According to multiple sources, including Secretary of State under Donald Trump, Rex Tillerson, the Kremlin’s varied digital campaign against the United States remains ongoing. While the topic has becoming a politically charged one within the United States, the informed debate is not about whether or not Russia has worked to manipulate events within the United States, but rather, to what extent have they been successful.
While Russia’s cyber warfare apparatus employs a broad spectrum of methodologies, many of their efforts can be sorted into one of three categories:
Headlines following the 2016 presidential election about the possibility of Trump colluding with the Russian government to win the election created a polarized political atmosphere. Like Benghazi for the previous administration, the shadow of potential fault loomed so large overhead that some within the political debate lost track of the original issue in favor of partisan bickering. Those with their eye on the ball, however, have already begun seeing the same influence campaign at work leading up to midterm elections next year.
In an interview with Fox News earlier this week, Tillerson explained that the United States is still in no position to stop Russian meddling with the democratic election process.
“I don’t know that I would say we are better prepared, because the Russians will adapt as well,” he said comparing the 2016 election to the upcoming 2018 cycle. “The point is, if it’s their intention to interfere, they are going to find ways to do that. We can take steps we can take but this is something that, once they decide they are going to do it, it’s very difficult to preempt it.”
Russia hasn’t only been meddling with election-level politics, however. Facebook recently announced that an internal investigation found that Russian troll accounts shared a variety of politically fueled content aimed at both the Right and Left. Sponsored content helped ensure a wide reach, and some 62,500 users even agreed to attend political events invented by Russian trolls, with the intent of sewing political and sometimes racial discord within the nation.
For instance, one group of Russian based trolls created a Right-targeted protest event called, “Stop Islamization of Texas” to be held at the opening of a library at an Islamic Center on May 21, 2016. That same group of trolls then also organized a counter protest called “Save Islamic Knowledge,” to be held at the same time, on the same date, and in the same location.
Either Russia’s troll army has conflicting views of Islam, or their intent was to incite conflict, be it political or physical, in Houston, Texas that day. While Russia has been painted as a Trump supporting foreign power by much of the media, their real goal could be more accurately described as political turmoil, rather than playing favorites.
Russia tends not to be the first nation that comes to mind when addressing concerns about spying and classified military projects. That distinction is usually reserved for China, thanks to their theft and subsequent appropriation of plans for America’s 5th generation fighter platforms, the F-22 and F-35. However, an Associated Press investigation released on Wednesday appears to show that Russian efforts go far beyond simply trying to manipulate the volatile political atmosphere in the U.S. The Russian hacker group known as “Fancy Bear,” who first drew headlines for their involvement in trying to manipulate the 2016 presidential election, have now been implicated in an attempt to gain access to classified government projects by targeting at least 87 government contractors with an e-mail phishing scam.
The Russian effort was apparently intended to gain access to classified materials housed with Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, Airbus, and General Atomics, among others.
“The programs that they appear to target and the people who work on those programs are some of the most forward-leaning, advanced technologies,” said Charles Sowell, a former senior adviser to the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, after he reviewed the list of names for the AP. “And if those programs are compromised in any way, then our competitive advantage and our defense is compromised.”
Among the projects Russia attempted to gain access to was the Air Force’s secretive X-37B – an orbital drone that remains in space for hundreds of days at a time, though the government remains tight lipped about what it could potentially be doing up there. There has been a growing concern about America falling behind in the militarization of orbital assets, and it would appear that Russia wants to know exactly what America’s capabilities in space truly are.
Propaganda and Misinformation
There are a number of well informed discussions about Russia’s massive misinformation methodology employed in both domestic and global politics. Russia employs multiple misinformation strategies that sometimes overlap or directly contradict one another, though that in itself is a method of creating informational confusion, prompting the average spectator to lean further into their own confirmation bias. In effect, by saying all sorts of things all the time, the Russian government can get away with saying anything at any time.
Like Russia’s most recent claims that their downed Su-25 pilot in Syria opted to blow himself up with a grenade rather than be captured by rebels, the Kremlin is aware of how far detached from these events most of the world’s populous truly are. That gives Russia the opportunity to shape the narrative as it’s presented to the world, and leaves very little opportunity to formally discredit their claims. Some other examples of Russian misinformation to come out of Syria alone include the use of stolen video game footage as alleged “evidence” of American support of the terrorist organization ISIS within Syrian borders, and an entirely fictional account of an interaction between a single American F-22 (perhaps the most capable fighter on the planet) and a Russian Su-35 (a worthy opponent), only days before a real intercept took place, and went nothing at all like their claims.
In both instances and a number of others, Russian officials were caught lying in formal statements released through Kremlin-owned outlets, and time and time again, these lies are glossed over in a media climate devoted to the next breaking story, rather than to follow ups or corrections on old ones.
The greatest success Russia has managed (perhaps unintentionally) has been the politicization of the concept of Russian manipulation. Republicans, frustrated with the Left’s seeming unwillingness to even entertain Trump’s presidency, often shrug off concerns about Russian influence because of the inferred complicity of their candidate in liberal leaning media. Likewise, the focal point for Democrats is often finding any thread they may be able to pull that leads to an impeachment of the president, rather than the ongoing threat presented by Russian efforts. LIke organizing both a protest and a counter protest at the same location, Russia’s efforts are not based on choosing a political side in America’s government, they’re self serving. As long as Americans are entrenched in ideological warfare with one another, their position in the world continues to weaken.
Feature image courtesy of the Associated Press