Democracy watchHacking democracies

Published 21 May 2019

A new report from an Australian think tank offers an in-depth, and sobering, analysis of Russia’s campaign to undermine Western democracies by weaponizing social media, and, to a lesser extent, China’s similar, if lower-key, campaign against neighboring Asian countries. “Democracies need to look at better ways of imposing costs on adversaries,” the report’s authors say.

In January 2018, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Minority Staff issued a comprehensive report detailing Russia’s broad, systemic, and disciplined effort to weaken Western democracies and undermine the system of alliances and treaties built after the Second World War to contain the Soviet Union and establish rule-based norms of international conduct.

The report, titled Putin’s Asymmetric Assault on Democracy in Russia and Europe: Implications for U.S. National Security, says: “Mr. Putin has… made it a priority of his regime to attack the democracies of Europe and the United States and undermine the transatlantic alliance upon which Europe’s peace and prosperity have depended upon for over 70 years. He has used the security services, the media, public and private companies, organized criminal groups, and social and religious organizations to spread malicious disinformation, interfere in elections, fuel corruption, threaten energy security, and more.”

Much or Russia’s disruptive efforts have been directed toward countries on the periphery of Russia – for example, Ukraine, Poland, the Baltic States – which seek closer economic and political ties with Western European countries.

Even more ambitious, however, has been Russia’s overt and covert campaign to weaken the West’s leading democracies, seeking “to undermine support for sanctions against Russia, interfere in elections through overt or covert support of sympathetic political parties and the spread of disinformation, and sow discord and confusion by exacerbating existing social and political divisions through disinformation and cultivated ideological groups.”

Russia’s campaign – what intelligence professionals call “influence operations” — has been effective and successful. The operatives of the GRU — Russia’s military intelligence, which had been instructed by President Vladimir Putin to orchestrate the campaign to weaken Western democracies and institutions – used a combination of disinformation on social media and hacking to support populist, far-right, anti-immigration – and, in some cases, anti-democratic, neo-Fascist, and openly anti-Semitic — leaders and parties.