Home / Articles / Is Russia Undermining Democracy in the West? Conference Report
On March 14, 2019, the Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy hosted a conference titled “Is Russia Undermining Democracy in the West?” as a part of its year-long “Democracy in Trouble?” series. Panelists from the military, government, and academic communities participated. The Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), the Department of Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Penn-Temple European Studies Consortium co-sponsored the conference. The day-long conference consisted of three panel discussions and closing remarks.
The first panel focused on Russia’s motivation for destabilizing Western democracies and the role that Moscow and Washington played in undermining democratic institutions. There was consensus that Russia has undercut democracy in the West. However, panelists disagreed on the degree to which ideology or strategic interests drove Russian involvement in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The second panel explored the usage of the word “cyberwar” in the context of Russian attacks on Western elections. Panelists agreed that the use of the word “war” helped to capture attention and resources. Yet, it was clear by the end of the panel that Washington had not yet set proper boundaries, definitions, and responsibilities in the cyber space.
The third panel explained Russia’s strategic successes and failures since 2014. Panelists highlighted Russia’s success in the “Global South” as an achievement and included a longer list of missteps. Namely, Russia’s interference in the West backfired, the Kremlin lost Ukraine, and Russia’s economic prospects deteriorated vis-à-vis the West.
In the concluding remarks, the speakers noted that it was evident Russian interference undermined democracy in the West by destabilizing institutions and polarizing societies. A unifying theme emerged by the end of the conference: Western democratic governments had to strengthen their domestic institutions to protect against adversaries eager to exploit weaknesses.
Panel I: Is Russia Undermining Democracy in the West?
Panelists: Michael Carpenter, Marlene LaRuelle, Samuel Charap, Nikolas Gvosdev
Moderator: Mitchell Orenstein
The first panel, titled, “Is Russia Undermining Democracy in the West?,” featured government and academic perspectives on Russia’s interference in Western democracy. Dr. Michael Carpenter, a Senior Director of the Penn Biden Center and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, was first to speak on Russia’s attacks against Western democracy. Dr. Carpenter argued that it is “indisputable” that Russia is systematically attempting to harm Western democracies and alliances. He explained how Russia has used three main tools to achieve this aim while experiencing varying degrees of success: 1) military force, 2) unconventional methods, and 3) active measures. The Ukrainian and Georgian invasions taught Russia that military force is less effective than unconventional and active measures (e.g., cyber, information warfare, dark money, and the weaponization of corruption). For Carpenter, Russia’s subversive measures were most effective in the 2016 U.S. election campaign. According to him, Russia’s increased risk-taking has progressed in three main phases with five primary drivers. The first phase of progressive risk-taking came after Vladimir Putin rose to power. This marked the beginning of attacks on institutions and liberal democratic norms within Russian borders. The next phase occurred during Russia’s 2007 and 2008 attacks on Estonia and Georgia, respectively. During the third phase, Russia decided to oppose the West across areas where it believes it has an asymmetric advantage. Five drivers account for this: 1) Putin’s consolidation of power, 2) the reconfiguration of power resources and balance of power, 3) fear of revolution and the threat of liberal democratic norms undermining the legitimacy of the Putin regime, 4) the so-called Putin doctrine (continuous political warfare as necessary to confront the West), and 5) the advent of new technologies like social media and Western countries’ cyber and campaign finance vulnerabilities.
Marlene LaRuelle, a Research Professor and Associate Director at George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs, spoke next on how to better frame Russian interference in the West. Ms. LaRuelle argued that the title of the panel is misguided for three main reasons. First, she would like the West to think of democracy in more concrete and practical terms instead of the abstract and theoretical view that it has adopted. This changes the context and perception of Russia’s interference. Second, she stated that the real issue is not Russia, but the interpretation of the West. For LaRuelle, the West has co-created the Russia that exists today. Transforming Russia would mean transforming the West and the function of the liberal order. Her third qualm with the panel’s title is that it assumes the West is a victim and passive actor. According to LaRuelle, the way that the U.S. elected President Trump had more to do with a dysfunctional U.S. political system and Silicon Valley than Russia. Her last point was that Russian media can change opinions, but that there is no evidence of that in other countries outside of the U.S. While she acknowledged that Russia intends to undermine democracy, her central point was that Russia is not the core issue. Instead, the West’s lack of introspection about democracy has been the United States’ main problem.
The third panelist was Dr. Samuel Charap, a Senior Political Scientist at RAND Corporation and former Senior Advisor to the Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security. He addressed Russia’s intentions with U.S. politics and how to stop them. Dr. Charap explained how the term “Russia” encapsulates a multitude of actors, including the government, intelligence agencies, and government-friendly private agencies like the Troll Farm Research Agency. For Charap, Putin may or may not have ordered all the interference actions in the 2016 U.S. election. Regardless, Dr. Charap said Putin had the power to stop any activity, but refrained. He explained how a highly centralized Russian government with weak institutions means Putin’s top-down decision-making is not always executed. Putin’s own audit chamber said that the government only implements approximately 30% of his orders. Despite this dysfunction, the U.S. intelligence community has a high confidence that Putin ordered the 2016 election interference campaign. Dr. Charap believes that to argue that the campaign was controlled from the highest level of the Kremlin, one needs to prove that this decision-making process was unique. Since it appears most decisions do not come from the top, the Kremlin must have operated abnormally in its interference in the 2016 U.S. election. According to Dr. Charap, to argue that Russia was determined to undermine democracy rests on two assumptions. First, the Russian elite believe the U.S. is a true democracy, and second, the U.S. regime represents a threat to Russia. Dr. Charap doubts that both assumptions are true. In terms of the former, Russian elite believe democracy is more of a smokescreen for the interests of the elite. If the latter were true, then Russia would attack democracies globally (e.g., India), but this does not seem to occur. While Russia may have had a lesser mandate to undermine Western democracy, he believes Russian interference has been more about Russia pursuing its interests. In terms of actionable responses to mitigate this future threat, Dr. Charap proposes better regulation of social networks, justifiable sanctions, and negotiation of some sort of mutual restraint in cyber-attacks.
Nikolas Gvosdev, a Professor at the U.S. Naval War College and a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, was the last panelist to speak on Russia’s motivation to interfere in Western democracy. Dr. Gvosdev argued that while there may be some ideological components at stake in Russia undermining democracy in the West, Russia primarily views interference as a tool to accomplish its strategic interests. For Dr. Gvosdev, Russia’s grand strategy encompasses a rejection of agenda-making from the West. The Kremlin views the international system in zero-sum terms. Russia is less concerned about regime type (authoritarian versus democratic) and more concerned with how a foreign power advances its strategic interests. While many governments that advance Russia’s interests tend to be authoritarian, this is not always the case. Dr. Gvosdev cited Poland, Ukraine, and Georgia as examples of governments that have turned less democratic, yet still maintain strained relationships with Russia. In addition, the democratic countries that Russia allies itself with tend to be non-Western. For Dr. Gvosdev, non-Western democracies’ (e.g., Japan or India) restraint in exporting their model of democracy as universal is a primary driver. What’s more, Russia does not view non-Western democracies as a threat because the Kremlin views them as predictable and consistent. Dr. Gvosdev concluded with the case study of the 2018 Armenian color revolution. While the Velvet Revolution was pro-democratic, it also remained pro-Russian. Unlike other color revolutions in post-Soviet countries, Russia did not ultimately intervene. Since Moscow could maintain its economic strategic interests, it was indifferent to an autocratic or democratic Armenia. This is evidence of Dr. Gvosdev’s overarching point that Russia seeks opportunities to advance its strategic interests versus ideological ambitions.
Panel II: Have Elections Become Cyberwars?
Panelists: Kathleen Hall and Clint Watts
Moderator: John Haines
In the second panel, “Have Elections Become Cyberwars?,” panelists discussed the framing of cyberwar in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and recommended U.S. responses.
John Haines, co-Chair of the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, moderated the second panel. He began by explaining how the attacks against the U.S. during the 2016 presidential election campaign show that weaker adversaries are stronger than they seem. Haines described how Russian officers have used social media as a preferred hacking tool to engage in a wide and narrow disinformation campaign. However, to Haines, it is unclear whether this changed votes or the decision to vote. He articulated how Russian intelligence excels at perceived capabilities beyond the factual. Russia uses social media platforms, technology, and research agencies for its operations. According to Haines, cyberwar—defined by Richard Clark as “actions by a nation-state to penetrate another nation’s computers or networks for the purposes of causing damage or disruption”—is the appropriate word to use in the context of the 2016 election. However, in the context of the conference, the word war may be misused because competition in the cyber realm is below armed conflict. For Haines, one could call it cyberoperations instead. While the tools of Russia’s tradecraft may have modernized with the advent of new technologies, the U.S. is experiencing the psychological warfare and propaganda campaigns of the past, repeated with greater scale and speed. Haines emphasized how Russia has exploited political polarization in the U.S. with techniques to drive disinformation. Social media has made it easy to encourage users to click and visit other websites, and Russia has found ways to spread information without even needing to create new content.
Dr. Kathleen Hall, a Professor of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President, was the first panelist to speak on the rhetoric surrounding Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election. Dr. Hall argued that framing Russia’s actions during the presidential election as cyberwar is useful to prevent repeat activity and to arm the U.S. against it. As a scholar of rhetoric, Dr. Hall was alarmed at the words used to describe Russia’s actions and believes that the media downplayed events. Instead of words like “mettle, interfere, or intervene,” Hall advocated for a stronger construct to ignite a stronger response. Dr. Hall also explored the concept of war as a construct. She explained how the U.S. labels certain activities as war because it may be ideologically or politically convenient. Citing the war on drugs and poverty, she explained how war metaphors shape the way people engage and respond to actions. Dr. Hall believes that the claim that Russia attacked the United States’ critical infrastructure in the 2016 election is not off base and falls within the boundary of war. In her book, Hall argues that it is probable Russia’s hacking in the 2016 election affected the outcome. According to Dr. Hall, to prevent this type of activity in the future, the U.S. should frame Russia’s actions as cyberwar to elicit a stronger response.
Clint Watts, a Distinguished Research Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, expanded on Dr. Kathleen Hall’s framing of war. Mr. Watts explained how the U.S. calls certain activities war that are not armed conflicts such as the war on opioids to ensure people respond with attention and resources. Americans like the war context because it frames a battle between sides. Watts does not support the war construct because it does not define the battlefield or delegate governmental responsibility. He posed the rhetorical question, “When did Coke stop advertising?,” to stress the need for the U.S. to continuously endorse democracy at home and abroad in the face of Russian influence. Watts explained how Russia successfully hacked to empower its influence and conducted full spectrum social media disinformation to reach its strategic objectives. According to Watts, people can see the former as an act of war, and it is clear that Russia needs to know where the boundary line exists. He believes the military should not be responsible for countering Russian interference in the election “battlefield.” As a society, the U.S. needs to consider structural and cultural ways to strengthen itself to ensure similar Russian influence as seen in 2016 is not as effective in 2020.
Panel III: Is Russia’s Strategy Working or Backfiring?
Panelists: Robert Hamilton, Alina Polyakova, and Rudra Sil
Moderator: Anna Mikulska
Dr. Robert Hamilton, an Associate Professor of Eurasian Studies at the US Army War College and Black Sea Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, opened the panel by arguing that despite widespread discussion of a resurgent Russia, perceptions of Russia in the West, its economic prospects, and security have actually worsened in the last five years. According to a Pew Report, favorable perception of Russia by the Western public dropped from 50 percent in 2011 to 27 percent in the recent years. Putin’s foreign policy “wins” were no longer readily available and may be unable to boost his reputation in the future. Russia’s economic prospects were negatively impacted by the combined effect of Western sanctions, oil prices, and unreformed Russian economy. GDP growth has been anemic, and Russian attempts at attracting foreign direct investment may be hindered further by the arrest of U.S. investor Michael Calvey. Dr. Hamilton argued that although Russia is militarily stronger today, Russia is less secure than in the 1990s. Today, NATO sees Russia as an adversary and is deploying 4,000 troops from 22 NATO countries to Baltics and Poland. Moreover, NATO is taking a larger interest in Georgia and Ukraine and has sold Javelin anti-tank missiles to both. Yet, Russia’s foreign policy moves are popular within Russia and are characterized as a justifiable reaction to Western attempts at undermining the country. It is believed the West can no longer ignore Russia, and it must be reckoned with in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and at home. He concluded that, at this point, the West should only manage Russia rather than attempt to fix it.
Dr. Alina Polyakova, David M. Rubenstein Fellow at the Brookings Institution and Adjunct Professor at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at the Johns Hopkins University, began her remarks by stating that even though Russia believed it had won the conflict vis-à-vis the West by entering the global stage and challenging U.S. power in the world, its wins were really a mixed bag. She started with Putin’s successes, including Russia’s growing economic and military cooperation with China. Though Russia alone could not challenge the West, both Russia and China together could seriously affect the Western liberal order. Another success was Russia’s intervention in Syria, which had changed the entire conflict, undermined U.S. interests, and kept Assad in power. Russia’s working relationship with Syria, Iran, Turkey, and Israel was another successful foreign policy. Russia believes it can manage conflicts in the Middle East. As for Russia’s failures, although Crimea had mobilized Russian nationalism, allowed Russian military to gain on-the-ground experience, and exposed the weaknesses of the Western alliance, Russia had lost Ukraine. Now, the Ukrainian population is discussing the possibility of joining NATO and not a single candidate in the Ukrainian elections is proposing a foreign policy moving away from the West. Russian influence in Western democracies had also been damaged. The Western sanctions and increasing scrutiny on Russian money laundering make it harder not only for influence buying, but also for Russian intelligence to function. The British reaction to the attempted poisoning of Sergei Skripal was more severe than the polonium poisoning of a former Russian security services officer back in 2006. Moreover, Western sanctions will prevent Russia from developing long-term technological capabilities in the military sphere. Russia has reached only subpar equilibrium, and it has not won. Dr. Polyakova concluded that the U.S. lacked a strategy to deal with Russia beyond the failed integration of Russia into Western institutions, resetting relations, and sanctions.
Dr. Rudra Sil, Professor at the Ronald O. Perelman Center for Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania and the SAS Director of the Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business, argued that big shifts taking place globally were forcing Russia to make structural adjustments that may work in its favor. The downturn after 2014 created a set of constraints that pushed Russia to make necessary changes. He agreed that Russia’s strategy backfired in the West, but argued that conditions were being set for Russia’s most significant reorientation since the time of Peter the Great. He began with the Russia-China foreign policy alignments, which are building foundations for long-term cooperation. He argued that in the future, action would be concentrated in India and China as the West declines. The West has accounted for 80 percent of the world’s economy, but is heading towards 35 percent today. The West also used to be the population center, but by 2050, it will account for only 10 percent of the world’s population. An institution such as BRICS was a signal to the rest of the world, mainly to the Global South, that there were non-Western ways of organizing the economy. Dr. Sil pointed towards the 30-year Russia-China gas deal worth $400 billion as a move indicating long-term cooperation in a world where demographic and economic action would concentrate in the Global South. Domestically, Russia was being forced to make tough choices. It was trying to solve its energy dependence problem and adjusting its petrostate structure to protect its economy from oil price fluctuations. Putin is making hard decisions with regards to scattered monoeconomy towns all over Russia, housing, investment, research, and education. His administration introduced unpopular, pro-capitalist, and pro-World Bank reforms, including pension reform. Although Russia will not equally compete with the West, these changes will keep Russia competitive. Moscow is creating conditions for economic development in the future.
Panelists: Adrian Basora, Claire Finkelstein, and Mitchell Orenstein
Dr. Claire Finkelstein, Professor of Law and Philosophy and the Director of the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law, began the concluding remarks by expressing her interest in the debate over Russian motivation to interfere: was it driven by ideology or by attempts to protect its kleptocracy? She explored whether Russian motivations for interfering in and undermining democracies mattered at all when the result was the same—undermined democracy. By using the recent college admissions scandal as an analogy, she asked whether the parents (Russia) wanted to undermine the admissions process (democracy) as their end goal or whether the undermining of the process was just a by-product of trying to achieve their interests (protecting kleptocracy)? Finkelstein mentioned that another panelist argued corruption and realpolitik as the motivators, but she thought that seeking self-enrichment through democratic processes was a form of an ideological attack. She argued corruption imperiled democracy since corruption directly attacked the rule of law, which was at the heart of the Western-style democracy.
Ambassador Adrian Basora, co-Chair of the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, argued that there were two motivations for Russia to undercut democracy in the West: geopolitical and threats posed by democracy and transparency. The takeaway from the conference for him was that Russia was actively working to and succeeding in undermining democracy in the West. In his opinion, Russia’s actions have harmed democracy in the U.S. and Europe for two reasons: 1) Russia helped to elect President Donald Trump and 2) Russia systematically undercut key democratic institutions, such as courts, Congress, and independent press. Moscow has strengthened anti-democratic tendencies, movements, and leaders, such as Erdogan in Turkey, Le Pen in France, Farage and Brexit in the United Kingdom. Moreover, Russia’s disinformation campaign accelerated trends such as racism, anti-Semitism, and tribalism. Populists harnessed these sentiments to move towards authoritarian governments. U.S. democracy was affected by gridlock and Trump’s trade war with democratic countries in Europe weakened Western alliances and damaged the U.S. image abroad. In his opinion, the U.S. should be encouraging democracies where there is genuine local demand for democracy.
Dr. Mitchell Orenstein, Senior Fellow in the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and Professor and Chair of Russian and Eastern European Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, listed three overarching issues: 1) Russian motives, 2) effects of what transpired in the U.S. and abroad, and 3) long-term implications. He highlighted differing thoughts on the motivations: realist foreign policy, quasi-ideological, or economic (corruption). In his opinion, Russia perceived itself as under attack by Western actions in Eastern Europe, and it thus wanted to disable the West from within to protect itself. As for the effects, the key impact was polarization of societies, which impeded military actions against Russia. Russia created conditions that made it difficult for democratic governments to exist. Polarization has elevated corrupt leaders since in a polarized environment, they could balance both sides well. Russia or the EU will pour money to secure loyalty, and the corrupt oligarchs will play both sides. As for long-term repercussions, the conflict will only intensify. Whatever the West does to push back will motivate Russia to push forward. According to Dr. Orenstein, we have entered a “crisis period” with no possibility of backing down.
Dr. Finkelstein followed with a list of three points. The first was to caution against focusing solely on Russia as other countries also engage in foreign interference. She highlighted Saudi influence attempts, such as paying veterans to lobby against the state-sponsor of terrorism bill and releasing booklets propagating the Saudi point of view. The U.S. must think about how to secure democracy against “all sorts of foreign interference.” She said that strengthening the foreign registration act is not enough. Her second point was that there is a lack of promotion of democracy at home as domestic interest has declined. If people in the U.S. are not interested in democracy, then how could be it exported to other countries? Whatever the source, it must be fought ideologically. Dr. Finkelstein concluded with a third item, stating that the nature of warfare is changing and that non-kinetic forms of attack pose a greater danger to the protection of democracy. According to Dr. Finkelstein, the U.S. must adapt its military thinking to effectively deal with the changing landscape.