systemic vulnerabilities within the financial system that the Russian elite exploited must also be addressed. In London, systemic efforts like strengthening the National Crime Agency, executing unexplained wealth orders, and improving Companies House—the United Kingdom’s registration vehicle—would help address this weakness and stymie Russian and other illicit financial inflows. The White House’s decision to make the fight against corruption a core national security interest is a good signal and a step in the right direction. A concerted effort domestically within liberal democracies would further enhance this critical pillar of action. This is by no means an easy thing to achieve, particularly as the urgency and immediacy of the war in Ukraine ebb from the West’s attention.

Expelling Russian intelligence officers is another effective way to constrain the Russian intelligence services’ ability to act, provided there is no more value in allowing them to operate in place and under surveillance. Sustained counterintelligence activities must be intensified, coordinated across allies, and consistently funded. These activities are resource- and time-intensive, and in an era of strained resources, can prove challenging. For example, hamstrung by domestic surveillance and security laws, counterintelligence has remained a consistently low priority in many European countries. These allies, in turn, often rely on the United States and the United Kingdom to supplement or augment their own investigations and activities. This must change.

Naming and shaming politicians and parties that accept money from Russians of ill repute or maintain relationships with Russia’s parties, such as United Russia, are additional ways to highlight Moscow’s pernicious influence. Yet, closing off those avenues by tightening domestic regulations in countries like the United Kingdom, mandating foreign agent registries, and other measures to prevent the inflows in the first place would dramatically constrain the ability of Moscow to buy access and create the appearance of impropriety or the impropriety itself. Unfortunately, in London, a measure to create such a registration requirement was unexpectedly left out of a national security bill in May.

Only by addressing these systemic weaknesses and responding to the symptoms manifested by Russia’s campaign of political warfare will the West achieve the necessary long-term resilience to the next variant of the virus. Given the environmental considerations that are likely to emerge after Ukraine, the increased attractiveness of political warfare in an era of fewer conventional outlets, and Russia’s past conduct, it stands to reason that a new variant of political warfare will emerge. The West must undertake a coherent and robust slate of actions now to prevent future infection from occurring.