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A nation must think before it acts.
February 23, 2020
Post by Clint Watts
On Wednesday, February 19, President Trump relieved acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire and appointed Richard Grenell, a controversial and notoriously partisan figure, as the new acting Director of National Intelligence. The following day, the New York Times reported that Maguire’s firing came in response to a DNI briefing to the House Intelligence Committee in which lawmakers were told about Russia’s efforts to help President Trump get reelected. By late Friday, the Washington Post revealed that Senator Bernie Sanders’s campaign had also been notified by U.S. officials about Russian efforts to help the Sanders campaign in 2020. Shortly after, Sanders said he did not know of or seek Russia’s support, but the Bloomberg and Biden campaigns used the disclosure as an avenue to challenge the Sanders campaign.
So which is it? Does Russia want Trump or Sanders to win the U.S. presidency?
The real objective is a bit more complicated, and not entirely dichotomous. The only thing we should assume to know for sure is that Putin and the Kremlin, with a singular influence campaign employed headed into the 2016 election, have continued to sow discord in America ever since and have achieved a strategic victory against the U.S. that continues to provide returns today.
The Kremlin’s strategy in 2020, as I discussed in the Daily Beast last May, is simple, straightforward and openly available for all to see: Secure the base, split the opposition. Similar to the tactics employed before the 2016 election, there are four general narratives the Kremlin seeks to advance with this strategy, which arise in the U.S. through both overt and covert means. The four narratives employed by the Kremlin one might observe in America in order of magnitude are:
Given the current state of foreign influence efforts, it seems to me that America has entered “Phase Two” of a three-phase campaign for the 2020 election, consistent with the Kremlin’s game plan to subvert the 2016 U.S. presidential election. (The three-phase approach in its entirety can be reviewed here at the Alliance for Securing Democracy.) This is the period of the campaign in which Russia advances narratives to an American audience by all available means, and likely why we in the public are now hearing about U.S. intelligence officials briefing such preferences to the presidential campaigns and Congressional committees.
Here’s a quick overview of what I assess Russia’s influence campaign to be pursuing as of February 2020:
The Kremlin prefers Trump in 2020.
Russia, as in 2016, prefers Bernie Sanders within the Democratic field for several reasons.
Russia doesn’t want former Mayor Michael Bloomberg to win. He’s the new Biden.
What could Russia do to America that America is not already doing to itself?
As debates ensued over the weekend on how Russia is again interfering in the U.S. presidential election and whether or not they support Trump or Sanders, we should ask ourselves: What could Russia do to impact the election that our candidates are not already doing to each other and our institutions?
In contrast to 2016, presidential campaigns are spending hundreds of millions to spread lies and fake news on social media. Russian disinformation may have impacted society in 2016 in ways that would be difficult to achieve in 2020 with so much noise on social media platforms. Whereas in 2016 my teams observed false and misleading content coming from the Kremlin, today Kremlin outlets mostly just repeat, repost and resend divisive American-made narratives back to American audiences.
The one thing Russia can do to tip the balance and affect the election is hack to power narratives or disrupt Election Day operations. I think the probability of Russia hacking the vote on Election Day is low. Under General Nakasone, U.S. Cyber Command and our other institutional cyber defenses are much stronger this time around, and America might wallop the Kremlin in 2020 should they mess with some voting machines. But Russia could hack a key node to confirm a narrative against an opponent in the way they did in 2016. (FIE 2020 discussed this in early January). There’s already evidence they tried to do this against Biden with regard to Burisma.
Heading forward, I estimate the greatest risk of hacking to be for the Bloomberg campaign as the Kremlin may pursue compromising information to confirm derisive narratives about the former New York Mayor. With that said, I would recommend increasing cyber defenses for all people and organizations that have compromising information related to:
To close, one might ask: What do we want American institutions to do when protecting the election in 2020? How might they address what’s visible in plain sight? The Kremlin doesn’t hide who they’d like to see elected. The American public and, to a degree Congress, expect U.S. institutions to protect the 2020 election from foreign interference. Ultimately, Russia is only achieving success right now given that candidates, and particularly President Trump, react so strongly in 2020 to Russia’s light touch and government servants doing their jobs. Moving forward in 2020, Russia will only create havoc the way they did in 2016 if we can’t control our own behavior.