Russia Influence Operations Seek to Sow U.S. Division

State official urges Senate not to politicize Russian subversion in U.S.

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin / Getty Images
August 22, 2018

Russia's aggressive influence and cyber operations targeting the United States are not aimed at supporting specific political parties but seek to sow internal divisions, a senior State Department official said Tuesday.

A. Wess Mitchell, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, also said the State Department is working to counter Russian influence operations through an interagency-backed Global Engagement Center.

Under President Trump, the administration has imposed sanctions on over 200 Russians and Russian entities, closed six Russian diplomatic posts, and expelled 60 spies, Mitchell said. In all, the United States has imposed 580 sanctions on Russia, mostly related to illegal annexation of Ukraine's Crimea.

The testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Russia sanctions prompted criticism from some Democrats who said that while Russia's economy is suffering under American sanctions, Moscow's behavior has not changed significantly.

Russia continues to occupy Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and is conducting covert action to subvert Ukraine while supplying arms and military support to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Moscow also carried out the attempted assassination of a Russian defector and his daughter in Britain. On Tuesday, the Treasury Department imposed additional sanctions on two Russian shipping companies for illicit transfers of petroleum to North Korea.

In the United States, Russia continues to utilize cyber attacks and is attempting to influence the November midterm elections.

Microsoft's Digital Crimes Unit said on Monday that its security researchers had traced fraudulent websites to Russian military intelligence hackers who targeted the U.S. Senate, the Hudson Institute think tank, and the International Republican Institute.

The threat posed by Russia has moved beyond the military dimension.

"Our strategy is animated by the realization that the threat from Russia has evolved beyond being simply an external or military one; it includes unprecedentedly brazen influence operations orchestrated by the Kremlin on the soil of our allies and even here at home in the United States," Mitchell said.

Russian influence operations are not linked to specific domestic political causes, Mitchell asserted. "They are not about right or left, or American political philosophy. The threat from Russian influence operations existed long before our 2016 presidential election and will continue long after this election cycle, or the next, or the next."

The comments appeared to be aimed at countering the aggressive political narrative promoted by most in the Democratic Party and many of its liberal allies who insist Moscow's meddling helped elect Trump and defeat former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Mitchell, until recently president of the Center for European Policy Analysis, a Europe-oriented think tank, said a recent purge by Facebook against Russian subversive activities revealed Moscow is supporting "fringe voices on the political left, not just the right, including groups who advocate violence, the storming of federal buildings, and the overthrow of the U.S. government."

"Russia foments and funds controversial causes—and then foments and funds the causes opposed to those causes," Mitchell said.

According to Mitchell, Russian president Vladimir Putin believes the Constitution is "an experiment that will fail if challenged in the right way from within."

"Putin wants to break apart the American republic, not by influencing an election or two, but by systematically inflaming the perceived fault-lines that exist within our society," he said. "His is a strategy of chaos for strategic effect."

Understanding Putin's motive is essential for developing responses to the threat.

"The most dangerous thing we could do is to politicize the challenge, which in itself would be a gift to Putin," Mitchell said.

Putin is supporting the subversion in a bid to gain international dominance. To further that goal, the Russian military has been tasked, according to a handbook, "to carry out mass psychological campaigns against the population of a state in order to destabilize society and the government; as well as forcing a state to make decisions in the interests of their opponents."

Russian influence operations include a "toolkit of subversive statecraft" first developed by the Bolsheviks and later the Soviet Union and now "upgraded for the digital age," Mitchell said. The operations are directed from a very high level of the Russian government and backed by significant resources.

"I think what we've seen in the Russian approach to the United States in influence operations is very much not a partisan effort," Mitchell said. "I think it's a very cynical effort to pit preexisting political camps against one another."

Russia supported violent U.S. left-wing groups and also supported groups that conducted anti-Trump protests, including one at Madison Square Garden that drew a crowd of thousands of people, he said.

From Russia's standpoint, "the goal is to divide us internally," Mitchell said. "There's not any reflective political philosophy as it relates to American politics. It's an effort to divide us."

During the 2016 election meddling operation, Russia used both overt means, including social media advertising and Russia-based Internet troll farms, as well as sophisticated intelligence operations.

The Justice Department recently indicted 12 Russian GRU military intelligence officers in outlining the hack-and-release of documents and emails from the Democratic National Committee and leading Democratic figures.

Mitchell said the Trump administration policy is to pressure Moscow until "Russian aggression ceases," while keeping the door open to dialogue.

The State Department has been attempting to counter Russian influence operations through a Russia Influence Group in the department and also working with the Pentagon's European Command.

The department also has formed a new position, Senior Adviser for Russian Malign Activities and Trends—dubbed SARMAT. The acronym is the same as the name given to Russia's new heavy intercontinental ballistic missile called Sarmat.

The department also has sought to expose malign Russian activities and revealed 112 activities since January.

The State Department's European bureau was given $380 million in security and economic assistance in the fiscal 2019 budget for Europe that will be used to battle Russian influence operations.

Marshall Billingslea, assistant secretary of Treasury for terrorist financing, said the impact of sanctions on Russian activities will take time. "But our sanctions are also having a clear and measurable effect," he said.

For example, Rosoboronexport, the Russian government company that sold fighter jets to Syria used in deadly chemical attacks on Syrians, is having difficulties getting paid for the arms deals, said Billingslea, who testified with Mitchell.

Under questioning from Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Mitchell was asked if Trump is helping Russia by calling the press the "enemy of the people."

"What the president has said is not that the free press is 'an enemy of the people,'" Mitchell said. "He said that fake news is the enemy of the people."

"I think today's media, we would all agree, is unprecedentedly polemical," he said. "And the political debate in this country has gone beyond the pale of what we've seen on the part of the media in a very long time. That's part of a healthy democracy."

At a separate Senate hearing before the Banking Committee, Sigal Mandelker, undersecretary of Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, testified that sanctions on Russia are having an impact. "Treasury's Russia sanctions program is among our most active and impactful," she said.

Since January 2017, 200 of the 212 Russian-related sanctions were imposed by Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).

In April, a large number of Russian oligarchs—government-backed business leaders—were slapped with U.S. sanctions that sought to restrict their ability to use international financial institutions.

Mandelker said Treasury's sanctions "targeted a veritable who's who of Russia's most prominent companies." They include Rosoboronexport, Moscow’s main state-owned weapons trading company; EuroSibEnergo, one of the largest independent power companies in Russia; and Surgutneftegaz, a major Russian oil company.

Other sanctions targeted the heads of major state-owned banks and energy firms and some of Putin's closest associates.

Mandelker said Treasury sanctions caused significant financial losses and blocked hundreds of millions of dollars in Russian assets in the United States.

Banking Committee chairman Sen. Michael Crapo (R-Idaho) said Congress has drafted legislation that would toughen measures against Russia. "The administration is taking some important steps against Putin, his cronies, and the industrial apparatus they control," he said. "But can Congress expect more from the administration and when?"

Mandelker said: "Though Russia's malign activities continue, its adventurism undoubtedly has been checked by the knowledge that we can bring even more economic pain to bear using our powerful range of authorities and that we will not hesitate to do so if its conduct does not demonstrably and significantly change."

Published under: Cyber Security , Russia