As polls were opening in the United States on Tuesday, Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of the propaganda network Russia Today, tweeted from her personal account: “Democracy. R.I.P.” There could have been no more fitting epitaph to the efforts invested over the past year by the Kremlin to subvert and sully Western democracy. Russia Today is a case in point.
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Originally envisaged when it was launched 11 years ago to improve Russia’s image abroad, RT has gradually become just the more visible arm of a concerted drive by President Vladimir Putin’s regime to taint the political process of Western democracies, particularly of the U.S. It has largely done this by using the services of Westerners, political radicals and conspiracy theorists, presented on its broadcasts as respectable “experts,” who spout their thoughts on air as if they were credible analyses. Leading up to elections, this usually means fulminations against mainstream candidates, portraying them as shysters and crooks. In between election seasons, bizarre health scares and other stories of disaster and mayhem on the streets of the West’s main cities are used. This is, of course, only part of the “hybrid warfare” being used by Russia in the build-up to these elections – a combination of open propaganda, online hacking and manipulation and espionage.
Of course, subversion of elections is nothing new. Both the U.S. and the Soviet Union engaged in bribery, propaganda and other black operations in countries across the globe throughout the Cold War, in an attempt to turn elections in the desired direction. Many believe America is still at it, even in Israel, where the right-wing accuses the V15 NGO, which received in the past funding from the U.S. State Department, of having been an anti-Netanyahu front. What is different now is that the U.S. has for the first time become the target of a Russian campaign, using online technology. The 2016 election has become the first round in what promises to be an ongoing cyberwarfare campaign between the two countries.
Many Russians believe that it was the U.S. that started it. That it was Hillary Clinton who, as secretary of state in 2011, had a hand in the protests that broke out in Russian cities, disputing the election there. They also believe that U.S. funding for civil society organizations in Ukraine was aimed at fomenting the “Maidan Revolution” which in 2014 swept away the pro-Kremlin government in Kiev. As far as Putin is concerned, what is happening now is simply payback in a continuing battle.
It is a battle that Russia has been preparing for a while. Meduza, an independent Russian news site operating from Latvia, published this week a detailed report of how Russia’s security organizations have stepped up recruitment of hackers and cyberwarfare experts in recent years. Secure government jobs and high salaries were offered both to bright young students and members of crime organizations who were involved in online crime. They were recruited through online ads, like the one published by the “Research Squadron of the Russian Federation” showing a man reloading a machine gun and then putting it down next to a laptop on which he writes lines of code.
Russia used cyberwarfare, at least as early as 2007, to punish, sabotage and subvert Western-minded governments of countries which used to belong to the Soviet Union and its former satellites, including Estonia, Georgia, Ukraine and Poland. Government websites and those of news organizations critical of Russia were forced offline – in some cases the entire Internet infrastructure was sabotaged by anonymous hackers.
In the latest assault on the U.S. election process, it used new tactics.
To strike the Clinton campaign and sow discord and mistrust, Russian intelligence has used an angry cyberactivist holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, evading an investigation into allegations of rape: Julian Assange. The movement founded by Assange has been weaponized by Russia to disseminate emails stolen from the Democratic Party and Clinton campaign’s computers by groups of hackers with clear connections to Russia’s main spy organizations. Not only have the emails included some embarrassing details on the ties between the campaign and media, Clinton’s private lectures to large financial companies and how the party machine helped her campaign against her main rival in the primaries, Bernie Sanders, it helped create an atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion around what was already a highly divisive campaign.
Some of the emails seem to have been doctored. But that didn’t matter and Wikileaks’ nearly daily dumps fueled a toxic discourse. Russia’s campaign to muddy the waters has merged with the online activity of Trump-supporting trolls, particularly on Twitter, who have been sending vicious messages against Clinton and against specific targeted groups, such as Jews – especially Jewish journalists – who have been critical of Trump.
The Anti-Defamation League recorded 2.6 million anti-Semitic tweets between last August and this July, 60 percent of them to journalists. Interestingly, 68 percent of these came from just 1,600 accounts. It will be interesting to see how many of these came from actual American individuals and how many were generated by the Russian “troll factories.” Either way, they have served a similar purpose.
The Russian campaign was utilized not only on behalf of Trump. While the Democratic primaries were still ongoing, it fed also the feelings of frustration on the American left against Clinton, which in its more vicious manifestation became known as the “Bernie bros.” This is how Russia’s hybrid warfare has worked in other countries as well, pouncing on disaffection with the political establishment and the mainstream media.
Russia Today gave similar platforms in Britain to the Scottish nationalists two years ago in the independence referendum there, and in June this year to supporters of Brexit in the referendum on leaving the European Union. It has also boosted the radical leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters. Whether on the right or left fringes of politics – whatever challenges and taints the established democratic order with innuendo and allegations of conspiracy and rigged systems.
The U.S. intelligence services are on high alert to prevent hacking of the electoral process or the tallying of results. Among scenarios being prepared for are anything from a last-minute dump of more stolen or fake emails, to an attack on crucial infrastructure like the power grid. The fear is not only that Russian organizations could be behind such an attack – someone like the hacker who presents himself as Guccifer 2.0, and is believed to be a front for Russian intelligence, but also independent groups and individuals taking advantage of the murky state of affairs.
Actual hacking of the election results is unlikely as most of the voting machines are not online and the central computers used are well-protected, but misinformation can be spread online by hacking news organizations and disseminating false documents online. It won’t change the results, but it could give groups contesting the results more ammunition.
What is Putin trying to achieve? Last week he said to journalists, “Does anyone seriously think that Russia can affect the choice of the American people? What, is America a banana republic? America’s a great power. Correct me if I’m wrong.”
Kremlinologists believe that more than Putin is expecting to actually influence the results of the election, his aim is to create the impression that American is no different from a banana republic, no better than Russia.
American politics and media shoulder most of the blame for the unprecedented toxicity and divisiveness of this election campaign, but the Russian campaign has done a lot to magnify and boost its ugliest elements. This sad American episode won’t end on November 9 and it will take years to heal the discord. It doesn’t matter whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump win – Vladimir Putin has already won these elections.