Russian operation in divided America

After indictment of 13 Russians President Donald Trump (I would say predictably) tweeted there was no collusion and no impact on elections result. But if you look at Mueller investigation and other available info, and of course, it is still an incomplete picture, what do you see, a successful Russian intelligence operation that was based on exploiting divisiveness of American society and politics? And what are the lessons learned? Read few comments.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump. Credit:

John Sipher, Former Field Operative, Senior executive in CIA’s National Clandestine Service, National Security Analyst on “Cipher Brief

The indictments have both a political and legal effect in the United States. They serve as the legal underpinning for the conclusions of the U.S. Intelligence Community’s earlier assessment (that President Trump has repeatedly refused to acknowledge). That is, the U.S. Justice Department has joined the rest of the government in it’s assessment that the Russians used political and information warfare techniques against the U.S. in an effort to attack our system and elections. The President can no longer simply claim that the Russian effort to impact the election on his behalf is a hoax.

This indictment does not impact Putin and the Kremlin. They knew that they were engaged in espionage and political warfare against the U.S., and that it was illegal. However, now it is impossible for the U.S. public and political classes to deny it (something all of our European allies have known for a long time).

Russian information warfare (what they call active measures) is a form of asymmetric warfare (like terrorism) of the weak against the strong. It is a means by which the weak can damage the strong by exploiting weaknesses in its defenses. In this case, the weakness in the U.S. system was our hyper-charged partisan divisions. The Russians recognized this weakness and developed means to exploit it.

Mitchell OrensteinProfessor of Central and East European Politics , University of Pennsylvania, Associate, Center for European Studies, Harvard University

Those of us who were on Twitter and other social media during the 2016 Presidential Election and had experience with Russian bots and trolls realized immediately that there was intense activity during the campaign and that it was facilitated by candidate Trump and his campaign team, which frequently retweeted Russian disinformation.  This has been well documented by Clint Watts, who testified about this fact to Congress last year.  Now, Mueller has indicted several individuals and organizations involved in this.  Further investigation will show which US individuals and campaigns made use of this disinformation for their own purposes.  Of course, in the US it is not illegal to retweet disinformation.  However, it is illegal to accept donations from foreign governments and individuals.  Therefore, the most important question is and has been whether the Trump campaign was offered and accepted help from foreign individuals and organizations during the campaign.  We know that they were offered.  But if they knowingly solicited or accepted Russian help, there is criminal liability.  In my opinion, where there is smoke, there is fire, and we are likely to see many further indictments of US individuals, including Trump campaign officials, for colluding with the Russians to provide illegal material support to his campaign and, after, to cover it up.  I expect that the number of indictments issued by Mueller to eventually exceed 100, as this is a very big investigation, including conspiracy to solicit foreign campaign contributions, money laundering, disinformation campaigns, computer hacking and distribution of stolen goods, and a cover up that included firing the head of the FBI.  That said, Mueller is great at keeping everyone off balance, so we do not know exactly who will be indicted or when or for what.

My guess is that we are not far away from indictments of members of the Trump family and possibly President Trump himself, for obstruction of justice.  I also believe that Paul Manafort will be in prison for a very long time, since he may be worried about the consequences he may suffer were he to cooperate with the prosecution, at the hands of his Russia friends.  However, his colleague Gates appears to be cooperating with the prosecution now, providing a lot of evidence.  I am hopeful that, in the end, the truth will come out and Americans and the world will learn about the extent of the Trump organization’s illegal collusion with a foreign power to influence a US Presidential election.

Thomas SchwartzProfessor of History and Political Science, Vanderbilt University

The Mueller indictments were something of a surprise, as there had not been any leaks indicating they would be coming.  You are right – President Trump immediately claimed vindication, although he forgot his earlier statements about the entire investigation being a hoax.  Now he is simply taking reassurance that these indictments do not show any collusion by his campaign.  Although the investigation is not over, so he should probably be careful about declaring victory.

I was surprised by the size and scale of the Russian operation.  Unfortunately I also see in this something that has strong historical overtones.  Back in 1946, when American diplomat George Kennan first warned of the dangers of Russian expansionism in his famous “Long Telegram,” he emphasized that the Soviet Union sought to exploit the sickness and weaknesses within American society.  Although he is often remembered as advocating “containment,’ Kennan felt it was equally important to keep American society healthy and make it more immune to the Russian attempt to sow divisions.  Unfortunately the many political, social, cultural, and racial divisions of American society give Putin’s Russia lots of opportunity to interfere.  Certainly the US government needs to take actions to prevent further Russian actions in the midterm elections and 2020.  But as long as America is as polarized and divided as it is these days, there will be plenty of opportunities to throw gasoline on the fire.

Stephen BittnerProfessor of History, Sonoma State University

The indictment states that Russians were in contact with “unwitting” members of the Trump campaign, so I think it falls short of the collusion. Part of the difficulty is that collusion per se is no crime according to American law; it is being used carelessly as an umbrella term for behaviors—such as conspiracy to violate campaign finance law—that are illegal.

But yes, you are correct, none of this would have worked if Americans were not so polarized as an electorate. The Russians  understood perfectly the wedge issues: Black Lives Matter, guns and the Second Amendment, and so on. Americans need to also ask why so many of our fellow citizens were prone to believe the most ridiculous stories about Hillary Clinton.

Gennady RudkevichAssistant Professor, Department of Government & Sociology, Georgia College & State University

We’ve living in very interesting times. I agree with you that the information that has come out so far does not prove collusion, though it’s possible this might change in the future.

The operation was successful only to the extent that the US intelligence services identified it too late, and neither them nor government officials did much to stop it. Its main impact was getting people who already hated Hillary Clinton to hate her more. It’s true that some of the Russian-controlled accounts were able to obtain followers only because of how polarized American society has become. There are two main lessons. On the supply side, intelligence services need to identify foreign attempts at interference in American politics as quickly as possible, and share that information with social media organizations. On the demand side, politicians need to condemn fake news not only targeting them but also the other party. There needs to be a common front against disinformation. I don’t think there’s any chance of the latter happening, however.

Sarah Oates, Professor and Senior Scholar, Philip Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland

While the indictment didn’t show collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians, it did have enough evidence to charge Russians with interfering in the elections — as well as with other crimes, such as fraud. So you can see this as either as ending there, with only Russians involved. Or, as many Americans suspect, this could be just the first step — now the crime has been found, there is still the ability to link those charged with any aspect of the Trump campaign. So it may be a one-two punch and this was one.

This also makes it harder for Trump to claim that the Russian interference in U.S. elections is all ‘”fake news” although of course he may go right on claiming it. Evidence and facts are often irrelevant to him, such as when he spent years supporting claims that President Obama was not born in America. I think Trump might be the last person in America who kept saying the Russians didn’t try to interfere in the election.

I would not view this as a successful Russian intelligence operation, not least because they were caught. Overall, it was a very small and amateur effort. We don’t know from the indictment really if any people wound up protesting at all based on their activities. And — a point often missed by the Russians — protest is just a normal part of democracy so there’s a question as to whether it would matter. I don’t think many Americans really feel that the Russians mattered much here, but they’re angry at the interference just as Europeans are angry at the evidence of Russian disinformation in their countries. It was a very close election, but America passions and preferences made it close — not Russian activities of a handful of people and a tiny amount of money by campaign standards.

What is good about it is that it serves as an important wake-up call to take a hard look at regulating social media companies when it comes to political campaigning in America. Of course, we have guaranteed free speech under our Constitution, but there’s the famous saying that free speech ends when you stand up and yell fire in a crowded theater. So some regulation, especially under the laws that prohibit foreign actors from spending money on campaigning in US elections, need to be applied more carefully.

In the end, the Russian ads and actions were just a tiny fraction of the political fervor that rocked American in 2016.

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