Vladimir Putin, Russia's authoritarian leader, is waging an 'information war' against the West, influencing elections, detabilizing societies, and causing chaos.
Vladimir Putin, the authoritarian leader of Russia, has been waging a stealthy information war against the West, attempting to influence elections, sow the seeds of societal chaos, and weaken Western resolve to punish Moscow for invading Ukraine and annexing the Crimea Peninsula.
There can be no doubt that Putin has used computer hackers, social media trolls and bots, and a sophisticated disinformation campaign to cause societal polarization in some Western nation-states, including the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States.
Despite the clear and present danger to the West posed by the aggressive Putin regime, U.S. President Donald Trump and his domestic political supporters remain dismissive of the threat.
Trump won a controversial election victory in 2016, which remains hotly contested because of Russian interference in the campaign. Describing former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s now concluded investigation into Russian election interference as a “witch hunt” and “a hoax,” Trump is clearly not prepared or willing to counter Putin’s nefarious schemes.
U.S. President Donald Trump dismissed the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election as a "witch hunt".
There are numerous credible experts ringing warning bells in response to ongoing Russian aggression and the threat that Putin's covert operations pose to American democracy.
The day before former U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller testified in front of the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee and the House Intelligence Committee, FBI Director Christopher Wray went before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Foreshadowing Mueller’s testimony, Director Wray warned of ongoing Russian attempts to subvert American democracy.
“The Russians are absolutely intent on trying to interfere with our elections,” Wray told the Senate Judiciary Committee on July 23rd. And in an answer to a question from Republican Senator Lindsay Graham, the head of the FBI stated that the efforts undertaken by the United States so far have failed to deter the Russians.
When Mueller testified before the House Intelligence Committee on July 24th, he stated that the Russians interfered in the 2016 elections and warned that those activities continue. “They're doing it as we sit here,” he declared.
The day after Mueller testified before the House committees, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a bracing report on Russian meddling in the 2016 election as well as the ongoing threat that they pose to American democracy. Even though the report is heavily redacted, it paints a vivid picture of the threat posed by Russian hackers to election infrastructure and the upcoming 2020 American elections.
The Senate document is entitled: Report of the Select Committee on Intelligence, United States Senate, on Russian Active Measures Campaigns and Interference in the 2016 U.S. Election Volume 1: Russian Efforts Against Election Infrastructure with Additional Views.
“The Russian government directed extensive activity, beginning in at least 2014 and carrying into at least 2017, against U.S. election infrastructure' at the state and local level,” states the Senate Intelligence Committee report.
“While the Committee does not know with confidence what Moscow's intentions were, Russia may have been probing vulnerabilities in voting systems to exploit later,” the Senate report states. And the document concludes that “Russian activities demand renewed attention to vulnerabilities in U.S. voting infrastructure.”
“In its review of the 2016 elections, the Committee found no evidence that vote tallies were altered or that voter registry files were deleted or modified, though the Committee and IC's insight into this is limited,” the Senate Intelligence Committee report states.
On July 25th, the same day that the Senate Intelligence Committee report was released, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked two pieces of election security legislation, dismissing them as partisan. McConnell came under heavy criticism from Democrats and in the media for failing to take the threat of Russian interference seriously.
The Mueller Report states that the Putin regime launched a campaign in 2014 to destabilize American society and interfere in the 2016 election cycle. The report describes these activities as “information warfare.”
Why would Russian leader Vladimir Putin wage an information war against the United States?
“First, we have to understand the roots of the decision Putin took,” replied Chris Alexander, who worked on Canada-Russia relations during his diplomatic career and who served as ‘the number two’ in the Canadian embassy in Moscow.
“Information warfare, propaganda, disinformation have deep roots as tools of state power in today’s Russia, in the Soviet Union, and before that in the Russian empire,” he explained.
In this undated photograph, Chris Alexander, then Canada's ambassador to Afghanistan, poses with children in Kabul. Photo courtesy of Chris Alexander.
Some of the most odious examples of early Antisemitic propaganda “were developed by imperial Russian state organs” that led to pogroms that caused polarization in late imperial Russia, explained Alexander, who served as Canada’s ambassador to Afghanistan from 2003 through 2004 and later was appointed Deputy Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary General for Afghanistan, serving in that role from 2005 to 2009.
Flash forward to the Communist era, propaganda was “the stock and trade” of Soviet leaders, especially Vladimir Lenin and later Joseph Stalin, said Alexander, a fluent Russian speaker.
In the 1920s and ‘30s, the Soviet Union deployed state resources “to create a massive international network of subversion, destabilization, (and) influence going into the Second World War,” Alexander stated. “In those days, they were funding extremists on both the so-called left and right.”
For example, there was Stalinist involvement in the Nationalist Socialist movement in Germany as well as “Communist and far left subversion across Europe,” which helped set the stage for the Second World War, he said. Later during the Cold War, the Soviet Union “invested heavily in propaganda.”
According to Alexander, information warfare is “second nature to Russians and certainly to Russian officials.” And he said that they “never really stopped, they just paused” due to the Glasnost policy of Mikhail Gorbachev, the reformist Soviet leader who helped end the Cold War, and due to the turmoil of the 1990s that was precipitated by the collapse of Communism.
However, under Putin, information warfare has “come back with a vengeance,” contends Alexander. The Russians have scaled up their information warfare efforts over the last five years, “because Putin has been both angry and threatened by Ukraine’s transition away from (Viktor) Yanukovych, who was a Russian puppet, and towards a path of integration with European institutions, especially Euro-Atlantic institutions,” including the European Union and NATO.
According to Alexander, the drift of Ukraine toward the West is a failure and an insult from Putin’s perspective. Putin views Ukraine as part of Russia, and he does not see Ukraine as a legitimate sovereign state.
However, Alexander said that Putin’s view is “totally out of touch with reality in Ukraine and the outside world.”
“He is waging information warfare in the United States, in the United Kingdom, in other democracies, because if those are democracies are helping Ukraine embark on a path independent of Russia and causing Russia pain, then he is going to inflict pain on us,” explained Alexander.
The former immigration minister under Prime Minister Stephen Harper said that Western sanctions imposed on Russia in the wake of Moscow’s annexation of the Crimea Peninsula have done significant damage to the Russian economy.
In retaliation, Putin is determined to cause chaos and disarray in the West through information warfare. “And he has had some success, (but) less than he thinks he’s had,” Alexander said of Putin’s schemes and the growing awareness in the West of Russia’s nefarious activities.
Besides the United States, where else has Putin waged information warfare?
The Russians intervened in the Brexit campaign, playing a decisive role in the Leave campaign’s narrow victory, said Alexander. Italy, Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic, Germany, France, the Nordic countries, and even Canada are all targets of Putin’s information warfare, he added.
Putin attacked Canada
“I would argue that Kremlin influence has been felt in two ways,” Alexander said of Canada. “First, they were very keen, and this was before Trump was elected and before the Brexit vote, to see the government of Stephen Harper defeated by any means, by any alternative (party).”
Alexander asserted that the Putin regime wanted Harper to lose the 2015 federal election because the Conservative leader had been very tough on Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine and the illegal annexation of the Crimea Peninsula.
Then Prime Minister Stephen Harper took a strong stand against Russia's 2014 invasion of Ukraine and subsequent illegal annexation of the Crimea Peninsula.
“Harper had been very strong in setting up the sanctions regime. Harper had called out Putin publicly and embarrassed him, for his behaviour in Ukraine, at the G20 and elsewhere.”
In addition, it was Harper who successfully led the charge to expel Russia from the G8.
When it appeared that the Trudeau Liberals might be capable of defeating the Harper Conservatives, the Kremlin “assisted them the ways they had available.”
To be clear, Alexander did not suggest that there was any cooperation between the Kremlin and the Liberals.
The tools of information warfare “can be explicit collusion, but they can also be unwitting assistance by those who are influenced by the information environment,” explained Alexander. “And certainly in 2015,’16, &’17, before all of this was well documented, they were influencing opinions and the climate on Twitter, on Facebook, and on other platforms very significantly. And that would in turn influence how journalists saw things, how commentators saw things, and ultimately how citizens and voters saw things.”
Second, the Russians tried to influence the 2015 Canadian election through an online army of bots and trolls. “The first time that they deployed, a real peak in their activity before those larger engagements, was on the day that Aylan Kurdi was found dead on a beach in Bodrum, Turkey,” said Alexander.
“That photograph went around the world,” he said of the Aug. 2015 image of the drowned three-year old Syrian refugee. “And responsibility for his death and inaction on Syrian refugees was identified with Harper and yours truly,” said Alexander, who was Canada’s immigration minister at the time of the boy’s tragic death.
“As far as Moscow was concerned, that was a successful blow landed against one of Putin’s most principled adversaries,” Alexander said. “They sought to defeat the Harper government,” he repeated for emphasis.
Communications Security Establishment
According to a threat assessment document produced by the Canada’s Communications Security Establishment (CSE), “cyber threat activity against the democratic process is increasing around the world, and Canada is not immune.” The declassified CSE document, entitled Cyber Threats to Canada’s Democratic Process, is based upon information that was available as of June 7, 2017.
The CSE document concludes that Canada’s democratic process was targeted during the 2015 federal election by “low-sophistication cyber threat activity.” However, it does not accuse the Putin regime of carrying out those aggressive cyber activities.
“It is highly probable that the perpetrators were hacktivists and cybercriminals, and the details of the most impactful incidents were reported on by several Canadian media organizations,” alleges the CSE document.
In addition, the document states: “to date, we have not observed nation-states using cyber capabilities with the purpose of influencing the democratic process in Canada during an election.”
“We assess that whether this remains the case in 2019 will depend on how Canada’s nation-state adversaries perceive Canada’s foreign and domestic policies, and on the spectrum of policies espoused by Canadian federal candidates in 2019,” the report states.
The CSE document predicts that “multiple hacktivist groups will very likely deploy cyber capabilities in an attempt to influence the democratic process during the 2019 federal election.”
However, attacks on democracy entail more than merely hacking data bases or stealing information. Attempts to influence public opinion by foreign actors or groups threaten liberal democracies.
As the Mueller Report proves, Russia undertook influence operations on social media to polarize American society beginning in 2014, a year before the Canadian federal election.
“Regarding Canada’s democratic process at the federal level, we assess that, almost certainly, political parties and politicians, and the media are more vulnerable to cyber threats and related influence operations than the election activities themselves,” states the CSE document. “This is because federal elections are largely paper-based and Elections Canada has a number of legal, procedural, and information technology measures in place.”
The CSE document acknowledges that “cyber threats and influence operations are often successful because they take advantage of deeply rooted human behaviours and social patterns, and not merely technological vulnerabilities.”
Alexander responds to CSE
“The number of Twitter accounts directed by the Kremlin in Russia was not yet known at that time, because they had not released those nine million plus tweets," Alexander said in a follow up interview of the 2017 CSE review. "And that assessment has been revisited by many players, and I stand by what I told you.”
On Aug. 3, 2018, CBC News published an online piece about the Russia-based Internet Research Agency’s attempts to target Canadians on Twitter. The piece, written by Roberto Rocha, examines data published by “the FiveThirtyEight website and is based on research by Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren, two professors at South Carolina's Clemson University who pieced together the tweets, pulling more than 2,800 Twitter accounts known to be associated with the IRA.”
Rocha found that “out of those 3 million tweets, close to 8,000 mentioned Canadian issues, like asylum seekers, the Quebec City mosque shooting and the Keystone XL pipeline.” And the CBC journalist notes that the study is “believed to be the most fulsome record to date of the Russian Twitter trolling.”
In Oct. 2018, the scope of Russian online activities was revealed by Twitter, when it released approximately nine million tweets posted by Russian trolls and bots. According to Twitter, the tweets came from 3,841 accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency.
“I happen to have access to a lot of people who are doing classified work. And I have absolutely no doubt in the overall context of the migration crisis in Europe, the death of Aylan Kurdi was a huge focus of Russian activity in early Sept. 2015,” asserted Alexander.
“I am not saying this changed the result of our election,” added Alexander. “I am simply saying it was clear they preferred an outcome, any outcome that did not involve the re-election of Stephen Harper’s government.”
In Oct. 2018, Canada and its NATO allies condemned cyberattacks by Russian military intelligence on the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is based in The Hague. The attacks reportedly took place in April 2018.
According to a Canadian Press story posted online on Oct. 4, 2018, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale took the Russians to task in a public statement, characterizing their behaviour as “absolutely unacceptable.”
"It is behaviour that defies proper international legal norms and we with our allies are determined to identify it, call it out, investigate it and, wherever we can, prosecute it,” Goodale is quoted as saying.
The same day Canada and NATO were condemning Russia for hacking the Organization of the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Global Affairs Canada also issued a press statement noting Russia’s cyber-activities in Canada.
“In 2016, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), an independent international agency headquartered in Canada, publicly disclosed that the cyber-hacker group Fancy Bear/APT28 had released confidential athlete data on its website that it had obtained illegally from WADA’s Anti-Doping Administration and Management System,” declares a Oct. 4, 2018 press statement issued by Global Affairs Canada.
“The Government of Canada assesses with high confidence that the Russian military’s intelligence arm, the GRU, was responsible for this incident,” noted the Global Affairs statement.
Similarly, Global Affairs pointed out that “the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport was compromised by malware enabling unauthorized access to the Centre’s network” in 2016. Again the Canadian government assessed "with high confidence that the GRU was responsible for this compromise.”
Putin’s reaction to the 'witch hunt' rhetoric
What might the Putin regime’s reaction have been when President Trump and some Republican lawmakers and conservative talk radio hosts in the United States dismissed the Mueller investigation as a ‘hoax’ and a ‘witch hunt’?
“I think they’re just drunk with own perceived victory,” replied Alexander. “Putin and company try not to show how smugly self-satisfied they are with all of this.”
Just the perception of having tipped the balance in the 2016 election or causing social divisions “is enormously satisfying to the self-absorbed, hyper sensitive to criticism leaders in the Kremlin,” he continued.
“This has meant that attention to their failings has been distracted by both Russia’s perceived influence in Syria and its perceived influence in democratic outcomes in Western countries. And that has brought back a sense of Russian chauvinist pride that we haven’t seen since Soviet times.”
However, Alexander asserts that the Putin regime’s analysis is not correct. “They are underestimating the capacity of both British and American politics to put themselves back on track by democratic means. And they are definitely underestimating their own self-isolation,” he said.
“They thought by helping to get Trump elected, they would see the sanctions regime quickly relaxed. Instead it has been intensified by Congress and by U.S. allies and partners.”
However, the tightening of the sanctions regime was not Trump’s doing. “No thanks to Trump,” agreed Alexander. “That’s the beauty of the American system. It does have checks and balances. Even within the executive (branch) itself, where institutions like the Department of Justice, the Department of Defense, the intelligence agencies and so forth continue to function very professionally in spite of Trump’s instincts to do things differently.”
The Communications Security Establishment updated its threat assessment in 2019, noting that “half of all advanced democracies holding national elections had their democratic process targeted by cyber threat activity,” in 2018. “This represents about a three-fold increase since 2015 and we expect the upward trend to continue in 2019,” states the document, 2019 Update: Cyber Threats to Canada’s Democratic Process.
The update offers a measure of reassurance. “Canada’s federal elections are largely paper-based and Elections Canada has a number of legal, procedural, and information technology (IT) measures in place that provide very robust protections against attempts to covertly change the official vote count,” notes the 2019 CSE document.
The update states that foreign cyber interference in those elections target voters. “Cyber threat actors manipulate online information, often using cyber tools, in order to influence voters’ opinions and behaviours,” asserts the CSE.
The CSE warns that “Canadian voters will encounter some form of foreign cyber interference related to the 2019 federal election.” But it maintains that “it is improbable that this foreign cyber interference will be of the scale of Russian activity against the 2016 United States presidential election.”
How might foreign actors attack the upcoming 2019 election?
“We judge it very likely that foreign cyber interference against Canada would resemble activity undertaken against other advanced democracies in recent years,” states the CSE update.
In a Nov. 2018 interview with The Canadian Press, Canada’s Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan warned of cyber attacks and so-called fake news being spread by Russia. "We have taken this into account very seriously in our defence policy," Minister Sajjan told The Canadian Press. "We need to further educate our citizens about the impact of fake news. No one wants to be duped by anybody."
What has the Russian information warfare campaign in the United States achieved?
“I think we have to start by saying what it has achieved more globally,” replied Alexander. The biggest impacts have been on Ukraine and Russia itself, he asserted.
“In 2010, Russian GDP per capita in nominal terms was $11,400. It went up by 2013 to $16,000,” Alexander said, citing IMF data. “By last year, 2018, it had fallen back to $11,300. So basically, in almost ten years, the income of Russians in U.S. dollar terms has barely grown. And the biggest decline has been since 2014, because declining oil prices, but mostly because of sanctions and the self-isolation of Russia.”
Alexander contends that Russian meddling and interference in the affairs of other nations “has only hardened the determination of democracies to keep Russia isolated until they reverse their disastrous decision to occupy part of Ukraine.”
As far as the impact of information warfare on Western democracies, Alexander said that it has cast a pall over British and American democracy. “I think the impact in the United States is much more clearly documented through The Mueller Report and the countless in-depth investigative reports by journalists and shelf-loads of books,” he stated.
“In the U.K., it is less well documented, in part because of different laws regarding defamation in the U.K.—of which the Russians make and their allies make skilled use. But it is no less real.”
Alexander believes that without Russian interference in the Brexit campaign, the U.K. would not have voted to leave the European Union. “It was just that close,” he said of the referendum on British membership in the EU.
Moreover, for the last three years, notes Alexander, British politics has been totally focused on Brexit. And in the United States, because of the contested nature of Trump’s victory, politics “has never been more polarized,” he added.
While the impact of Putin’s information warfare has been “significant,” Alexander contends that it is not undermining the institutional fabric of constitutional democracies. The lack of focus in the U.S. and the economic costs associated with Brexit are, in Alexander’s estimation, “much more modest costs than those imposed by the self-isolation of Russia.”
Under Russian influence
Given that Russia has attacked American democracy and that the attacks continue, why has President Trump not presented the American people with a plan or strategy to prevent Russian meddling in the 2020 elections?
“Why has Trump not put forward a plan? Because he remains under Russian influence,” Alexander alleged. “Just the other day he was welcoming the possibility of foreign assistance in gaining the upper hand over whoever his democratic opponent might be next year,” he said of a June interview Trump did with ABC News.
“Trump is never going to be the person to forward a plan to defend American democracy,” Alexander declared.
In what way is Trump under Russian influence? “You could see it when the Russian foreign minister visited the White House after his victory,” replied Alexander.
“He knows that Russia wanted him to be elected. And he knows Russia took action on many levels, some of it documented, some of it not yet public, to bring about that outcome. He knows that his victory might not have taken place without that assistance.”
According to Alexander, “there is both a sense of debt to Putin’s Kremlin for services rendered and there’s leverage.” Indeed, Robert Mueller revealed in the Congressional hearings that FBI investigations into Russian election meddling are ongoing.
“Think of Trump’s comments about WikiLeaks,” Alexander said, echoing the testimony of Mueller. “How he enjoys WikiLeaks. How he was cheering WikiLeaks at various points on Twitter.”
Alexander noted that Mueller “implied what most of us who know Russia well to be true, that WikiLeaks has been operating as a branch of the Russian foreign intelligence service, in this case the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of Russian Military Intelligence, since its inception.”
“For Trump, contrary to all the briefings he’s received, all the cautions he would have received by professionals in the field, for him to have said those things and to stand by them today, is absolutely shocking and speaks to the level of penetration that the Russian side achieved of his campaign, of team, and of his psyche.”
President Trump has attacked the former Special Counsel, undermined the U.S. intelligence community, and demonized the news media. Is he doing more damage to the United States than is Putin’s information warfare campaign?
“I think he is the principal vehicle by which the damage is being done,” Alexander answered.
“But let’s be clear: the U.S. system is designed to provide for where cases of office holders, including the President, derogate from their duties, are delinquent, even criminally delinquent in various ways, and there are redundancies in the system to ensure that doesn’t go on forever.”
For instance, Alexander said that terms limits, elections, impeachment proceedings, investigations are countervailing measures that circumscribe the damage being done by Trump.
“Look at media,” continued Alexander. “He would dearly love to shut those outlets that criticize him and empower those that praise him. But his actions have had the opposite effect." And Alexander said that The New York Times and The Washington Post “have rejuvenated their subscription bases, relaunched quality journalism; it’s been extraordinary to watch.”
According to Alexander, the revival of quality journalism has happened because Trump represents “a threat to freedom of speech.”
Should Canada trust Donald Trump?
“We have to deal with the United States, and we have to deal with the person who holds that office,” replied Alexander. “I think in everything we do with him, we have a strong sense of our national interest. We have to have friends and allies outside of the White House in Congress, in the states, in business.”
Chris Alexander, then Deputy Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for Afghanistan, meets with then U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden in Kabul. Photo courtesy of Chris Alexander.
“But should we trust him on these larger issues, above all policy towards Russia? No.”
However, Alexander said that “the United States as Canada’s principal partner and ally is not going away, and we have to have a full spectrum relationship with that country—whether or not Donald Trump is in office. And we can certainly do it while remaining dispassionate, self-interested, and fully conscious of his political genesis and path to power, which to some degree is illegitimate, and which is being challenged as such still in the United States. The partners we can trust wholeheartedly certainly are not in the White House today, but that doesn’t mean we ignore that office.”
In addition, Alexander said that Canada should “try and set a good example of democratic practice and of upholding the rule of law, combating propaganda and disinformation in this era where they are so prevalent and not just coming from Russia but coming from other directions, as well.”
Note: This article was originally published on July 27, 2019, and it was updated on July 28, 2019. Additional background material was included as was a follow up interview with Alexander. A misquote was corrected.
Geoffrey P. Johnston is an independent Canadian journalist, covering foreign affairs, humanitarian crises, human rights, international development issues, and international religious freedom.
Follow on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston