It seems that every day brings a new revelation of Russian aggression. From the invasions of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, to the situation in Syria today, the Putin regime’s actions have reached a level that not even the most paranoid Kremlinologists would have predicted just a few years ago.
Russia’s exercises in blunt, hard power are complemented by a covert soft-power campaign, designed to insulate the state from challenges at home and abroad. And with the hacking of the Democratic National Committee by operatives tied to the Russian government, many Americans are only now becoming aware of what once might have seemed like a foreign concern.
The hacking of government entities and public institutions, the use of “troll factories” to silence and intimidate critics, and the dissemination of disinformation are just a few of the tactics employed to exert influence and sow division among the Kremlin’s adversaries. Russia has always attempted to penetrate influential agencies and institutions that could give it a strategic advantage. But under Vladimir Putin, and using new technological means, the scope of these efforts has widened dramatically — with targets ranging from foreign governments and politicians, to Olympic athletes and NGOs.
In addition to the cyberattacks against entities such as the U.S. financial system, Europe is a particular target for manipulation — and perhaps an even more vulnerable environment, taking into account its physical proximity and adjacent borders. Russian military incursions into Ukrainian territory have been matched by an aggressive campaign to undermine core state institutions through cyberattacks. Most recently, Russians are believed to be behind this month’s malware attack on Ukraine’s Ministry of Finance.
Germany, France and the Netherlands will all go to the polls in 2017 amid fears of Russian interference; in Germany, the head of the foreign intelligence agency has warned that Russian hackers may attempt to interfere with the election in order to cause “political uncertainty” in Germany. German intelligence services believe Russian hackers working for the state were behind cyberattacks carried out against the German parliament in 2015. This combination of hacking to undermine trust in institutions and the dissemination of propaganda is corrosive to western democracy. It is one of the reasons the European Parliament is calling for institutional investment to raise awareness of Russian disinformation activities.
In the U.S., we must take action to prevent this activity, both for the sake of our own national security and the security of our European allies. The “Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act,” co-sponsored by Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican, and Sen. Chris Murphy, Connecticut Democrat, was included as part of the FY 2017 National Defense Authorization Act and represents an important step. This bipartisan bill will establish an interagency center at the State Department to coordinate counterpropaganda efforts across the U.S. government. The legislation would significantly expand the range of tools available to confront the effects of disinformation spread by the Kremlin and other authoritarian powers that seek asymmetric means to undermine stronger economic, political and military systems.
That this issue has inspired significant legislation is a testament to the seriousness of the threat. That is one of the reasons why I’ve become involved with IRI’s Beacon Project — an effort designed to expose and counter Russian disinformation in Europe, where the campaign to subvert democracy through these tactics is particularly aggressive. This month, the Beacon Project launched a new tool to collect and track the origin and dissemination patterns of these false narratives, helping decision makers gain insight into the nature of this problem in order to design effective policy responses.
Policy on such a strategic threat requires a concerted effort among the U.S. and our European partners, and that we further our constructive, communicative relationships. To push back against Russian propaganda, we must work together to maintain continuously factual, credible messaging that highlights the importance of our democratic institutions, as well as the irony and bankruptcy of Russian efforts to undermine them.
It’s important not only that policy and media leaders understand the reality of Russian aggression, and the diffuse and often innovative ways the Kremlin has found to exert influence and intimidate opponents, but that American and European constituencies do as well. Our leaders must marshal their resolve and ingenuity to highlight and oppose these tactics in all their forms, and integrate our public affairs, diplomacy, and intelligence efforts accordingly.
Mike Rogers, a CNN national security commentator, is the host of CNN’s “Declassified” TV series, the past chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and a member of the Beacon Project.