Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election was not a sui generis event. Rather, it represents part of the country’s broader strategy toward the West, one that it has developed since Vladimir Putin first became the country’s president in 2000.
Just as President Donald Trump’s history in real estate shaped his worldview, biographies of Putin, such as Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy’s Mr. Putin and Masha Gessen’s The Man Without a Face, emphasize how the Russian president’s background as a KGB officer in the waning days of the Soviet Union shaped his political philosophy. As a former spy, they assert, Putin places a high value on espionage and intelligence as foreign-policy tools, and his governments have funded them accordingly.
Putin’s service in the KGB came at a pivotal moment not just in his own life—he joined in 1975, at age 22—but also for the Soviet Union. After training in Leningrad, he served in Dresden in East Germany from 1985 to 1990; when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Putin was leading the KGB’s office there and reportedly burned government documents to ensure that they would not fall into protestors’ hands. After his KGB service, Putin returned to Russia, serving as an adviser and later deputy chairman in the government of St. Petersburg before becoming part of the national government in Moscow.
As his biographers note, Putin’s trajectory through the government also inculcated in him antipathy toward democracy and the West. Where America and the West saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union as democratizing moments, to Putin, they ended his career and introduced chaos into a previously stable system. The 1990s, during which he sought to reestablish his foothold in Russian government, were marked by coup attempts, economic crises, and general political instability, which many in Russia—Putin by most accounts included—blamed on America and the West. As a result, it is no surprise that, since Putin assumed the presidency in 1999, his responses to major world events reflect a worldview that not only sees Western democracy as a geopolitical threat but also ascribes outside threats to Western democracy.
Putin’s tenures as president, as well as the four-year interregnum when he was prime minister, have seen popular uprisings undermine Russia’s influence abroad, followed by actions from Putin that reaffirm his antipathy toward popular protests and liberal democracy. These include not only the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia, the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and the 2005 Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan, which deposed or endangered pro-Kremlin leaders, but also the Arab Spring protests in the Middle East that began in 2010. Putin, ascribing these uprisings to the CIA and U.S.-backed non-government organizations, responded by expelling the Peace Corps and restricting foreign funding of NGOs in Russia.
Putin reportedly became further convinced that the U.S. was trying to undermine his authority in 2011. After that year’s parliamentary elections in Russia, Russian citizens went to the streets in mass demonstrations, protesting the results due to widespread allegations of voter fraud. When Hillary Clinton, then the U.S. Secretary of State, raised “serious concerns about the conduct of the election” and called for a “full investigation” into its legitimacy, Putin blamed her specifically for the protests. “She set the tone for some actors in our country and gave them a signal,” he said; “they heard the signal and with the support of the U.S. State Department began active work” to undermine him and his government.
Putin’s antipathy toward the West only increased after the 2014 Maidan Revolution in Ukraine. Though Putin was never shy about using force to subdue neighboring nations—the country launched cyber attacks in Estonia in 2007 and invaded Georgia in 2008—Russia’s actions against Ukraine in 2014 nevertheless marked a turning point. After Ukrainian citizens ousted the government’s notoriously corrupt pro-Putin leader Viktor Yanukovych, the Kremlin seized on the ensuing chaos to illegally annex Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and invade its Eastern Donbass region.
Russia’s attack on Ukraine took multiple forms. Along with the military occupation, Russia spread pro-Russian propaganda about the ongoing conflict through its state-run propaganda outlets, including the television networks RT and Sputnik, as well as Kremlin-linked bots and troll farms. Already, the Russian government had been financially supporting Yanukovych’s regime; after the invasion of Crimea, the Kremlin also began funding separatist groups in an attempt to solidify its hold over the region.
The West, including the U.S., retaliated to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine swiftly. Within two weeks of the invasion, the U.S. and several other countries sanctioned Russian state-backed institutions, including the energy giant Rosneft and the development bank Vnesheconombank, further angering Putin.
Two additional events may have contributed to Putin’s ire toward the U.S. and his decision to launch a campaign to disrupt the 2016 election. In 2012, the U.S. enacted the Magnitsky Act, a law sanctioning Russian human-rights abuses by cracking down on Russian oligarchs placing their money in the United States. By going after the very people whose support Putin’s power depends upon and whom he has promised to protect in exchange for that support, these sanctions represent a direct threat to Putin’s regime. As a result, their repeal has been the primary foreign policy objection for Russia and the Putin government has campaigned against both the law and its most visible proponent, the investor Bill Browder, who has suggested that Putin himself may have personally benefited from the financial crimes that led to the human-rights abuses that led to the Magnitsky Act’s passage—crimes the Kremlin denies happened in the first place.
Then, in May 2016, a group called the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists leaked thousands of documents from a Panamanian law firm showing how wealthy and corrupt individuals use shell corporations to hide their money from authorities. The leak revealed that one of Putin’s associates, the cellist Sergei Roldugin, owns a network of shell companies hiding roughly $2 billion, prompting speculation that Putin may have been using Roldugin to hide his personal fortune. The Kremlin’s response to the leak was to attack the project, known as the Panama Papers, as “an undisguised paid-for hack job” against Putin; privately, however, Putin reportedly again blamed Clinton for the threat to his personal wealth and power.
Hybrid Warfare in Action
Though Russia has not successfully invaded any more of its neighbors since 2014, the country has pursued many of the same tactics in its ongoing attack on Western democracies. The resulting strategy has been dubbed “Hybrid Warfare” or the “Gerasimov Doctrine” (after the Russian general Valery Gerasimov). One of the key pillars of this strategy is to utilize the openness of Western democracy to undermine governments from within.
The first part of the process is cultivating fringe movements and leaders in foreign countries. In recent years, the Kremlin has supported, financially and otherwise, candidates, parties, and causes in several countries. The clearest example of a Kremlin-backed political movement in a Western democracy is France’s National Front Party, whose leader Marine le Pen rode a crest of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant fervor to a second-place finish in the country’s 2017 parliamentary election—and which received loans of €11 million from the Kremlin-linked First Czech-Russian Bank in 2014. Le Pen not only continually praised Putin throughout her campaign but actually traveled to Moscow to meet with the Russian president in March. Other European political movements with links to the Russian government include Brexit and its chief advocate Nigel Farage; the far-right German party Alternative for Germany; the Freedom Party of Austria, which signed a cooperation agreement with Putin’s party to act as an intermediary between him and Trump; and the Catalan independence movement, which has received significant support from Russian trolls, bots, and state television.
Russia has also supported multiple political movements in the U.S. While most of the attention on the subject has gone to Putin’s support for Trump’s presidential campaign, there is also evidence that the Russian government has backed other fringe causes as well; for example, secessionist movements in both California and Texas have reportedly received boosts from Russian bots. Through the state-owned television station RT, Russia also de facto supported the left-wing Green Party during the 2016 election: Presidential candidate Jill Stein became one of the channel’s top commentators during the campaign, and was prominently featured as counter-programming to mainstream coverage of the presidential debates and election night.
Whether these parties, candidates, and causes were soliciting, or even aware of, Russia’s support, that support reflects Russia’s goals and the lengths to which the country will go to attain them. The common thread in the groups the country supports is not discrete policy goals but Russia’s attempts to co-opt the movements to undermine democratic institutions and traditional sources of stability in the West. The European nationalist parties the Kremlin supports frequently argue against their countries’ membership in the European Union and NATO; separatist movements threaten countries’ stability from within. Meanwhile, Jill Stein and the Green Party’s critique of American democracy—that the two-party system is inherently and irredeemably corrupt—fits nicely with Russia’s goal of ensuring Trump’s election in 2016.
The second component of Russian hybrid warfare involves weaponizing the Russian oligarchy to make Western politicians beholden to the Kremlin. As the Center for Strategic and International Studies report “The Kremlin Playbook: Understanding Russian Influence in Central and Eastern Europe” describes, the Russian government “has cultivated an opaque network of patronage across the region that it uses to influence and direct decision-making.” Under Putin, the Kremlin has developed a codependent relationship with the country’s oligarchs, many of whom accumulated their wealth through legally or ethically questionable means after the Soviet Union’s dissolution. The otherwise kleptocratic Kremlin allows these oligarchs to retain their wealth through the understanding that they will act on Putin’s behalf. Their duties in this regard range from elaborate displays of obeisance to, as “The Kremlin Playbook” explicates, developing corrupt financial relationships with democratic politicians throughout Central and Eastern Europe to assist Russia’s government in achieving its policy goals.
The third component of Russian hybrid warfare is exploiting the internet and social media to influence the voters themselves. The 2016 presidential election displayed many of the cyber tools that the Kremlin has on hand to carry out such an influence campaign. State-run media, such as RT and Sputnik, support the Kremlin’s favored candidate from platforms that, to those not aware of their provenance, are difficult to distinguish from mainstream news networks. Paid troll farms and bots spread and amplify messages on candidates’ behalf, even purchasing advertisements on social media. And hackers supported by the Russian government illegally gain access to opposing candidates’ emails and other files and leak damaging information through cut-outs like WikiLeaks.
Though the Kremlin tries to build plausible deniability into its techniques, such as by laundering leaks through third parties, and officially denies it interfered in the 2016 election, it has in other ways been more upfront about its cyber operations. For example, in February 2016, Andrey Krutskikh, a senior Kremlin adviser on cyber security, gave a speech at the country’s national information security forum that, in retrospect, eerily presages how Russia pursued its influence campaign in that year’s presidential election. Speaking to his Russian audience, Krutskikh reportedly said,
You think we are living in 2016. No, we are living in 1948. And do you know why? Because in 1949, the Soviet Union had its first atomic bomb test. And if until that moment, the Soviet Union was trying to reach agreement with [President Harry] Truman to ban nuclear weapons, and the Americans were not taking us seriously, in 1949 everything changed and they started talking to us on an equal footing. I’m warning you: We are at the verge of having ‘something’ in the information arena, which will allow us to talk to the Americans as equal.
Whether Krutskikh was specifically alluding to Russia’s efforts to meddle in the 2016 presidential election remains unknown. Nevertheless, his remarks speak to the Russian government’s willingness to pursue hybrid warfare against the West.