Russia’s threats go beyond elections

Russia’s threats go beyond elections

Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. elections was audacious in conception and brazen in execution. It was a three-pronged attack: hacking into emails and publically releasing them for maximum strategic effect, using social media as a major propaganda tool, and attempting to hack into election infrastructure in 21 states.

By directly attacking U.S. democracy (and then doing the same soon after in France), Russia took its campaign to shamelessly undermine Western democracies to a new level.

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Hacking and misinformation campaigns enhanced by social media are but the latest additions to Russia’s larger tool kit for exerting its influence. The promotion of Russian citizenship status outside Russia, military support for separatists and direct military action are additional tools that have been used to destabilize countries and exert control. We’ve seen Russia use its natural resources, state budget and state-owned companies as economic leverage over other governments. It also supports corruption schemes in other countries and undermines legal frameworks with noncompliance.

This is not to suggest that we’ve returned to Cold War status, because we haven’t. However, it’s clear that some of Russia’s goals and tactics remained unchanged as it seeks to reclaim the superpower status it once held. Some of its more aggressive actions include using proxies to reclaim South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia in 2008, Crimea and the Donbass in Ukraine in 2014. More recently, Russia has attempted election interference and public opinion manipulation in the United States and the United Kingdom in 2016 and France and Germany in 2017.

A significant part of Russian influence in former Soviet states, and now increasingly across Europe, involves using economic leverage to produce political outcomes favorable to Russia. In Germany, placing former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder on the boards of state-owned oil company Rosneft and the Nord Stream 2 pipeline consortium, let by state-owned gas supplier Gazprom, has been an effective way to bring Russian investments and commercial goals squarely into the political arena in Germany. The Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, if built, will significantly increase Russia’s dominant position in Europe, giving it even more leverage over countries that have gas and those that do not.

Russia has used energy as a weapon many times, often violating market rules. In 2014, Slovenia choose to provide Ukraine with reverse flows of gas following the Crimea and Donbas crisis and was essentially punished with a 50 percent reduction in its gas supplies from Russia. In 2016, the lowering of gas prices in the lead up to Hungary’s presidential election was an intended boost for pro-Russian candidate and eventual winner Victor Orban. The lesson is that energy is Russia’s leverage to reward its friends and punish its enemies.

The latest and somewhat novel manifestation of Russia’s indirect influence in Europe is support for corruption schemes that seek to undermine Ukraine’s privatization of major industries.

Ukraine is in the process of selling off its largest and most strategic state assets under a privatization plan announced in January. The problem is that the process is flawed and the assets are compromised. Three state companies for sale, United Mining and Chemical Company (UMCC), Zaporizhia Titanium Plant, and Zaporizhia Titanium and Magnesium Company, have ownership and management accused of corruption and ties to Russia. One company is 49 percent owned by Dmytro Firtash, the famous Ukrainian oligarch wanted by the United States for corruption and now living in Vienna.

Buried in the story of Ukraine’s privatization is a more essential issue for the United States. Specifically, the global titanium market and continued U.S. access to this strategic material used by companies like Boeing, Space X and GE for systems and technologies at the heart of the U.S. industrial defense base. A privatization steered towards Ukrainian interests tied to Russia would give a few powerful and corrupt oligarchs, and the Russian Federation, the opportunity to manipulate global titanium markets and undermine the U.S. defense capacity.

It is clear that Europe is experiencing turbulent times where nationalism, economic insecurity and populism are on the rise. Russia is taking advantage of this situation to manipulate internal dynamics in countries, often to the detriment of the United States and its allies.

U.S. interests are being compromised in ways that are not always apparent. These latest developments in Ukraine are just one example. The warning signs are there. The key question is whether anyone is paying attention.

Gregory Treverton is an intelligence and national security expert and served as chairman of the National Intelligence Council.