Americans need to face reality: Russia isn’t just meddling in our elections with viral Facebook posts and Twitter hashtags. There’s plenty of evidence that Moscow is mucking around directly in the mechanics of our voting system, and that should worry us greatly ahead of the 2018 midterms.
What we’ve heard in just the last few days is alarming: The head of cybersecurity at the Department of Homeland Security, Jeanette Manfra, confirmed in an interview with NBC News that Russian operatives had targeted 21 states and that “an exceptionally small number of them were actually successfully penetrated.” Obama Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson confirmed that Russia was involved in the scanning and probing of voter registration databases, while cyber-expert and former FBI official Clint Watts noted, “Right now we cannot ensure that the vote is accurate,” and that Russia’s goal is to undermine the confidence of Americans in their elections.
Since we know that an exceptionally small number of successes in a close election can make the difference between victory and defeat, the incentive for Russia to continue its efforts is strong. Combine this with the Trump administration’s stunning inability or unwillingness to deter and defend our critical infrastructure from future cyberattacks – or even acknowledge the 2016 Russian interference – Russia’s proven ability to impede or change votes in key elections would be a grave national security threat.
However, based on my experience monitoring the Russian intelligence services, I do not anticipate that Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely to change votes in the 2018 election even if he can.
Because he doesn’t need to. He has already accomplished his objective. As noted in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s recent indictment of 13 Russians and three companies, Putin’s goal is to create chaos, fear and distrust of official narratives – deepening divides and tarnishing our faith in our leaders. If he can undermine Americans’ confidence in their democratic institutions and turn us against each other, he’s won. The 2016 Russian interference campaign was about turning Americans against each other and infecting our thought processes, making it harder to discern between fact and fiction.
Changing actual votes buys Putin little that he doesn’t already have. The fear and uncertainty engendered by knowing he has the capability of changing votes would be enough. Whether or not the Russians interfere in the 2018 voting, many Americans will suspect that they did or worry that the official outcome is less than legitimate. And since Russian propaganda will likely infect the media atmosphere, electoral losers will likely accuse winners of benefiting from foreign interference whether it is true or not. This is one reason Putin has not tried to especially hard to deny involvement—the Russians want us to be confused, disoriented and suspicious.
Equally important, given the spotlight on the issue, Putin realizes he is playing with fire. Like terrorism, Russian covert propaganda and active measures efforts are asymmetric weapons used by weaker powers against the strong. They are effective as long as the stronger power does not shift the battlefield to its benefit. That is, Putin is glad to engage in brinksmanship as long as he believes the U.S. will not retaliate. He is not eager to face a re-energized and hostile U.S. as an adversary. Putin is already worried about recent U.S. efforts to arm and support the Ukrainian government, and the administration’s modernization of U.S. nuclear and conventional weaponry. Hence Putin’s recent nuclear sabre-rattling during his annual state of the nation address, in which he announced Russia had been “working intensively on advanced equipment and arms, which allowed us to make a breakthrough in developing new models of strategic weapons.” This was a clear effort to send a message that although Russia is far weaker than the United States, it has the means and intent to defend and deter U.S. attacks.
This is the line Putin is walking: He wants to keep us off balance, but likely realizes that actually changing votes risks crossing a red line, awakening the U.S. and inviting retaliation from a much bigger and more powerful foe.
Putin’s attacks in 2016 are consistent with a century of Soviet and Russian covert warfare but were unusual in their aggressiveness and success. Several factors made 2016 unique. Putin’s personal hatred for Hillary Clinton and President Obama were well documented. His security services were successful in collecting a wide array of information that he could put to good use, and new and powerful cyber-tools allowed him to weaponize disinformation and propaganda like never before. Also, he may have had help from a uniquely pro-Russian and possibly corrupt candidate in Donald Trump. Most important, the nature of America’s increasingly hostile tribal divisions were easy pickings for the Russian intelligence services. These factors may have allowed Putin to take a bigger gamble than he might otherwise.
While we can count on Russia continuing its hybrid war against the U.S., we can also predict that it will not follow the same form as it did in 2016. As those who study national security often point out, the U.S. has a tendency to prepare to fight the last war. Russia’s success in 2016 was unique and, knowing the U.S. is likely to approach 2018 with a renewed focus to uncover and defend its elections, the Russians are likely to look for new weaknesses to exploit, and strike areas that are not well defended.
So, what might the next Russian effort look like?
Given the Russians’ deep knowledge of our system and reservoir of collected intelligence that it has not yet used, I can imagine a wide variety of scenarios. As mentioned before, I do not think Putin would risk changing votes in the 2018 election. However, he will certainly continue weaponizing social media, seeking to stoke partisan fires and hardening views on the extreme left and right. He will certainly continue to exploit crises as they arise. The manipulation of the recent Parkland school massacre, in which bots pushed inflammatory opinions on both sides of the gun divide, is an example of something that will continue. Rather than risk crossing a line and inviting retaliation, Putin can achieve a similar result by promoting false stories of changed votes or actually changing votes in a smaller, weaker country, thus sending a signal to the U.S. that it is vulnerable.
Given what he has already learned from 2015 and 2016, he can leak information he has gleaned on Republicans to help Democrats, further feeding the blame game. Unbeknownst to them, he can simply use his army of bots to push material benefiting specific candidates, thus ensuring post-election accusations and second guessing. If the media repeats its practice from 2016 and happily publishes material that might be stolen or otherwise unverified from a variety of sources, he can inject well-crafted forgeries. And enlisting a few Russian personalities and organizations to fund groups like the NRA and others who support specific candidates will insure that concern about the integrity of our elections will continue long after 2018.
Personally, if I were Putin and wished to inflict maximum damage on the U.S. for little cost, I’d hack and manipulate the 2020 U.S. Census. Think about it. It is inadequately protected and little understood by most Americans, but has massive influence on how we define our legislative districts, how we look at immigration, invest in infrastructure and how we deliver educational and health-care services. It is also a fantastic means for a hostile intelligence service to collect information on Americans that can be used to weaponize future attacks across the board. It is one thing to change a few votes, and quite another to influence how our very electoral districts are defined. Call it Russian gerrymandering.
As we enter the election season, we should look closely at what Russia is up to in Europe to get a sense of what we can expect. Russian operatives are manipulating events in Ukraine, Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic, Montenegro and elsewhere. They fund fringe groups and invest in young leaders in a long-term effort to develop Russian agents who can influence political parties and push a pro-Russian line. We should anticipate the same here. In 2016, the intelligence community uncovered activity by numerous proxy groups working on behalf of Russian intelligence. We should also be aware of what their core special services themselves are up to.
We should also take a hard look at ourselves. As in 2016, the Russians will seek out areas of weakness they can exploit. What are our unique fault lines? Where are we most vulnerable? It’s a good bet that our gullibility and eagerness to think the worst of our political opponents is still the best place to take aim. This is especially true given that the White House has done little to counter the Russian threat, instead couching it largely in domestic political terms. As long as our politics are tribal, our prejudices so obvious and we exist in a constant state of outrage, it will be easy for Russians (and others) to “meddle.”
At the end of the day, if we try to defend everything, we defend nothing. Instead, we need to take advantage of our overwhelming power and the strength of our institutions and democracy. If we are confident in ourselves, these Russian attacks have little effect. Likewise, if we threaten Putin with the full might of the Western alliance, we will deter the most serious of attacks. Putin engages in these asymmetric attacks because he can’t take on the West directly. He is vulnerable, has no real allies, needs an enemy strawman to justify his failures and has built few enduring institutions with real legitimacy to outlast him. If the West remains steadfast and fortifies its democratic institutions, Putin cannot win. Now, if we could only get the White House on board.