Political warfare is back. The West is waking up to the realization that authoritarian states are seeking not only to weaken it, but also to intimidate, undermine, and coerce individuals, businesses, and institutions that obstruct or threaten their interests. Scholars have followed Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig’s work in describing China’s and Russia’s efforts to wield “sharp power” against their adversaries. What bears closer examination is just how much these efforts are guided by the countries’ intelligence and security services.
Moscow and Beijing have weaponized previously benign activities like diplomacy, investment flows, infrastructure development, foreign asset purchases, and media. University campuses have become battlegrounds of covert influence and interference. These activities complement more aggressive forms of political warfare operations, such as espionage, cyber-attacks, and intellectual property theft. For its part, the West at large gave up on political warfare operations after the end of the Cold War, complacently believing that the ideology that birthed them—communist authoritarianism—had been consigned to the “dustbin of history.”
Deterring, combatting, and defeating political warfare campaigns is critically important for the West. Failing to do so risks a further hollowing-out of what is left of the rules-based international order, a weakening of the West’s alliances and partnerships, and an emboldening of authoritarian regimes to undertake new and more dangerous campaigns. Yet one of the main difficulties of combatting political warfare efforts is willful ignorance compounding genuine ignorance.
Russia’s efforts are a case in point. Moscow’s campaign is often viewed as a matter solely of “online disinformation” and “fake news,” and studying and countering these phenomena have become a cottage industry for academics, NGOs, and think tanks. But like icebergs, which are mostly submerged, Russia’s strategy remains mostly out of popular view.
Operations in the information sphere represent just one of three legs of a “tripod” that supports Russia’s political warfare campaigns. These legs are:
- Disinformation and cyber: This leg of the tripod covers activities originating in (but not confined to) the digital realm. These include the seeding and propagation of disinformation intended to obscure, confuse, and demoralize, as well as hacking, doxing, and other offensive information operations.
- Financial: Large-scale international political influence operations require substantial financial resources. Since these activities are by their nature covert and to varying degrees deniable, the origin of the financing must be obscured. This is political money laundering.
- Human: This leg is the closest to traditional espionage, comprising the spotting, recruitment, and running of human agents. As will be explained below, the scope and definition of this activity has expanded considerably in recent decades, in ways that make counter intelligence challenging.
Disinformation and cyber
The first leg is the most novel, since it relies partly on technologies that did not exist 20 years ago. It is also the most accessible to study, because instances of disinformation can be identified and tracked. If there is a handy guide to this leg, it is the Mueller Report, which sets out how disinformation, abuse of personal data, botnets, hacking, and deniable distribution are used in combination.
It is important, however, to bear in mind that the modus operandi is likely to evolve. For example, in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, operations may shift from offshore (for example, the St Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency) to onshore (for example, within America’s borders). Counterintuitively, this may make it harder to identify and combat these efforts, as many of the perpetrators (some of them exploiting the First Amendment) will be U.S. citizens. The Trump Administration’s veto of democracy defense legislation, as well as Attorney General William Barr’s obsession with alleged improper Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) applications, can only embolden such adversaries.
Whereas conventional money laundering uses a series of layers to conceal a link to a predicate crime, the political variant employs similar layers to hide the link to a hostile state. Since money laundering laws target criminals, and since electoral legislation in most democracies is decades out of date, defenses against political money laundering are practically nonexistent. The UK’s Intelligence and Security Committee Report on Russia, which was suppressed before the recent General Election by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, is rumored to contain detailed information on how small and online donations were exploited by Russia.
Similarly, the lax control of small donations under the reporting threshold ($200 in the United States) potentially allows in tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in funds from cashless cards and cryptocurrency, which is subsequently diced into small sums by automated systems. Diamonds and other hard-to-trace commodities are also favorite conduits for illicit funding, while Political Action Committees (PACs, which are organizations that pool campaign donations) and PAC-like structures allow dark money to be deployed in media spending and other forms of support.
Anecdotal reports indicate that these funds often originate in a sort of tithe or zakat extracted from Russian businesses. When a Russian oligarch or business seeks to send large sums outside of the country, they must seek informal permission from the highest levels. If permission is granted, there is often a condition: that a certain percentage of the money must be set aside for “patriotic purposes.”
In a notional scenario, a Russian oil company might pay $1 billion for speculative oil blocks in West Africa. The vendor company would then distribute the proceeds back to the buyers via shell companies. But some of the funds—perhaps $100 million—would be used to finance campaigns, suborn individuals and set up front operations. This again shows the interpenetration of Russian business, crime and intelligence activities, and how almost every vector of contact with the West has been weaponized.
Like the financial leg, the human element is as old as espionage itself, although geopolitical, social, and technological changes in recent decades have opened up new opportunities. The end of the Cold War and the disappearance of the ideological divide is of limited relevance, contrary to popular belief: Russia still has the ambition of recruiting agents in the West, while the social, political, and moral barriers to accepting their blandishments have lowered.
One generation of Russian agents is still in play from the early 1990s. Some are citizens of the countries of the former Soviet Union and some are citizens of target countries. Other promising people have been recruited over decades. At lower levels, stooge-like citizens of target countries are recruited as couriers, fronts, launderers, access agents, and dogs-bodies. Typically such people are more endowed with vanity and ambition than with intellect, and the Mueller Report describes several of them. They are recruited by flattery, financial inducement, and sex. Behind such people, but far less visible, is usually a “kingpin” figure. These individuals are usually much more intelligent and experienced, and they are often dual citizens or have some demonstrable link to Russia.
Separately, it appears that there are also far more sophisticated networks of long-term influence agents. These individuals are often opinion formers: academics, political campaigners, and journalists. The locus of recruitment is first-division universities. While this is reminiscent of the so-called Cambridge Five, it differs in that the aim is not to penetrate intelligence organizations, but to shift public and elite sentiment.
We have been mostly talking about Russia, but Chinese intelligence has learned much from Moscow’s example. Beijing’s approach is distinct but not completely different, although its aims are less aggressive. (Whereas Moscow seeks to wreck Western democracies, Chinese objectives are more traditional ones of stealing information and technology, and understanding leadership intentions.) And just as our adversaries learn from each other, so should we.
The West needs to recognize, understand, and articulate the challenge it is facing. Many in Western capitals have not seriously thought about political warfare since the 1980s, and the people in these countries that did the thinking back in the day are retired or approaching retirement. Given these handicaps, we lack the intellectual framework both to perceive and to respond to political warfare operations. And we have limited capacity to grasp the strategy of our authoritarian adversaries as they probe the boundaries of acceptable peacetime behavior.
To collapse the “tripod” of Russia’s political warfare campaigns, all three legs must be dealt with. This will require new legislation that recognizes the nature of the threat and its modus operandi. Counterintelligence assumptions should be cleared of anachronisms (a trained and active foreign intelligence officer may never be identified in a specific case, and an intelligence operation is not defined by an attempt to recruit security officials or steal classified material) and domestic counterintelligence resources should be bolstered.
We need to re-establish or develop expertise in political warfare. This needs to occur at strategic, operational, and tactical levels across the civil and military wings of government. This requires increased depth in the range of professional experience across government, given the breadth of skills required for the identification and disruption of political subversives. This shift must be driven by political leadership—formalized in policy documents, given democratic oversight, codified in law, and appropriately resourced.
There is no need to re-invent the wheel—or at least, not yet. In a sense, we have been here before. It’s just high time we realize that fact.