This internal threat to the West is not going away. As U.S. intelligence chiefs told Congress last week, Russia is poised to interfere in the upcoming midterm elections — just as it did in the 2016 election and in recent votes across Europe.
To counter this threat, our best guide isn’t Cold War-like containment. Instead, we should model our efforts on our largely successful approach to combating terrorists — who also seek to weaken democracy from within. Washington should draw on its fight against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State to develop a legal and policy framework for thwarting foreign interference, further punishing Russia and educating the U.S. public to reduce its vulnerability to foreign manipulation.
The United States, working with its allies, has responded prudently to Russia’s land grabs in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 as well as Russia’s intervention in Syria. Washington has bolstered defenses on NATO’s eastern frontier, isolated Russia diplomatically and imposed economic sanctions.
Yet Washington has effectively dropped the ball when it comes to responding to ongoing Russian efforts to polarize and internally weaken the United States and its democratic allies. Apart from last week’s charges, Washington has only closed a few Russian installations and expelled some Russian diplomats. President Trump has even refused to punish the Kremlin’s cronies with new sanctions — despite a mandate to do so from Congress.
This lackluster response is dangerous. We must be as vigilant in countering Russian interference as we are in countering terrorists. Ultimately, both adversaries aim at the same objective: weakening us from within.
Osama bin Laden acknowledged that al-Qaeda could never overpower the United States. Instead, his strategy hinged on fracturing American society. Similarly, the Islamic State has used violence against the West to attempt to turn democracies against themselves by eroding their legitimacy, undermining pluralism and miring them in controversial conflicts in the Middle East.
Russia is a target of jihadist terrorism, not a perpetrator; but it, too, seeks to weaken the West from within. We should adapt three main pillars of the U.S. approach to counterterrorism to counter Russian interference more assertively.
First, we need to adapt our framework for tracing and blocking terrorist financing to the current threat of information warfare. Congress should quickly pass legislation that would criminalize accepting assistance from a foreign government aimed at influencing elections. As it did for financial institutions, Congress should also take steps to make social media companies and file-upload sites more accountable. The “know your customer” requirement for banks has aided the fight against terrorist financing, and a “know your source” mandate would help the fight against fake news.
Better cooperation between the government and private sector could bolster these steps. While safeguarding classified information, the government should readily share with technology companies indications of foreign manipulation occurring on their platforms, enabling them to respond quickly.
Second, we need to punish and deter those who interfere with our democracy. The fight against terrorism has involved a sustained military and intelligence campaign against terrorism’s instigators and sponsors. Similarly, Russia must pay a higher price for its efforts to undermine American democracy. Washington should impose new sanctions against the Kremlin and its accomplices. Should the continuing investigation into the 2016 election reveal additional violations of U.S. law, authorities should issue indictments — as they did last week. Any Americans who illegally cooperated with Russia should, of course, face justice as well.
Third, just as public education has helped mitigate the political impact of terrorism, greater awareness that the Kremlin is deliberately seeking to pit Americans against themselves can help make the public less susceptible to manipulation. Even if Trump continues to play down Russian interference in American politics, responsible U.S. officials — including in Congress — must expose Moscow’s new game and stress the national security threat that it poses.
Bolstered by broader civic education about the use and abuse of social media, this public outreach would make many Americans more skeptical consumers of the combative material bombarding them online and increase pressure on Congress and state governments to harden voting systems. Understanding that political polarization provides a field day for foreign adversaries might also persuade Americans to tamp down their partisan antipathy.
The private sector should share the burden of public education. When technology companies discover that they have disseminated foreign propaganda, they bear a responsibility to notify promptly their users as well as the U.S. government. Facilitating the re-posting of false, inflammatory content should carry a social stigma that drives away users.
On all of these fronts, Washington should coordinate closely with European allies, many of whom face ongoing Russian meddling. The Atlantic democracies must develop a common code of conduct and share best practices when it comes to countering Russian interference. NATO’s new cyber operations center offers a ready vehicle for such cooperation.
The Atlantic democracies have turned back the efforts of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State to divide the West against itself. They should now draw insights from the same playbook to defeat Russia’s campaign to undermine liberal democracy.