Perceptions Matter And The Conventional Wisdom Is Wrong

In the summer of 2017 I traveled to Warsaw with the Atlantic Council for a Town Hall titled “Ballots, Bullies and Bots: Democracy under Attack.”

As we continue to examine a crucial threat to global democracy, and with news of the 13 indictments of Russian Nationals from Special Counsel Robert Mueller, I want to share some thoughts from my 2017 trip.

Starting with a very brief, but essential, context on active measures, followed by a potentially provocative thesis, and a few personal insights into Putin’s intrusion into the 2016 US presidential campaign from my vantage point.

Briefly, Soviet and Russian active measures have a long and rich history. This political warfare conducted by the Soviet and today Russian security services, as time has shown us, includes disinformation, propaganda, counterfeiting official documents, assassinations, and political repression. And in more recent years we’ve witnessed growing sophistication to increasingly include cyber warfare, the use of computer technology to disrupt state activities and democratic institutions in particular.

Retired KGB Maj. Gen. Oleg Kalugin described active measures best a decade ago when he called it “the heart and soul of Soviet intelligence.” It is subversion intended to weaken the West and drive wedges in the Western alliances, notably NATO and to weaken the image of the US globally. Finally it is important to recall that Vladimir Putin is a trained intelligence officer who, no doubt, received intensive training in active measures as a student in the Andropov Red Banner Institute of the KGB in the early 1980s. He rose to head the KGB’s successor, the FSB, shortly before becoming president in 2000 and has since relied heavily on the KGB’s playbook in shaping Russia’s foreign and domestic policy, including medium-level diversionary wars abroad and growing signs of creeping totalitarianism at home.

Viewed in this context, let me offer a potentially provocative thesis before I share a few personal insights into the 2016 presidential campaign and Putin’s attack upon American democracy in particular. Contrary to conventional wisdom Putin’s interference in the 2016 election DID INFLUENCE 2016 voting. The glib prevailing assertion that it did not just does not withstand close scrutiny. The use of bots, disinformation, fake news stories, and other active measures tools over a period of more than 15 months unquestionably shaped millions of American voter PERCEPTIONS and this no doubt influenced actual voting and ballots cast at precincts.

This is virtually never stressed. In short, PERCEPTIONS do matter especially when blasted with fake news stories and other Russian active measures daily over years.

The result bluntly stated is brainwashing versus a critical-thinking capacity.

What do we see when we closely analyze Russian intrusion into the US 2016 presidential election?

In general, we see active measures methods honed in Ukraine since 2004 and more recently in many other European states. We see a classic two-pronged attack of embarrassing leaks and false news orchestrated by the Kremlin and Russia’s GRU, military intelligence, in particular. We see data from Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the DNC being scooped up to be released at critical future points in the election. We see Republican Party data hacked but never used. We see a classic disinformation campaign with lies and half truths intended to shape opinions spread by “bots” — algorithms with fake profiles on social media networks. We see Russia repeatedly denying involvement in the cyberattacks. And, at the time I was in Warsaw, we saw a disturbingly identical Russian campaign of subversion in Germany as it prepared for its September 24, 2017 general election. Merkel’s continued support for sanctions against Russia for its aggression in Ukraine drove these Russian cyberattacks.

More specifically, as noted in the US Intelligence Community Assessment of January 2017 the GRU used the “Guccifer 2.0” persona, DCLeaks.com, and WikiLeaks to release US victim data obtained in cyber operations publicly and in exclusives to media outlets.

Furthermore, the Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet RT actively collaborated with WikiLeaks and received “new leaks of secret information.” RT’s coverage of Hillary Clinton throughout the campaign was consistently negative.

It focused on her leaked e-mails and accused her of corruption, poor physical and mental health, and ties to Islamic extremism. It even claimed that her election could lead to a war.

In conclusion, moreover, Russian active measures campaigns, which are consistently underway in Western & Eastern Europe, and the US in recent years, demonstrate Russia’s cyber warfare skills are growing more sophisticated with time and pose a continuing global threat to democracy.

Here it is worth recalling Putin’s failure to squash Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004 and install his puppet Viktor Yanukovych as president. Twice Putin prematurely declared him winner. Massive public protests against voting falsification, however, led to a second vote count with poisoned democratic candidate Viktor Yushchenko finally winning.

But Putin didn’t give up. After six long years of active measures campaigns in Ukraine his puppet Yanukovych was declared president in 2010 only to flee to Putin in 2014 after Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity/Euromaidan Revolution succeeded.

Who, by the way, was Yanukovych’s main spin doctor leading up to his 2010 victory? No other than Paul Manafort who followed a familiar formula: divide the country (Russified East vs Western Ukraine), fuel public anger and hatred, push a populist agenda, and flood the country with fake news from Russian outlets. Sounds familiar? It should. Finally, before leaving Ukraine Manafort even managed to set up a pro-Putin “Opposition Bloc” of more than 40 MPs today in Ukraine’s post-Yanukovych parliament. Putin hasn’t yet given up on Ukraine. He needs to show Russians a failed democratic state.

Viewed in this light, we can expect that Russia’s commitment to active measures will remain strong under Putin and even beyond. After 17 years in power Putin’s kleptocratic, authoritarian system is deeply entrenched with solid support from his increasingly tightly-controlled security services. And the Colored-democratic Revolutions of recent years in neighboring countries only add to his deep insecurity and fear of one day losing control and facing a Hague Tribunal for war crimes.

Only the very naïve might believe that Putin’s proven efforts to undermine America’s democracy and European democratic institutions will cease any time soon.

Finally, to steal a phrase from retired KGB Maj. Gen. Oleg Kalugin, I believe Vladimir Putin’s active measures campaigns today are an attack on the ‘heart and soul” of democracies everywhere.