The Ordinary and Unique in Russia’s Electoral Information Warfare Game


Vladimir Putin has been busy this summer and the name of the game is information warfare. One of the most recent episodes is a Russian-sponsored disinformation campaign targeting Sweden. The operation involved the dissemination of false stories regarding the consequences for Sweden of entering into a military partnership of some sort with NATO. The fabrications included NATO’s intention of stockpiling nuclear weapons on Swedish soil, exemptions that would allow U.S. soldiers to commit heinous crimes free from prosecution, and more. The obvious objective is to sow mistrust between Sweden and NATO in an effort to weaken and limit the reach of the alliance.

Earlier this summer on the other side of the Atlantic, Russia embarked on a different kind of information warfare: Interference in a U.S. presidential election. In July, evidence emerged that Russia hacked the servers of the Democratic National Committees, turning over roughly 20,000 e-mails to Wikileaks, which promptly published the materials online. One likely motivation for the hack, assuming that it was indeed a state-sponsored intrusion by Russia (which seems likely), was to undermine Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign by embarrassing top Democratic officials and furthering the image that Clinton — and the political apparatus supporting her — are corrupt and untrustworthy. The timing of the hack lends credence to this sort of motivation.

Russia’s attempts at information warfare, especially the efforts to influence the presidential election, are certainly cause for concern. But it is important that we take a step back and ask whether the conditions rendering this kind of operation desirable and feasible are something we can expect from Russia in the future or if this is something closer to an aberration. My money’s on the latter.

Meet the New Electoral Manipulation, Same as the Old Electoral Manipulation

The first thing to note about Russia’s use of information warfare and electoral interference more broadly is that the tactic, if not the target, is nothing new. As students of intelligence and security studies know well, these kinds of covert operations — propaganda, deception, and political action — were practiced regularly by the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War as a means of swaying elections, changing hearts and minds, and the like. The scale and scope of this behavior, examined in a recent article by Don Levin, is striking:

Between 1946 and 2000, the United States and the USSR/Russia intervened [to manipulate foreign elections] 117 times, or, put another way, in about one of every nine competitive national-level executive elections during this period.

Of the 117 electoral interventions that Levin identifies, the United States was actually the worse offender, having intervened in two-thirds of these cases.

The rough contours of American and Soviet interference in Chile throughout the 1960s and early 1970s provides a small window into what some of these episodes looked like. The Central Intelligence Agency used propaganda and channeled millions of dollars to the Christian Democrats during the 1964 elections in an effort to ensure that Eduardo Frei, rather than Salvador Allende, attained the presidency. After Allende’s popular victory in September 1970 (but before Chile’s Congress formally elected him) the Nixon administration embarked on a two-pronged strategy, one of which involved fomenting a military coup. The Soviets provided money and support to Allende, their preferred candidate, before and after his election as president.

This kind of electoral interference was not strictly confined to relatively weaker countries in the developing world. To take one prominent example from Western Europe, the United States covertly interfered in Italy’s national elections in 1948 in order to reduce the number of seats won by left-leaning parties. The Soviets reciprocated by providing support to the Popular Front.

It is certainly true, of course, that electoral manipulation and information warfare in particular may be easier than ever in the digital age. Spreading disinformation on the Internet or stealing and disseminating troves of private e-mail correspondence by hacking into servers is a relatively new phenomenon. Nevertheless, while the tools available to states interested in interfering in foreign elections may have evolved, the overall interest in doing it far predates the digital age.

Trump as Motive

A second, and perhaps more important, thing to note about Russia’s use of information warfare in this election cycle is that 2016 may be something of a rare bird. The specific nature of the two candidates running for president provides Putin with a powerful motive to do information warfare as well as an unprecedented opportunity to hope for some measure of success. These conditions, which may be quite unique, aren’t all that likely to recur anytime in the near future.

Let’s begin with Donald Trump. Put simply, a Trump presidency would likely represent a net gain for Russia, providing Putin with a potent incentive to undertake information operations to try and tip the election in Trump’s favor. As is well known by now, Trump famously claimed that he would “get along very well” with the Russian strongman. In early July, the Trump team reportedly proposed that if elected president, he would not provide arms to the Ukrainian government in order to combat Russian and Russian-backed rebel forces, “contradicting the view of almost all Republican foreign policy leaders in Washington.”

The Obama administration’s current policy has the United States providing no more than training and non-lethal support to Ukraine. But there is no indication Trump is even interested in continuing that, particularly in light of his bizarre remarks in late July, in which he said, “[Putin’s] not going to go into Ukraine, all right? You can mark it down. You can put it down. You can take it anywhere you want.” At the very least, if Putin is interested in backing a candidate that is presently and firmly committed to giving him free rein in Ukraine, Trump is clearly the safer choice.

Trump’s apparent pro-Russian statements and policy platforms extend far beyond Ukraine and Crimea. Perhaps most strikingly, Trump appeared to cast doubt on whether the United States, under his leadership, would automatically come to the aid of its NATO allies. Instead, Trump intimated that the provision of support might be contingent on whether members “have fulfilled their obligations” to the United States. While there remain open questions about whether Trump is truly Putin’s puppet, it is relatively clear that the Republic nominee, at least relative to his Democratic competitor, would benefit Russia.

Clinton as Opportunity

The prospect of a Trump presidency provides Putin with a powerful motive for electoral intervention. But motive alone is not enough. In order to be successful, information warfare also requires the right opportunity. The information has to resonate with the intended audience. That’s where Hillary Clinton comes in. Since the beginning of her campaign, Clinton has faced significant trust issues. Polls taken in late June found that 62 percent of voters saw Clinton as dishonest and untrustworthy and that number climbed to somewhere between 67 percent and 68 percent by July.

Regardless of whether one views them as legitimate or illegitimate, the sources of Clinton’s untrustworthiness are many and varied. They include the controversy surrounding Benghazi, her use of a private e-mail server during her tenure as secretary of state (as well as inconsistencies between her statements and FBI Director James Comey’s), Bill Clinton’s private visit to Attorney General Loretta Lynch in the midst of the e-mail investigation, and more.

My purpose in pointing out some of the major factors contributing to Clinton’s trust issues is not to throw support behind her critics. Neither, however, is my purpose to exonerate Clinton. Rather, my point is simply that the deep mistrust surrounding her campaign afforded Putin a unique opportunity to leverage the leaked DNC emails to fan the flames of voters’ skepticism about the Democratic nominee and the Democratic party more generally. Counterfactually, were Clinton deemed more trustworthy, the information warfare game Russia is playing — e.g. disseminating embarrassing information about Clinton and the Democratic Party — might not have resonated nearly as widely or as quickly as it did.

Whether Putin’s strategy has meaningfully contributed to a worsening of Clinton’s trust issues — or, more significantly, whether it will actually sway the election — is an open question and one that scholars and practitioners alike should take seriously.

The Weaponization of Information

The foregoing discussion has significant implications for how we understand and talk about the “weaponization of information” as a form of statecraft. Information warfare of the sort Russia is practicing today is more dangerous than it otherwise would be during another, more “normal” U.S. election. Not only does Putin have powerful incentives to back one candidate over another, but he also has a prime opportunity to spread the gospel of one candidate’s untrustworthiness to an audience that is predisposed to listen.

It is worth pointing out, however, that unlike some previous episodes of covert electoral interference, we are aware of (at least some of) what Russia’s been up to in real time rather than in retrospect. Furthermore, much of this activity is available in the open source environment. All of this creates a unique opportunity for U.S. officials and other interested parties to devise targeted solutions that might actually help to mitigate, and even guard against, some of the most potentially-damaging Russian activities.

Should the United States make it through this experience relatively unscathed, there is a silver lining: The 2016 cocktail — a pro-Russian candidate like Donald Trump on one side against a candidate with profound  trust issues like Hillary Clinton— is unlikely to be replicated in futureU.S. elections. As has been thoroughly documented, “Americans’ distaste for both Trump and Clinton is record-breaking.” While that’s relatively bad news for American democracy this go around, Russia’s capacity to influence U.S. elections has probably already peaked.


Michael Poznansky is an Assistant Professor of International Affairs and Intelligence Studies in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. Poznansky holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Virginia. You can follow him on Twitter: @m_poznansky.