With the 2018 midterm elections approaching, how likely is it that Russia will do it again? Daniel Coats, the director of national intelligence, said in August that a Russia-orchestrated disinformation campaign continues on social media. Two 2018 candidates — one of them Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat seeking reelection — have already reported that Russian hackers have targeted their computers.
But while Russia is clearly trying to influence the 2018 elections, this time the United States is prepared and taking action to counter it. That makes it likely that Russia’s efforts will not be as broad and that its effects will not be as large as in 2016.
Why do countries engage in informational warfare?
Nations have always tried to influence each other’s affairs. Sometimes they do so lightly, attempting to lead by attraction; the political science term for this is “soft power.” At other times, they are much less subtle, invading or annexing nations that reject their influence.
According to my research, a nation like Russia is most likely to launch an informational attack when two sets of factors align. First, the attacking state must have enough information resources to launch the attack. Second, its target must be sufficiently vulnerable to make the effort worthwhile. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
The Russian government has been building up its propaganda resources for a long time.
The Russian government has had decades of experience using propaganda to manipulate its own citizens and citizens of other countries. Domestically, the Soviet government employed a wide array of media, from schooling to the newspaper to its “propaganda train,” to inspire enthusiasm for its political ideology and leaders and to discourage dissent. Overseas, Marxist propaganda sold its vision of modernity to newly decolonized countries and in the West. To take advantage of this experience and deploy it on the Internet, the Kremlin created outfits like the Internet Research Agency to conduct disinformation campaigns and sow political discord in several countries before targeting the United States in 2016.
The Kremlin is doing this again. In June, Russia founded a new media outlet in the United States, called USA Really. Much like its predecessors, this organization writes about divisive political issues such as the death penalty, race and LGBTQ+ rights.
Russia has learned to assess whether its potential targets are vulnerable.
But just as no nation would launch a military attack if it thought its target was prepared to fight back and likely to win, so nations aren’t going to waste time and resources launching an informational attack that is likely to be repelled.
What makes a country vulnerable to information warfare? These factors include political polarization; an open mass media market with room for marginal opinions; a pivotal historic event that could be influenced by such an attack; and a country that is unaware and unprepared such an attack might be coming.
In the past decades, the Kremlin has learned to orchestrate an informational attack, or dedicate more resources to one, when its target is not prepared.
For instance, in 2008, Russia launched an aggressive informational offensive in Georgia, a small country on Russia’s southern border. Weeks before its military sent in soldiers and tanks in a brief August war, Russian hackers launched millions of requests to the country’s servers — known as distributed denial of service, or D.D.O.S., attacks — that overloaded and effectively shut the unprepared nation’s Internet and disabled the website of Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili. It may have sent as many as 48 journalists to the region before the conflict even began, ready to disseminate its narrative.
But the Georgian government quickly sought professional public relations help that helped reframe the conflict as a David-against-Goliath story. In this narrative, Georgia, a small democratic country with NATO aspirations, was standing up to its aggressive neighbor. Finding its efforts complicated, Russia reduced the intensity of its information war. It stopped covert cyber operations and replaced its efforts to argue that Georgia had started the war with expressions of hostility toward the West.
Although Georgia lost the military conflict, it won that information war — as we know from the fact the Western media generally covered it sympathetically and that, one month after the conflict, Vice President Richard B. Cheney visited Tbilisi to condemn Russia’s “power play” and pledge continued aid.
Things went quite differently in 2014 when Russia turned its attention to Ukraine, which in the words of journalist Peter Pomerantsev, lacks “an international voice or image” — or to put it more simply, lacks a coherent information strategy. And so before and while annexing Crimea from Ukraine, Russia used a far more sophisticated and flexible information strategy.
In February and March 2014, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea while denying it was doing any such thing. At the same time, Russia ran an information attack against Ukraine in which it accused the West and Ukraine of waging an information war against Russia, and argued Ukraine was fascist. It disseminated its propaganda in more ways, like blogs and social media. It targeted several audiences, including Ukrainian separatist fighters, the domestic Russian population and the international community. The United States ultimately conceded Russia’s control of Crimea.
Russia knows the United States is ready to defend its systems and its citizens from information attacks.
Russia’s resources for conducting another attack are all still there, and the United States still has many of the same vulnerabilities, like an uncensored mass media.
But the United States is now also anticipating and preparing for Russian intervention. That will probably reduce the magnitude of the attack and its eventual effectiveness.
Alla Baranovsky-Dewey is a PhD candidate in government at Harvard University.