“And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids!” That’s the catchphrase that comes at the end of “Scooby-Doo” cartoons, always right at the moment when some monster turns out to just be a creepy old man in a mask. The zany adventures are over — until the next episode.
That’s the appropriate use of the word “meddling.” It is not, however, an appropriate word to use when referring to the ongoing Russian attacks on American democracy that gained prominence in the 2016 presidential election and will accelerate as we head into the November midterms. This isn’t “Scooby-Doo.” The stakes couldn’t be higher, and the monsters we face are real.
President Trump’s news conference in Helsinki — in which he sided with a foreign despot who is continuing to use cyberweapons against the United States — makes this even more urgent.
Yes, I’ll admit — I, too, have used the phrase “election meddling” many times. My bad. Somehow, it became the default terminology for the deliberately destabilizing actions launched by the Kremlin to help Trump win and to sow chaos and division within the United States.
But that phrase is woefully inadequate. These continuing attacks are neither meddling nor “interference,” another euphemism. They’re a part of gibridnaya voyna — Russian for “hybrid warfare.” The best term for what we’re talking about would be “information warfare.”
One of the jarring realizations of the 21st century is that democratic governments are only as good as the quality of information that their voters receive. Influence the information flow voters receive, and you’ll eventually influence the government.
In the past, the problem was uninformed voters. Today, the vortex of polarizing cable news (particularly Fox News) and the elevation of fringe nutcases into the mainstream on social media have caused millions to flip from uninformed to misinformed voters — who are far more dangerous. And in the 21st century, it’s pretty easy to use active disinformation operations to exploit these existing problems of misinformed voters and hyper-polarized politics. Russia has mastered that technique, bolstered further by hacking operations.
The latest indictment from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III against agents of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence unit, makes clear that these cyber-strategies are a military operation.
As Ofer Fridman points out in his book “Russian ‘Hybrid Warfare’: Resurgence and Politicization,” the concepts behind Russia’s digital attacks are not new. They trace their origins to long-forgotten Russian military theorists, such as Evgeny Messner, who understood that conventional military operations had limitations that could be overcome if complemented by unconventional tactics that don’t involve bullets or bombs.
Destroying a tank has limited impact; you can always make another tank. But getting an enemy country to tear itself apart? Or getting its leaders to reorient the nation’s foreign policy virtually overnight? That does far more lasting damage.
In the Putin era, the Kremlin has certainly appreciated that insight. Contemporary scholars such as Igor Panarin have channeled Messner’s ideas, arguing that it is easier to weaken the United States by dividing Americans against themselves or by manipulating American political dynamics than it is to beat the United States on the battlefield. And while the direct political influence of such scholars is often overstated, their theoretical propositions have dovetailed with Russian cyber-operations abroad, which weaponize information flows to advance Kremlin goals.
As Fridman explains, Panarin’s theory of information warfare refers to attempts to influence public opinion “in order to gain certain political benefits.” That influence can “be achieved by information manipulation, disinformation, fabrication of information, lobbying, blackmail,” all with the aim of changing the “decision-making processes of the adversary.”
In other words, it’s not just about “divide and conquer”; it’s also about shifting government policy — sometimes by shifting who is in charge of the government.
The perfectly timed release of damaging, hacked information against Hillary Clinton likely contributed to Trump’s victory in the 2016 election. Trump himself understood how important those hacked documents were, which is why he mentioned WikiLeaks 164 times during the final month of the campaign.
Others have suggested that Trump is compromised by the Kremlin directly or, at a minimum, highly vulnerable to Russian blackmail.
Whether that’s true or not, since being elected, Trump has actively divided Americans against one another while delivering key foreign policy victories to the Kremlin. Trump’s attacks and threats about NATO and his tariffs against Canada and the European Union have done more to advance Russian foreign policy goals than any other actions by a president in post-World War II history. And by continuing to suggest that Russia is not behind these information warfare attacks despite considerable evidence to the contrary, Trump is providing key political cover to Vladimir Putin. In doing so, he is facilitating the Kremlin’s ongoing information war against the United States.
As Panarin put it, the aims of that military strategy include “a significant alteration of the direction of its internal or foreign policy” and “a replacement of the state’s leadership” with a regime loyal to Russia.
Standing next to Putin after a week of NATO-bashing, Trump made clear that, for the Russians, it was mission accomplished. Rather than defend the United States, Trump relentlessly cheerleads for Putin while the attacks continue. This isn’t “meddling.” It’s information warfare. And the sooner we change the terminology, the faster we’ll treat the threat with the seriousness it deserves.