“A Guide to Russia’s High Tech Tool Box for Subverting US Democracy”
WIRED, August 13, 2017
By Garrett M. Graff
“Understanding just how extensive and coordinated Russia’s operations against the West are represents the first step in confronting—and defeating—Putin’s increased aggression, particularly as it becomes clear that the 2016 election interference was just a starting point.”
A dead dog in Moscow. A dead dissident in London. Twitter trolls run by the Kremlin’s Internet Research Agency. Denial of service attacks and ransomware deployed across Ukraine. News reports from the DC offices of Sputnik and RT. Spies hidden in the heart of Wall Street. The hacking of John Podesta’s creamy risotto recipe. And a century-old fabricated staple of anti-Semitic hate literature.
At first glance these disparate phenomena might seem only vaguely connected. Sure, they can all be traced back to Russia. But is there any method to their badness? The definitive answer, according to Russia experts inside and outside the US government, is most certainly yes. In fact, they are part of an increasingly digital intelligence playbook known as “active measures,” a wide-ranging set of techniques and strategies that Russian military and intelligence services deploy to influence the affairs of nations across the globe.
As the investigation into Russia’s influence on the 2016 election—and the Trump campaign’s potential participation in that effort—has intensified this summer, the Putin regime’s systematic effort to undermine and destabilize democracies has become the subject of urgent focus in the West. According to interviews with more than a dozen US and European intelligence officials and diplomats, Russian active measures represent perhaps the biggest challenge to the Western order since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The consensus: Vladimir Putin, playing a poor hand economically and demographically at home, is seeking to destabilize the multilateral institutions, partnerships, and Western democracies that have kept the peace during the past seven decades.
The coordinated and multifaceted Russia efforts in the 2016 election—from the attacks on the DNC and John Podesta’s email to a meeting between a Russian lawyer and Donald Trump Jr. that bears all the hallmarks of an intelligence mission—likely involved every major Russian intelligence service: the foreign intelligence service (known as the SVR) as well as the state security service (the FSB, the successor to the KGB), and the military intelligence (the GRU), both of which separately penetrated servers at the DNC.
Understanding just how extensive and coordinated Russia’s operations against the West are represents the first step in confronting—and defeating—Putin’s increased aggression, particularly as it becomes clear that the 2016 election interference was just a starting point. “If there has ever been a clarion call for vigilance and action against a threat to the very foundation of our democratic political system, this episode is it,” former director of national intelligence James Clapper said this spring. “I hope the American people recognize the severity of this threat and that we collectively counter it before it further erodes the fabric of our democracy.”
Indeed, Western intelligence leaders have warned throughout the spring that they expect Russia to use similar tricks in German parliamentary election this fall, as well as in the 2018 US congressional midterms and the 2020 presidential race. “Russia is not constrained by a rule of law or a sense of ethics—same with ISIS, same with China,” says Chris Donnelly, director of the UK-based Institute for Statecraft. “They’re trying to change the rules of the game, which they’ve seen us set in our favor.”
Russia’s active-measures playbook, according to public and private-sector investigators, dates back to Czarist Russia and the beginning of the Soviet Union. It has been honed and deployed over decades to advance Russian interests both at home and abroad—and has long been driven by a consistent geopolitical worldview, executed in distinct ways, and guided by a unique tradecraft philosophy at odds with the approach of Western intelligence services.
But enough throat clearing. Let’s break it down, shall we?
- Disinformation or Dezinformatsiya, as its known in Russia, is an umbrella term for so-called information influence operations that seek to muddy the political waters.
- Cyber: Perhaps nowhere is the blurring of lines between intelligence operations and organized crime groups more clear than in cyberspace, where Western law enforcement officials say that they’ve seen a steady rise of hybrid operations involving both organized crime and Russian officials.
- Energy: Russia boasts the world’s largest natural gas reserves and the seventh-largest oil reserves and has long viewed Europe’s dependence on its hydrocarbons—roughly a third of Europe’s oil comes from Russian pipelines, as does even more of its natural gas—as a tool to be deployed geopolitically, especially since its top energy companies, like the state-owned Rosneft and Gazprom, are closely allied with Putin’s inner circle.
- Money: The long-standing ties between Russian business and the more shadowy worlds of intelligence and criminal enterprise has meant that there’s no shortage of cash to throw around to advance Russia’s interests overseas and woo possible help.
- Violence: Then there’s what is known as Mokroye Dyelo, the so-called “wet business” of beatings and assassinations that have long targeted regime critics and potential threats like Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky, murdered in Mexico City in 1940. The goal isn’t the elimination of overseas criticism but merely to inject enough fear into the Russian diaspora that it remains quiet and docile.
- Kompromat: While intelligence agencies the world over routinely blackmail and exploit emotional pressure points, Russia has long excelled in the use of kompromat, compromising material of a financial, sexual, or health-related nature that can coerce covert cooperation—or silence critics.
- Espionage: Russia takes special advantage of the openness of Western democracies to conduct advanced spying operations, leaning heavily on its UN consulate staff in New York to cloak intelligence officers under diplomatic cover. But Russia has also excelled over the years at hiding “nonofficial cover” agents, so-called NOCs, inside US society.
- Diplomacy: Through old-fashioned diplomacy, glad-handing, and a liberal dose of money, Putin’s government has amassed a varied set of Western political allies, from UK nationalist leader Nigel Farage to Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser. …“Their goals are essentially to rebuild the Soviet Union’s territory, and to do that you’ve got to get rid of two things: the NATO alliance and the European Union,” Watts says.
Part of what makes the active-measures playbook effective, according to Western intelligence, is that the tactics are guided not just by Putin’s grand strategic goals but by uniquely Russian tradecraft which differs in key respects from Western efforts.
About the Author:
Garrett M. Graff is a contributing editor at WIRED. He covers national security and is, most recently, the author of Raven Rock: The Story of the US Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself—While the Rest of Us Die. He is a director at The Aspen Institute. He is the author of the No. 1 national bestseller The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11. See also in Internet Salmagundi:
- “The Agency: From a nondescript office building in St. Petersburg, Russia, an army of well-paid “trolls” has tried to wreak havoc all around the Internet — and in real-life American communities.” By Adrian Chen. The New York Times Magazine.
- “How an Entire Nation Became Russia’s Test Lab for Cyberwar: Blackouts in Ukraine were just a trial run. Russian hackers are learning to sabotage infrastructure and the US could be next.” By Andy Greenberg. WIRED, June 28, 2017.
- “The Known Unknowns Swirling Around the Trump-Russia Scandal: What we know so far about the Trump-Russia scandal only suggests more questions—questions Special Counsel Robert Mueller is digging into.” By Garrett M. Graff. WIRED, July 27, 2017.
- “Russia escalates spy games after years of U.S. neglect: Lawmakers and intelligence officials say that the United States missed opportunities to crack down on Russian espionage efforts.” By Ali Watkins. Politico, June 1, 2017.
- “Trump Jr.’s Russia meeting sure sounds like a Russian intelligence operation” By Rolf Mowatt-Larssen. The Washington Post, July 14, 2017.