On January 10th, Unicorn Strategies hosted a discussion on Subversion, Disruption and Upheaval: Russian Power in the 21st Century. Panelists included Molly McKew, founder of New Media Frontier and CEO of Fianna Strategies, Asha Rangappa, Senior Lecturer at the Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and former FBI Special Agent for Counterintelligence Investigations, and John Sipher, consultant and Former Deputy Director of the Global Russia Program at the CIA. Unicorn Strategies Managing Director Maggie Feldman-Piltch moderated the panel.
The panel discussed Russia’s campaign to undermine US security, focusing on how its tactics have evolved to use new technology. The panelists asserted that Russia’s extensive intelligence agent network and its mastery of disinformation campaigns through social media exploitation contribute to its success in influencing elections and creating conflicts. All panelists agreed that, despite definitive proof of continued Russian aggression, the US has failed to recognize it as a threat, preventing the US from properly protecting itself and leaving it vulnerable to future offenses.
Molly McKew began the discussion, speaking about Russia’s comprehensive and strategic campaign to create a new and cynical world order and explaining that the US fundamentally misunderstands both Russian strategy and its underlying tactics, which she described as asymmetric warfare. She argued that Russia has a history of waging information warfare and influence campaigns in Eastern Europe to change the landscape to better serve Russian interests. Its comprehensive understanding of information systems allows it to exploit these systems and create false choices to force acceptance of bad political actors .
According to McKew, the US needs clarity on the nature of Russia’s campaign. Russia has maintained the Soviet status quo, never taking any steps towards democratization. Failing to recognize Russia’s stasis leaves the US incapable of addressing the threat, as it does not accept the current situation for what it is.
Asha Rangappa spoke about the limitations of the FBI’s toolbox for countering Russian perception management and propaganda campaigns, which hampers its ability to address social media exploitation. She explained that propaganda neutralization options are limited because before widespread proliferation of social media, people were aware of anyone acting as a foreign agent within the US, because the agents had to comply with the Foreign Agent Registration Act. However, using social media eliminates the requirement for foreign agents to declare themselves as such, eradicating their target’s ability to properly weigh the information given to them. She described how social media’s proliferation has changed the balance between counterintelligence and the nature of the threat. Social media’s global reach and low cost make it a convenient tool for propagandists and the FBI’s efforts are hampered because its toolbox neglects social media.
Rangappa suggested updating the FBI toolbox to improve its counter propaganda capabilities while creating legal solutions that preserve 1st and 4th amendment rights. She posited that the US needs to require social media companies design networks that allow wiretaps to be able to help law enforcement, and authenticate and monitor potentially specious accounts. She also suggested that the US expand the definition of foreign power and create a designation as a non-state foreign intelligence service to include aspects of social media.
John Sipher described how Russia has successfully engaged in global political and psychological warfare since the country’s inception and has run global disinformation campaigns both during and after the Cold War. Echoing McKew’s assertion that the US is ill-equipped to counter Russian aggression, he described how Russian intelligence services focus on subversion and psychological warfare while the US focuses on intelligence collection and analysis. He described how Russia’s success is partially due to the immense number of spies willing to work on anyone and everyone. Social media has intensified these characteristics, resulting in weaponized algorithms.
According to Sipher, social media weaponization contributed significantly to Russia’s success in interfering in US politics in 2016. Russia’s decades-long focus on attacking the US was heightened by the US’ political dysfunction, which made an easy target using asymmetric tactics. This strategy’s success was amplified by the US’ pivot to counterterrorism after 9/11, which drew focus away from Russia’s activities.
The panelists closed the discussion by recommending new policies or policy changes to counter Russian aggressions toward the US. McKew and Rangappa concurred that publicly reasserting shared US values and bridging social capital are key to protecting against these aggressions. Sipher stated the need to recognize Russia’s aggressions as a national security threat and to protect and rebuild US institutions, especially in view the administration’s current efforts to delegitimize them. McKew warned that without recognizing the threat, and that the services and activities the US has ceded to the private sector will be exploited further, resulting in starker societal divides. The panelists agreed that the US must recognize Russia’s tactics as asymmetric threats and, as a part of this recognition, the US must improve it ability to respond to these threats. Sipher concluded by asserting that public-private partnerships must be reestablished and suggested that a 9/11 Commission-style inquiry is needed to fully understand the extent of Russia’s campaigns.