The 2018 midterms are coming, and Russia is ready

The 2018 midterms are coming, and Russia is ready
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The Russian government launches a sophisticated covert influence campaign to sway the results of the presidential election.

An influential Russian businessman suspected of money laundering provides financial support to one of the candidates.  Thanks to these efforts, the Russian-backed candidate wins an upset victory. The newly elected president takes office pledging to establish better relations with Moscow but increasingly appears as an erratic and temperamental populist. 

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Reports surface of past business ties to Russian mobsters. As a result of the media’s revelations of Russian financing for his campaign, many fear the newly elected president will be beholden to the Kremlin on critical national security matters such as decisions on the future of the NATO Alliance. A parliamentary commission is therefore established to investigate the president and his campaign’s ties to Russia. 

Following the inauguration, the president is also accused of leaking classified information to his Russian backers, including information relating to the parliamentary investigation. He is impeached after serving for just over a year. 

Sound familiar? This is a description of the election and subsequent impeachment of Lithuanian President Rolandas Paksas in 2004. The impeachment of a Lithuanian president over a decade ago might seem like nothing more than a minor historical footnote. However, it is an important reminder that while some Americans continue to harbor skepticism, or outright disbelief, about the media reports on the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, those who follow Russia for a living or have lived in the countries on its periphery have (quite literally) seen it all before.  

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia’s intelligence services have beta-tested their covert influence operations at home and among their neighbors.  Disinformation operations; covert financing of political candidates via murky business relationships; hacking and disclosure of sensitive information; threats to release sex tapes and other kompromat (material for blackmail); and even poisonings and assassinations have all been used as means of influencing the geopolitical trajectory of countries along Russia’s periphery. 

Americans and others are right to demand evidence and be wary of sensationalism in the media. Unfortunately, however, there is also a growing tendency to discount information inconsistent with our political sympathies. 

This is a dangerous trend, which has led some, including President Trump, to dismiss Russia’s meddling in our democratic process as “fake news” invented for the sole purpose of disputing the election results. But regardless of how we feel about the results, there is incontrovertible evidence of Russian interference not only in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but in many other foreign elections going back several decades. The impartial and independent investigation carried out by special counsel Robert Mueller is crucial in this regard because Mueller’s subpoena power will help establish important facts in the U.S. case, and these facts will be impossible to ignore.     

But even so, Mueller’s investigation is not sufficient. Lithuania’s parliament carried out a similar investigation over a decade ago and we are contending with the same Russian tactics of political subversion today, only on a much grander scale. To get at the larger problem of foreign influence in our democratic institutions, we need therefore to look at the bigger picture — beyond the last election cycle. The best way to do this is to establish an independent 9/11-style commission to look at the broad scope of Russia’s interference in our institutions, building on the facts established by Mueller’s investigation and the House and Senate inquiries. 

An independent, nonpartisan commission would systematically examine Russian covert operations occurring in the shadows of our democracy, particularly within the financial, cyber, and social networks that have become such an important part of our daily lives. It should also factor in lessons learned from Russia’s neighbors, who have lived with this interference for decades. The purpose of an independent commission would be to systematically catalogue the methods of Russian interference and then to recommend ways to counter and defend against them. 

Regardless of our political sympathies, we cannot afford to be naive or nonchalant about what the Kremlin is doing. Its pattern of its behavior is there for all to see: the cyber attack against Estonia in 2007; the invasion and dismemberment of Georgia in 2008; the invasion and occupation of Ukraine in 2014; and efforts to subvert democratic institutions from France to Finland, and from Montenegro to Moldova.

Looking at these disparate cases, Russia’s goals are not hard to discern: undermining democratic institutions, weakening the cohesion of NATO and the EU, and delegitimizing the international order’s norms of transparency, accountability, and rule of law.  An independent commission would scrutinize precisely how the Kremlin seeks to achieve these aims, and how our own vulnerabilities — from campaign finance rules to unsecured computer networks — enable it. Once we have this full picture, then we can adopt the necessary measures to reduce our vulnerabilities and strengthen our resilience.  

With the 2018 midterm elections rapidly approaching, we must recognize that unless we take the threat seriously and begin to act, Russia is likely to double down on its campaign of subversion. Moreover, other states and foreign actors may recognize that the barriers to entry and the costs of subverting our democracy are low. The time to begin strengthening our defenses is now.

Michael Carpenter is a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia, foreign policy advisor to Vice President Biden, and NSC Director for Russia.