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Trump, turmoil, & social media: How Russia is disrupting the West

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".

Warning bells

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.

Information warfare

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.