America needs to face ongoing Russian assault on democracy

Getty Images

National security adviser John Bolton recently said there is a “concern about Chinese meddling, Iranian meddling and North Korean meddling” in the American midterm elections, noting the administration was “taking steps to try and prevent it.” President Trump also tweeted in the same vein, “All of the fools that are so focused on looking only at Russia should start also looking in another direction, China.”

The administration’s motive for emphasizing election meddling by countries other than Russia would seem to be to shift attention away from Moscow’s ongoing efforts to interfere in our democratic process. President Trump has consistently downplayed or dismissed these efforts and repeatedly decried the special counsel investigation of Russian influence operations as a “witch hunt.”

{mosads}But the administration cannot deny that Russia continues to try to subvert our democracy. Department of Homeland Security officials said last month that Russian hackers had penetrated our critical infrastructure networks. Facebook announced it had discovered new Russian disinformation campaigns designed to sow divisions and discord in our society. The FBI arrest of Russian agent Maria Butina shed new light on the possibility that Russia could be laundering money to benefit certain American political organizations.

So what are we to make of the Trump administration’s references to Chinese, Iranian and North Korean meddling? The short answer is that our adversaries are starting to emulate Russian subversive methods precisely because of the Kremlin’s success in mounting a broad influence operation against the United States with so few negative consequences.

The unfortunate lesson many authoritarian regimes learned in 2016 is that subversive methods are cheap especially compared to military operations, hard to attribute especially in real time, and remarkably effective especially if they can build on existing social cleavages in diverse and democratic societies. Since authoritarian regimes rule over heavily policed societies without free media, they possess an asymmetric advantage over their democratic adversaries, whose open press, pluralistic politics, and networked societies pose vulnerabilities.

Consider the three main types of subversive attacks on democratic societies: cybersecurity hacking, financial corruption, and information warfare. In each of these areas, China, Iran, North Korea and other authoritarian states are following Russia’s lead in exploiting weaknesses.

In the cybersecurity domain, Russia clearly leads the pack, having launched the first broad assault against a nation in 2007 when it attacked Estonia, and the first operation to shut down a power grid when it attacked Ukraine in 2015. However, China, Iran and North Korea are not far behind, and may soon emulate Russia’s “hack and release” tactics. China is already adept at denial of service attacks, Iran has launched massive assaults on American financial institutions and universities, and North Korea unleashed the WannaCry malware “to cause damage and sow chaos” in Western societies. It is likely only a matter of time before “patriotic hackers” from these and other authoritarian regimes begin collaborating against common targets in democratic countries.

In terms of weaponizing corruption against democracies, there is increasing evidence that authoritarian regimes are exploiting the same corrupt relationships. A Russian operation, which laundered $21 billion of illicit money into Western financial institutions, was used to divert funds to North Korea’s ballistic missile program and to buy influence among Moldovan parliamentarians, among various other corrupt aims. Similarly, investigative reporters have revealed that Russia’s efforts to curry favor with members of the Trump campaign were closely intertwined with parallel efforts by China, Qatar, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.

In the information warfare domain, there has even been direct cooperation. Last year, Russia and Venezuela joined forces to create fake social media accounts supporting Catalonia’s secession from Spain. Facebook also announced that Iran has been promoting divisive online content using “similar tactics” to Russia by “creating networks” of fake accounts to mislead others. In South America, the international Spanish television network Telesur has modeled itself on Russia’s state sponsored propaganda and draws heavily on their content.

Across all three domains, Russia remains the primary threat, but its methods are rapidly spreading to other states. Three key things need to be done to counter this assault on democratic institutions. First, the United States needs to expose foreign interference. Civil society initiatives like the recently announced Transatlantic Commission for Election Integrity or the Alliance for Securing Democracies can help by keeping the public informed in real time. The State Department’s Global Engagement Center can also help do this overseas.

Second, the United States urgently needs to address its own vulnerabilities. This includes strengthening cybersecurity, blocking the pathways through which corrupt foreign money enters the country, including shell companies, law firms and real estate transactions, and pushing social media companies to devote more resources to identifying foreign disinformation. While there is no one “fix” to address this wide range of threats, the Secure America from Russian Interference Act of 2018 in the House offers important tools to diminish our vulnerabilities.

Finally, costs need to be imposed on foreign states when they are caught trying to subvert our elections, as Russia did in 2016. The Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act of 2018 in the Senate would mandate impactful new sanctions against countries that attack our democratic institutions. Since the administration has so far refused to take the necessary steps to protect our democracy from foreign interference, Congress and civil society must take the lead.

Michael Carpenter is senior director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement and senior fellow with the Atlantic Council. He is a former deputy assistant secretary for Russia at the Department of Defense, foreign policy adviser to Vice President Joseph Biden, and director for Russia at the National Security Council.

Tags Democracy Donald Trump Global Affairs Government Russia United States

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video