Russia election interference was much more than mischief-making

We no longer need to wonder what it would be like to lose a war on our own territory. We just lost one to Russia, and the consequence was the election of Donald Trump. The war followed the new rules of the 21st century, but its goal was the usual one of political change.

The greatest student of war, Carl von Clausewitz, defined war as “an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.” In his own time, the 19th century, force meant battle: “there is only one means in war: combat.” Combat is not war, but a means to win a war, to impose one’s will.

But what if the enemy’s will can be altered without the blood and treasure of military engagement? If that were true, then a country with a smaller military budget, like Russia, might beat one with a better army, like America.

That just happened, and we are still wiping our eyes in foggy denial.

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In 2011, a Russian information war manual concluded that operations in what Russians like to call the “psychosphere” were more important than conventional military engagements. The chief of staff of the Russian armed forces concurred in 2013. The basic aim of war, he averred, was to get inside the national mind of the enemy, reconfiguring habits of mind and frames of discourse so that Americans would do what the Russian leadership wanted.

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014, the main enemy was the United States.

The information manual very well describes the experience of being an American citizen in 2016: “the population doesn’t even feel it is being acted upon. So the state doesn’t switch on its self-defense mechanisms.” Even though many American citizens had a vague sense that something was uncanny about the presidential campaign, and those who read the newspaper knew that Russia was interfering, few realized the scale of the operation or its significance.

In a close election where a few thousand ballots across a few states brought victory to a man who lost the popular tally by almost 3 million votes, the hacks of the Democratic National Committee and the associated WikiLeaks email bombs were easily enough to make the difference.

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Still more important was the unexpected advantage Trump displayed over Hillary Clinton in social media. The Trump staff did not exhibit much technical expertise. And yet, somehow, the generators and distributors of fake news were, as if magically, on his side. The Clinton “ground game” was crushed by the Trump meme game. The bots worked 24/7 for Trump.

We know that hackers tried to steal data about registered voters from more than 20 states, and succeeded in at least four cases. The FBI and CIA issued official reports blaming Russia. Last week, the Justice Department issued indictments for two Russian secret policemen, accused of harvesting data from hundreds of millions of Yahoo accounts. Big political data allows fake news to be targeted to the right demographic, thereby changing political discourse.

The occupation is underway

(ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO/POOL/EPA)

At home, Russia governs by creating a close web of alternative reality through media. The spread of what the Trump White House approvingly calls “alternative facts,” fictional news stories that build conspiracy theories and sow distrust, now seems to be a strategy for export.

In campaigns that received less media attention than they deserved, Russia used the internet to export alternative reality to Estonia, Poland, Ukraine, France and Germany. The 2016 Russian cyberwar against America, like these previous ones, aimed at very real weaknesses — just like a sniper aims for the head or the lungs.

In 2016 Russian authorities made no attempt to hide their preference for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton.

After the election, the Russian parliament gave Trump a standing ovation and a leading talk show host congratulated Russians on their victory in the American elections. And of course, Trump actually called upon Russia to intervene in the election and, for good measure, recited Russian fake news at a rally. He shared his main adviser with Russian oligarchs and solicited foreign policy advice from people with stakes in a Russian gas company.

His first national security adviser took money from a Russian propaganda organ, and his secretary of state was granted the “Order of Friendship” from Vladimir Putin. And, as we have been hearing, other members of the Trump campaign were in touch with Russian diplomats before and after the elections.

Now, the Kremlin is far from unified, and it is hard to believe that the top Russian leadership actually thought it could swing the election. Why should the U.S. prove an easier mark than, say, Ukraine, where Russia tried but failed to hack the presidential election in 2014?

One can detect three schools of thought in Moscow: the disrupters, the triumphalists and the wise men. The triumphalists thought that Trump should be supported because his victory, as the head of the foreign affairs committee of the Russian parliament memorably put it, would “can lead the Western locomotive right off the rails.”

The disrupters believed Trump should be supported despite his likely defeat because his form of politics would generate weakness and confusion.

The wise men maintained that any intervention would be a mistake because it would generate unpredictability. Perhaps these differences explain a certain incoherence in the Russian effort: the slowing of the campaign in October, the slowing of favorable press coverage of Trump in February.

President Trump holds a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the East Room of the White House on March 17.

President Trump holds a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the East Room of the White House on March 17.

(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

We are all standing on uncertain ground now, including the Russians. These kinds of provocations are inherently risky. In another age, Russian secret police supported certain revolutionaries, leading to the revolution of 1905 in the Russian Empire and so indirectly to the end of their own regime.

It seems that, in our own age, winning a cyber war can be confusing. Actions taken in a psychosphere have consequences beyond it. Real people pull a real lever at a real polling station because of false impressions that they have gained from fake news.

But the consequences in the real world, once they begin, are not subject to the same tight control as the cyberwar itself. It is one thing to sit in a room thousands of miles away and dream of disrupting the enemy; it is quite another, even for Russian leaders, to actually watch the world-historical bumbling of a Trump. It is perhaps more comfortable to portray the United States as an enemy than to watch it topple.

It is impossible to prove that the disarray in and around the Kremlin is a result of a distressing cyber victory, but there are certainly some coincidences that are more than suggestive. In early December, Russia arrested four of its own leading cybersecurity experts.

On Dec. 26, a former KGB chief was found dead in his car in mysterious circumstances. The suspicion seems to have been that he had something to do with the dossier on Russia and Trump compiled by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele. Again, it is impossible to be sure, but this certainly looked like blowback from Russia’s own meddling.

Meanwhile, Russian diplomats have been dying at an alarming pace since the election. On the morning of election day, a Russian diplomat in New York was found unconscious in the Russian consulate and died on the scene. On Dec. 19 two Russian diplomats were shot dead, one of them the ambassador to Turkey. The Russian consul in Greece was found dead in his apartment on Jan. 9.

Russia’s ambassador to India died on Jan. 27 after a “brief illness.” Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations died suddenly at work in New York on Feb. 20. On March 9, for good measure, Putin fired 10 generals from the security services.

Losing a cyber war is presumably worse than winning one. It would take all the pages of this newspaper to explain how Trump’s victory has weakened the United States. Given that our President fails to engage in depth with briefings provided by American intelligence services, who is actually briefing him?

Questions like these, which carry the whiff of unreality but are perfectly justified, are the kind that arise from defeat in cyberwar. The unreality of the internet pervades real life, and it is hard to get one’s bearings.

Trump says that he wishes to expand the U.S. military, but in ways that have nothing to do with the war that his country just lost. We can hardly expect that he, with his obsession with “winning,” could even begin to see himself as the punishment for America’s great defeat. For this and for many other reasons we will have to think about this for ourselves.

So here’s a start. We know that occupation follows defeat in war. But not since the Napoleonic Wars, in which Clausewitz served (and which we remember as the War of 1812), has continental American territory been occupied by a foreign power. And no one has any comparable experience of the aftermath of defeat in cyberwar, of an occupation of the psychosphere.

What would a mental occupation feel like? What would it mean, in other words, if the behavior we came to accept during the campaign remained acceptable during a Trump administration?

Perhaps certain things would start to feel normal that, only a short time before, would have seemed abnormal. If we sleepwalk, the next steps would be towards a Russian style of rule. By this I do not mean, strictly speaking, a situation where Russia calls all the shots in America, or even a perfect replication of Russian practices. I mean that we would come to accept an essentially different rhythm of politics.

The Russian system, broadly speaking, involves the unsupervised accumulation of wealth by a President beyond the rule of law. This now has a whiff of familiarity, as we face a President who reveals nothing about his own finances and profits in obvious ways from his office.

From day to day, the Russian media generate an alternative reality. Anyone who pays attention to the President, Kellyanne Conway, or Sean Spicer could hardly fail to notice the resemblances. The Russian leadership manages real and fake terror attacks by Muslims to mobilize public opinion. Think of the Muslim ban and the invocation of fictional terror attacks in Kentucky and Sweden.

If an occupation of the psychosphere is the right way to think of our present condition, then what comes next? The checks and balances enshrined in the Russian constitution became meaningless. Elections are held in Russia, but as ritualistic exercises in maintaining power. The changes would be gradual, such that it is hard to say exactly when tyranny has emerged or solidified. We sleepwalk off the cliff.

Of course, we could wake up. What seems normal is, in the final analysis, our decision. It is up to individual Americans to decide. And it will be up to all of us, as a national community, to resist or accept these terms of occupation.

As the first to lose a cyber war in grand style, we can also be the first to respond. We can have a hard look at the real world, mobilize self-defense mechanisms and regain control over our own will. Resistance sometimes succeeds. But only after a defeat is seen as such, and understood.

Snyder is a professor of history at Yale University and the author, most recently, of “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.”

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