Americans have seen a dramatic increase in awareness regarding ongoing Russian information operations taking place within the United States since news first broke about the Kremlin’s efforts to manipulate the results of the 2016 presidential election. While America’s partisan politics dictated the coverage of Russia’s influence campaign, portraying Moscow as an ally to the GOP, the truth of the matter was that Russia sought primarily to discredit the institutions America is based on.
Ongoing efforts pertaining to topics ranging from race, to vaccinations, and even to popular responses to blockbuster films have demonstrated that Russia’s operatives don’t seek a Republican-led United States — they seek a United States that’s so embroiled in its internal disputes that it consumes itself.
However, as the American people slowly come around to the idea that Russian influence efforts are real, effective — and importantly — not tied to a specific political party. One element of the story that remains hopelessly under-discussed are the ways these efforts affect American service members that occupy the same digital space as the rest of us. Like influence campaigns on civilians, Russia’s efforts aren’t about planting ideas in a person’s head; they’re about exacerbating existing social divides until the naturally occurring differences between Americans becomes all the conversation can be about.
Russia’s efforts are aimed directly at fanning the flames of divisiveness within the United States, and Americans have largely embraced the idea of replacing compromise-politics with political trench warfare. For most of us, it simply makes Twitter an uncomfortable place to spend the afternoon — but the stakes for the men and women serving in the U.S. military are undeniably higher.
“U.S. military personnel and veterans — it is the uncovered stone in the Russian influence effort that no one is really taking enough of an interest in,” said former FBI special agent Clint Watts. Watts now serves as a senior fellow at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security. “At the enlisted ranks in the U.S. military, Russia won over a huge base of support in this country that still continues on today.”
Vladimir Putin, widely seen as a powerful leader with a tough-guy bravado, has enjoyed a strange sort of revelry among many within the United States. While most Americans see him as a threat to American security, still others can’t help but admire the man that has spent a lifetime aggressively pursuing what he believes to be the best interest of his nation.