Rus­sia’s dirty tricks:

How Putin med­dles in Western democ­ra­cies. And why the West’s re­sponse is in­ad­e­quate

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS -

How Putin med­dles in Western democ­ra­cies and why the West’s re­sponse is in­ad­e­quate

In the late 1980s, as Mikhail Gor­bachev launched per­e­stroika, Rus­sia made peace with the West. It was pos­si­ble to be­lieve that each would give up try­ing to sub­vert the other with lies and cold-war con­spir­acy the­o­ries. With the in­dict­ment of 13 Rus­sians on Fe­bru­ary 16th by the Amer­i­can spe­cial coun­sel, Robert Mueller, it is clear just how frag­ile that be­lief was.

Mr. Mueller al­leges that in 2014 Rus­sia launched a con­spir­acy against Amer­ica’s democ­racy, and he be­lieves he has the ev­i­dence to with­stand Rus­sian de­nials and a court’s scru­tiny. Per­haps be­cause Vladimir Putin, Rus­sia’s pres­i­dent, thought the CIA was fo­ment­ing an up­ris­ing in Ukraine, the In­ter­net Re­search Agency, backed by an oli­garch with links to the Krem­lin, set up a trolling team, pay­ments sys­tems and false iden­ti­ties. Its aim was to widen di­vi­sions in Amer­ica and, lat­terly, to tilt the vote in 2016 from Hil­lary Clin­ton to Don­ald Trump.

Europe has been tar­geted, too. Al­though the de­tails are sketchier, and this is not the fo­cus of the Mueller probe, Rus­sia is thought to have fi­nanced ex­trem­ist politi­cians, hacked com­puter sys­tems, or­gan­ised marches and spread lies. Again, its aim seems to have been to deepen di­vides. It is fu­tile to spec­u­late how much Rus­sia’s ef­forts suc­ceeded in al­ter­ing the out­comes of votes and poi­son­ing pol­i­tics. The an­swer is un­know­able. But the con­spir­a­cies are wrong in them­selves and their ex­tent raises wor­ries about the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties of Western democ­ra­cies. If the West is go­ing to pro­tect it­self against Rus­sia and other at­tack­ers, it needs to treat Mr. Mueller’s in­dict­ments as a ral­ly­ing cry.


They hold three un­com­fort­able les­sons. One is that so­cial me­dia are a more po­tent tool than the 1960s tech­niques of plant­ing sto­ries and brib­ing jour­nal­ists. It does not cost much to use Face­book to spot sym­pa­this­ers, fer­ret out po­ten­tial con­verts and per­fect the catchi­est taglines (see ar­ti­cle). With in­ge­nu­ity, you can fool the sys­tem into favour­ing your tweets and posts. If you hack the com­put­ers of Demo­cratic big­wigs, as the Rus­sians did, you have a net­work of bots ready to dish the dirt.

With a mod­est bud­get, of a lit­tle over $1m a month, and work­ing mostly from the safety of St Peters­burg, the Rus­sians man­aged bot­nets and false pro­files, earn­ing mil­lions of retweets and likes. Other, bet­ter-funded, groups ex­ploit sim­i­lar tech­niques. No­body yet knows how the out­rage they gen­er­ate changes pol­i­tics, but it is a fair guess that it deep­ens par­ti­san­ship and lim­its the scope for com­pro­mise.

Hence the sec­ond les­son, that the Rus­sia cam­paign did not create di­vi­sions in Amer­ica so much as hold up a warped mir­ror to them. It played up race, urg­ing black vot­ers to see Mrs. Clin­ton as an en­emy and stay at home on polling day.



It sought to in­flame white re­sent­ment, even as it called on pro­gres­sives to vote for Jill Stein, of the Green Party. Af­ter Mr. Trump’s vic­tory, which it had worked to bring about, it or­gan­ised an anti-Trump rally in Man­hat­tan. Right af­ter the Park­land school shoot­ing, Rus­sian bots be­gan to pile into the de­bate about gun con­trol. Euro­peans are to a lesser de­gree di­vided, too, es­pe­cially in Brexit Bri­tain. The di­vi­sions that run so deep within Western democ­ra­cies leave them open to in­trud­ers.

The most im­por­tant les­son is that the Western re­sponse has been woe­fully weak. In the cold war, Amer­ica fought Rus­sian mis­in­for­ma­tion with diplo­mats and spies. By con­trast, Mr. Mueller acted be­cause two pres­i­dents fell short. Barack Obama ag­o­nised over ev­i­dence of Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence but held back be­fore even­tu­ally im­pos­ing sanc­tions, per­haps be­cause he as­sumed Mr. Trump would lose and that for him to speak out would only feed sus­pi­cions that, as a Demo­crat, he was ma­nip­u­lat­ing the con­test. That was a grave mis­judg­ment.

Mr. Trump’s fail­ing is of a dif­fer­ent or­der. De­spite hav­ing ac­cess to in­tel­li­gence from the day he was elected, he has treated the Rus­sian scan­dal purely in terms of his own le­git­i­macy. He should have spo­ken out against Mr. Putin and pro­tected Amer­ica against Rus­sian hos­til­ity. In­stead, abet­ted by a num­ber of con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans, he has de­voted him­self to dis­cred­it­ing the agen­cies in­ves­ti­gat­ing the con­spir­acy and hinted at fir­ing Mr. Mueller or his min­ders in the Jus­tice De­part­ment, just as he fired James Comey as head of the FBI. Mr. Mueller is not done. Among other things, he still has to say whether the con­spir­acy ex­tended to the Trump cam­paign. Were Mr. Trump to sack him now, it would amount to a con­fes­sion.


For democ­racy to thrive, Western lead­ers need to find a way to re­gain the con­fi­dence of vot­ers. This starts with trans­parency. Europe needs more for­mal in­ves­ti­ga­tions with the au­thor­ity of Mr. Mueller’s. Al­though they risk re­veal­ing in­tel­li­gence sources and meth­ods and may even please Rus­sia—be­cause proof of its suc­cess sows mis­trust— they also lay the ground for ac­tion. Party-fund­ing laws need to iden­tify who has given money to whom. And so­cial me­dia should be open to scru­tiny, so that any­one can iden­tify who is pay­ing for ads and so that re­searchers can more eas­ily root out sub­terfuge.

Then comes re­silience, which starts at the top. An­gela Merkel suc­cess­fully warned Mr. Putin that there would be con­se­quences if he in­ter­fered in Ger­man elec­tions. In France Em­manuel Macron frus­trated Rus­sian hack­ers by plant­ing fake e-mails among real ones, which dis­cred­ited later leaks when they were shown to con­tain false in­for­ma­tion. Fin­land teaches me­dia lit­er­acy and the na­tional press works to­gether to purge fake news and cor­rect mis­in­for­ma­tion.

Re­silience comes more eas­ily to Ger­many, France and Fin­land, where trust is higher than in Amer­ica. That is why re­tal­i­a­tion and de­ter­rence also mat­ter—not, as in the cold war, through dirty tricks, but by link­ing Amer­i­can co-op­er­a­tion over, say, diplo­matic mis­sions, to Rus­sia’s con­duct and, if need be, by sanc­tions. Repub­li­can lead­ers in Congress are fail­ing their coun­try: at the least they should hold emer­gency hear­ings to pro­tect Amer­ica from sub­ver­sion in the mid-term elec­tions. Just now, with Mr. Trump ob­ses­sively blam­ing the FBI and Democrats, it looks as if Amer­ica does not be­lieve democ­racy is worth fight­ing for.

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