Reports October 3, 2018

The Origins of Russia’s Broad Political Assault on the United States

On January 6, 2017, the U.S. intelligence community released a declassified assessment to the public confirming what most had already suspected: Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election.1 Since the intelligence community released its assessment, the public has learned a great deal about this assault from the special counsel investigation, press reporting, and declassified intelligence. Based on analysis of available material, it has become increasingly clear when, how, and why Russia launched the campaign against American democracy. It is evident that there was a surge of activity intended to influence the American electorate and political institutions that originated in 2014 as a counterresponse to the U.S.-led international isolation of Russia following its intervention in Ukraine.

To be clear, Russia’s use of political weaponry against the United States extends further back than just 2014. In fact, a 1981 U.S. State Department Special Report defined Soviet active measures as “operations intended to affect other nations’ policies, as distinct from espionage and counterintelligence,” but not including the legitimate tools of public diplomacy.2 The 1981 report highlights many of the same instruments that Russia uses today, including disinformation, controlling foreign media, deploying front groups, using blackmail, and engaging in political-influence operations.3

Despite Russia’s history of interference, however, it is apparent that in 2014, Russia launched a distinct and multifaceted campaign to undermine and influence the American democratic process. The goals of this campaign are clear:

  • To sow political and social discord in the United States;
  • To undermine and challenge the American and Western democratic system as a model to emulate for transitioning democracies; and
  • To foster ties and support among powerful voices within the party that Russian hawks have traditionally dominated, with the aim to soften that party’s stance.

This campaign, which is still ongoing, consists of five mutually reinforcing lines of effort (LOE):

LOE 1: The deployment of information warfare;

LOE 2: The use of cyberoperations;

LOE 3: The courting of influential voices within the American conservative movement;

LOE 4: The support for extreme and destabilizing political movements; and

LOE 5: The direct targeting of voters.

When examining these separate lines of influence, a clear pattern emerges: All five LOEs either commenced or accelerated in 2014 and early 2015. That all of these LOEs began at about the same time suggests that there was a moment following the Ukraine crisis when a specific decision was made to deploy a far-reaching campaign across multiple fronts. Taken as a whole, this reveals a much broader—and more coordinated—effort than has previously been understood.