How Russia Decides to Go Nuclear
Deciphering the Way Moscow Handles Its Ultimate Weapon
With just days to go before the U.S. presidential election, Americans are once again scrolling through news feeds full of stories about foreign operations that seek to undermine their country’s electoral process. Some of the reports raise questions about whether the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump is politicizing these concerns—and the president himself has cast doubt on the integrity of the election. Americans are left wondering what to make of all the noise.
The good news is that the United States is better prepared to address many such threats than it was four years ago: its intelligence community, private companies, and independent researchers have met interference attempts with early detection, exposure, and countermeasures, and they have acted particularly effectively to secure U.S. election infrastructure. But Americans should be prepared for foreign actors to take some of their most significant actions in the days and weeks after Election Day—when the country may actually be most vulnerable.
Such a scenario has precedent. Russia interfered in the U.S. presidential election in 2016, according to the January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment, not simply to hurt one candidate and help another but also “to undermine public faith in the US democratic process.” To that end, if Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton had won, Russian officials “were prepared to publicly call into question the validity of the results” through statements and social media campaigns. Instead, Trump was announced the victor, and Moscow shifted gears to take advantage of a divided, and in some quarters outraged, American public.
Russia’s Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-linked company that executes influence operations, actually increased its activity after Election Day in 2016, according to a bipartisan report. And its activities weren’t confined to online. IRA operatives organized rallies both in support of President-elect Trump and in protest. One event, a Manhattan demonstration called “Trump Is NOT My President,” drew as many as 10,000 people to the streets.
This year’s election may leave the United States even more vulnerable to such manipulation. Americans have been primed—including by the president himself—to doubt the outcome of the election or to be enraged about its result. As a result, U.S. society may be all the more susceptible to foreign attempts to sow doubt about the integrity of the democratic process. By being prepared for this possibility, Americans can make sure that such efforts do not succeed.
Russia’s tactics have evolved since 2016, but so has the United States’ ability to detect and thwart them. The U.S. intelligence community has issued warnings about foreign interference throughout the 2020 election cycle. In August, Bill Evanina, the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC), assessed that Russia sought “to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden.” Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray later testified that Russia was “very active” in those efforts and others to sow “divisiveness and discord.”
The Treasury Department has already sanctioned several people linked with Russia for taking part in operations to interfere in the 2020 U.S. election. One of these is Andriy Derkach, a Ukrainian parliamentarian and Russian agent who attempted to launder information through intermediaries to spur investigations into Democratic nominee Joe Biden. A recent New York Post story about Biden’s son Hunter aired information of unclear provenance, renewing questions—and, reportedly, FBI investigations—about a potential Russian operation to sow disinformation, or to hack and then leak information, in order to undermine Biden.
Russian intelligence services—alongside the IRA—have continued trying to manipulate American voters using social media. Russian entities have created online journals in order to influence political opinion and then set about recruiting Americans and others to write for them. Russian operatives have honed this sort of outsourcing technique in part to evade detection. The IRA even ran a troll farm in Accra, Ghana, which largely focused on influencing Black Americans, until Ghanaian authorities shut it down in February 2020.
Russia has stepped up its cyber-activity, but in many cases, it has met with harder U.S. defenses than in the past.
Unlike in 2016, social media platforms have recently halted such operations before they could reach significant scale. Federal law enforcement provided the companies with tips on malicious foreign actors, allowing them to better identify and remove manipulative content. These companies have improved their policies, invested in detection, and worked with one another to remove information operations that use multiple platforms.
Russia has continued its cyber-activity, but in many cases, it has met with harder U.S. defenses than in the past. U.S. Cyber Command has expanded its efforts to identify and put a stop to foreign hacking operations. U.S. authorities were concerned that TrickBot, a large botnet linked to Russian-speaking cybercriminals, might employ ransomware on Election Day—but several private companies and the U.S. government took steps to remove it. Microsoft also reported that Russian hackers tried to infiltrate the Biden campaign and related entities, but without success.
More worrying, the FBI and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) jointly warned on October 22 that Russian hackers had penetrated some state and local government networks. There is no evidence that election data have been compromised or that these hacks allow access to voting systems, but the fact of such access could be used to create doubt about the integrity of the election process.
In 2020, Russia is no longer the only foreign actor seeking to influence U.S. politics. Two others have entered the fray, bringing strategies and intentions of their own: Iran and China.
In a hastily called news conference on October 21, U.S. officials announced that Iran, masquerading as a white supremacist group, had sent a spate of threatening emails to Democratic voters in several states. They also announced that Iran—along with Russia—had obtained U.S. voter information, though much of that information is publicly available. The development suggests that Iran has escalated its interference operations, which also include a handful of small-scale social media activities. The FBI, CISA, and independent experts assess that Iran’s goals are to “sow discord among voters and undermine public confidence in the U.S. electoral process.”
By contrast, China aims less to influence the election or undermine confidence in it than to more broadly “shape the policy environment in the United States, pressure political figures it views as opposed to China’s interests, and deflect and counter criticism of China,” according to NCSC Director Evanina. Microsoft has identified Chinese and Iranian attempts to hack the Biden and Trump campaigns, respectively, but whether these actors sought material for hack-and-leak operations or for espionage (as China has done in the past) was not clear.
Just as new reports of foreign interference have emerged, so too have concerns that political motives are coloring their public characterization. In September 2020, a whistleblower from the Department of Homeland Security alleged that senior officials had pressured the department to “cease providing intelligence assessments on the threat of Russian interference in the United States, and instead start reporting on interference activities by China and Iran.” Many observers wondered if such dynamics lay behind last week’s press conference on the Iranian intimidation emails. John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence, claimed that Iran’s intention was to hurt President Trump—a seeming contradiction of other U.S. government assessments—and he seemed intent on highlighting the threat from Iran over that from Russia.
Distrust in the information and the processes that undergird American democracy is a deep and consequential problem, both in itself and because of the vulnerability it creates. Ultimately, the success of foreign interference operations depends in large part on the receptivity of the societies they seek to influence. On that score, Americans are doing their adversaries’ work for them. Foreign actors can easily cast doubt on democratic institutions when domestic actors do the same—including by making spurious claims about voter fraud or problems with mail-in voting. Evanina of the NCSC warned that Russian outlets have amplified those claims, some of which have come from the U.S. president.
The United States is today even more divided than it was four years ago.
The United States is today even more divided than it was four years ago. The country is struggling to find its footing during a mismanaged pandemic. Foreign actors that thrive on division and suspicion need only exacerbate what Americans are doing to themselves. They don’t need to manufacture content in order to upend U.S. politics with corrosive narratives that undermine trust in democratic institutions and belief in the existence of truth: domestic actors are doing that already. Two recent studies found Trump to be the primary driver of disinformation on both mail-in voting and COVID-19, with significant assistance, on the former, from the mainstream news media.
The result of all this manipulation and obfuscation is to deprive American voters of clear information regarding the threats to their democracy; to further divide the country and therefore leave it more vulnerable; and to render the problem that much more difficult to confront.
American democracy is vulnerable. But as the country heads into what’s likely to be a period of uncertainty, voters should be assured that the country has taken significant measures to protect the voting process itself. CISA has emphasized that an attack on election infrastructure could only slow, not prevent, voting. Evanina stressed in an August 2020 statement that “it would be difficult for our adversaries to interfere with or manipulate voting results at scale.” And as Larry Norden and Derek Tisler recently laid out on this site, the work that has gone into making the 2020 election secure “should reassure Americans of the prospect that this fall’s election will be free and fair.”
But the danger will not have passed when voters go home—on the contrary, the post-election moment may be the most precarious. The process to determine a victor could be delayed, confused, or contested. Trump has already refused to commit to accepting the results or to a peaceful transfer of power. Foreign actors could amplify doubts about the election’s integrity and even provide fodder to those who seek to sow suspicion of its outcome. Indeed, the FBI and CISA have warned that foreign adversaries could potentially “spread disinformation suggesting successful cyber operations have compromised election infrastructure,” even if they have not, or spread disinformation about the results. According to The New York Times, officials are concerned that having penetrated state and local election infrastructure, Russia could “sow chaos and doubts about the integrity of the results,” particularly in races that are too close to call or if the presidential race is not called on election night.
By creating the impression that the election lacks integrity, such a move would cast doubt on the result and undermine the legitimacy of the victor in voters’ eyes. And if Americans take to the streets of their own accord in the days after the election, foreign actors could seek to exploit post-election outrage by provoking violence. Earlier this year, The New York Times reported that the FBI was concerned about such provocations.
Tactics such as these succeed only when they encounter a public willing to question the results of their elections. Unfortunately, the United States may be just such a place in 2020. Domestic actors—including the president—have sown doubt about the election’s integrity. Moreover, Americans have been hearing about the threat of foreign interference for years, even while learning little about the steps their government has taken to mitigate such concerns.
This undermining of faith in democratic institutions may be the most insidious aspect of foreign interference. Indeed, Wray, the FBI director, recently told Congress that loss of voter confidence, fueled in part by information operations and cyberattacks from abroad, poses the greatest threat to U.S. election security today.
The horserace of foreign interference operations—which country is favoring whom and by how much—can be engrossing, even distracting. But as the United States approaches a possibly chaotic period in the history of its democracy, Americans should remember above all that the goal of foreign interference is to make them lose confidence in democracy itself. They must refuse to let that happen.
Cyberattacks and COVID-19 Still Threaten the Vote, but States Are Prepared for Both