Russia remains a dangerous and committed adversary— but much of the damage that the United States is wrestling with following the divisive 2016 election started closer to home, according to participants in the second and third day of the Aspen Security Forum.
The aggressive, multi-front information operations that the Russian government conducted over the course of the election were the backdrop for conversations Thursday about cybersecurity, NATO, and the future of the US intelligence community, as European ambassadors, American defense experts, and journalists all expressed concern about Russia’s ongoing threat to democratic institutions across the globe.
Countries on both sides of the Atlantic need to recognize just how fundamentally the geopolitical landscape has changed in recent years, according to Security Forum speakers. “The invasion of Crimea marked the end of the post-Cold War era,” explained Peter Wittig, the German ambassador to the US, who added that he’s seen a tremendous shift since in Russia’s willingness to engage in so-called “active measures” within western countries. As he said, “There is evidence of increasing Russian meddling in our political life.”
“This is not the first time that an adversary has used active measures in the context of an election,” said Ned Price, a former Obama administration national security official, explaining that instead what made the 2016 election attacks different was the sheer extent of the Russian effort. One participant summarized the Russian approach as “hackers, hecklers, and honeypots,” tactics that ranged from the attack on the DNC and the phishing of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta to online trolls, bots, and fake news websites. Former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden said he had been impressed by the strategy behind Russia’s 2016 attack, calling it “honorable state espionage.”
“This is the most successful covert influence operation in history,” said Michael Hayden. “At its heart, this isn’t a cyber issue. This is a Russia issue.”
Russia’s aggressiveness against the west is based on its position of weakness, not strength, speakers said. Vladimir Putin finds himself too often playing a weak and isolated hand, with a middling economy and poor demographic trends a quarter century after its superpower status fell apart. “The trauma of the loss of their empire is still real and fresh,” said Evelyn Farkas, who ran the Pentagon’s Russia portfolio during the Obama administration. That sentiment was echoed by Avril Haines, the former deputy national security advisor, who said “What Russia craves is legitimacy.”
Given its weak hand geopolitically, Russia is focused on undermining political alliances and institutions. Farkas argued that America’s renewed focus on Russia has given it outsized presence that it doesn’t really deserve. “If you polled Americans, they’d think that Russia was the number two economy, not the number nine economy.”
A year after the first rumblings of Russian meddling in the election, she said, “Our democracy does look weaker.” Farkas argued that Donald Trump’s continued willingness to attack American institutions like the media as well as his word choices when discussing foreign policy play right into Putin’s hand. As she said, “[President Trump’s] adopted a lot of the Kremlin tactics and language that they use.”
“[Russia’s] active measures are about exacerbating political divides,” said Clint Watts, a senior fellow at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber & Homeland Security. Watts pointed out that the fracturing media landscape made Russia’s fake news push and its amplification of such stories through social media much easier to execute. “We’ve got a huge cancer on our country—we’re completely bubbled,” he said. “We need to start talking about American active measures—how Americans are bubbling themselves… We’re in a real dangerous space.”
Julia Ioffe, a writer for The Atlantic and expert on Russia, explained that Putin’s government is attacking the United States and western countries in the same way that al-Qaeda exploited the west’s freedom of travel to attack on September 11th. “The Russians are sort of terrorists. They’re using loopholes in our society that are usually strengths,” she said. “They’re weaponizing our federalist system.”
At the same time, Ioffe believes that we give the Russians too much credit. “We did a lot of this to ourselves,” she said. She explained that the Kremlin was able to take advantage of existing divides and trends in American life, like the rising distrust of elites and experts. “They didn’t create Fox News. They didn’t create the electoral college,” she said.
Part of the challenge is that the Russian government approaches intelligence and influence operations on a different time-line than most western governments. “We want to win people over in one quarter or 30 days,” Watts said. “The Russians are in it for the long haul.”
That recognition is something that should force western countries to reevaluate their own security and their own relationships. The Crimean invasion, Russia’s rising meddling with western institutions, and the political uncertainty following Trump’s election and the Brexit vote underscored to Ambassador Wittig that his continental colleagues “have to take the fate of Europe in its own hands.”
While there was a broad consensus among guests at the Security Forum that Russia was behind the multifaceted attacks, CIA Director Mike Pompeo appeared in his remarks to downplay the severity of the assault, saying that it was simply a more technologically adept version of what Russia has done for decades. “It is true, yeah, of course [that Russia interfered with the election],” he told interviewer New York Times columnist Bret Stephens. “And the one before that, and the one before that. They have been at this a hell of a long time.”
He pointed to Russia’s so-called “Gerasimov Doctrine,” the strategic concept advanced by Russian general Valery Gerasimov that focused on hybrid conflict utilizing a wide variety of tactics short of actual military combat. “His idea was that you can win wars without firing a single shot—or with firing very few shots in ways that are decidedly not militaristic, and that’s what’s happened [in 2016],” Pompeo said. “What changes is the costs. To effectuate change through cyber, through RT and Sputnik—their news outlets—and through other soft means, has just really been lowered.”
As Pompeo explained, “If you were sitting in Kazakhstan 40 years ago, your ability to reach into the United States and have an impact was near zero. Today, it’s possible. The threat has certainly shifted, and I expect by the time we hit the elections in 2018, in 2020, will likely shift it again. Our duty is to make sure we’re prepared for that shift as well.”