Thought Russian hacking was bad in 2016? Just wait for 2018
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Last year was just the start. Next year, Russia’s intelligence and information operations will kick it into high gear. There are several reasons I am making this prediction.
First, the congressional races are an even easier target. Second, their outcome will largely determine whether current sanctions stay in place or if even stronger ones are enacted. Finally, last year was an unmitigated success for Russia. Doubt and division across America’s democracy was pushed to new heights. If I’m sitting in the Kremlin, 2018 offers me the chance to continue to stir the pot and further undermine confidence in Western democracy.
The first element in this plan is for Congress and the American public to continue straight on our current path. Democrats crying foul, Republicans largely feigning concern and defending their wins. President Trump creating daily distractions. Most importantly, no real action being undertaken to manage or mitigate our country’s exposure to version 2.0. This allows Moscow to prepare mostly unfettered, an even bigger assault on much smaller targets next year.
The vulnerability of the congressional elections is seemingly obvious. Instead of manipulating national and international media, you can focus on a few local outlets where voters in those districts get most of their news. The key races aren’t fought in the cities. Journalists in small towns are often less experienced and more easily manipulated. Moreover, just a handful of races can tip the balance of power. Russia will concentrate their power in those places. This also allows them avoid the exposure a national influence operation involves.
Having coordinated America's first modern campaign to counter Russian propaganda in Europe, I'm all too familiar with how they work. The potency of their tradecraft is found in its successful manipulation of facts. They then use their own of affiliated media outlets to ensure the information gets traction. Yet, they don’t expect most voters to tune into Russia Today. Instead, they are betting a blogger, an activist group, or local journalist will report on it or share on their own networks. This tactic can be used independently or coupled to their intelligence work, as it was in the presidential race.
There will be hacks. Yet, the damage won't come from the information their intelligence service will expose on campaign plans or questionable stuff staff were saying and sharing. The new danger comes from that ability to manufacture seemingly authentic material. Emails you didn't write that insult key constituencies will suddenly appear on Wikileaks. How can you disprove them? Even if you do, time and credibility will be lost. More importantly for the Russians, confusion will be created.
Many will say that we have seen this before. Yet just as in France this year and in our own presidential campaign last year, the size, scale, and sophistication of this information operation will be unprecedented. Its potency will be far greater in 2018. Having refined their tools and tactics, we can expect a much more dangerous version to emerge. They will be firing from their asymmetric arsenal of influence at small town and suburban America, where the key races will take place. It will be like the Cold War era movie I remember watching as a kid, "Red Dawn." Except this time, it will be massive armies of Russian propagandists landing in Middle America. We will need more than the spunk of a teenage Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen to defeat them.
So where are the preparations for this new Russian assault? Why are the government, political parties, and the news media not preparing more countermeasures? While we can debate the extent of its impact on last year’s election, there is no doubt that Russia’s involvement is a cause for serious concern for our country. We need to do more than study and expose what happened in the past. If we don’t better prepare now for what comes next, many in Congress will find out firsthand the real danger it poses to our democracy.
Brett Bruen is president of the Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm Global Situation Room, and an adjunct faculty member at Georgetown University. He served as director of Global Engagement in the Obama White House and as a diplomat for 12 years in Ivory Coast, Venezuela, Iraq, and Madagascar.

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