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Russia’s co-opting of US political groups is serious business

According to a federal indictment unsealed in Florida last week, Russian intelligence manipulated and co-opted multiple U.S. political groups as part of a “malign influence campaign” to “sow discord, spread pro-Russia propaganda, and interfere in elections in the United States.” As a former intelligence officer, I recognize the tactic, and it portends a potential increase in hostilities on which Moscow undoubtedly has doubled down because of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol and U.S. support for Ukraine. In contrast to bots and far-away hackers, this is on-the-ground covert action at work.

This tactic is nothing new for Russia’s security services: They have been using it since the czarist era and it is often referred to as “social engineering” or Zubatovschina, in reference to Sergie Zubatov, a czarist spy chief who, for a time, successfully employed this technique as part of the czar’s efforts to undermine groups that sought revolution. Zubatov’s agents clandestinely infiltrated revolutionary groups, manipulated their discourse, and used funding to direct their activities. Now, according to this federal indictment, Russia is doing that on U.S. soil with U.S. political groups. The consequences, if left unchecked, could be significant.

Russia has turned to these techniques in times of trouble. By the time Zubatov unleashed his covert action campaign, the czarist empire had been reeling from a number of significant security incidents: In 1878, the governor general of St. Petersburg was shot and the head of the secret police was assassinated. In 1880, a bomb was detonated against a wall in the Winter Palace where the czar regularly dined. And in 1881, Alexander II, the so-called Czar Liberator, was assassinated. After the czar’s assassination, his successor, Czar Alexander III, employed a number of aggressive techniques before turning to Zubatovschina in the early 20th century.

Russian leadership almost certainly views the present moment as a time of trouble. Its plans for victory in Ukraine have been foiled by an unexpected and fearsome resistance, and it has become an international pariah struggling under a growing sanctions regime. And imagine the conclusions that Vladimir Putin must have drawn from the intelligence report he undoubtedly received with his morning coffee on Jan. 7, 2021: The U.S. is more susceptible to manipulation and exploitation than thought.  

Zubatovschina did not save czarist Russia from revolution — and there is no reason it should diminish U.S. support for Ukraine. But it requires the U.S. national security apparatus to carefully consider the scope of hostilities now existing between Moscow and Washington, and bears an unfortunate resemblance to early Cold War hostilities.

George Kennan, the American diplomat who advocated for the policy of containment to limit Soviet expansion, warned that a more hostile Soviet Union required the United States to adapt. As Kennan explained in 1948, “The Kremlin’s conduct of political warfare has become the most refined and effective of any in history. We have been handicapped however by a popular attachment to the concept of a basic difference between peace and war … having been engaged by the full might of the Kremlin’s political warfare, we cannot afford to leave unmobilized our resources for covert political warfare.”

Lt. Gen. James Doolittle, who received the Medal of Honor for leading the daring Doolittle raid against Japan in World War II, agreed with Kennan and concluded that the United States must engage in more aggressive covert action techniques to survive. Doolittle recognized that many Americans would be repulsed by his suggestion, but he considered it essential and concluded that “[h]itherto acceptable norms of human conflict do not apply. If the United States is to survive, long-standing American concepts of ‘fair-play’ must be reconsidered. We must develop effective espionage and counterespionage services and must learn to subvert, sabotage and destroy our enemies by more clever, more sophisticated and more effective methods than those used against us. It may become necessary that the American people be made acquainted with, understand and support this fundamentally repugnant philosophy.” 

Cold War memories need not guide our every response, or induce us to act rashly, but they are instructive, and we would be naïve not to recognize the seriousness of Russian intelligence manipulating U.S. political groups with an on-the-ground covert action campaign inside the United States. Unfortunately, we all may need to reacquaint ourselves with Kennan’s and Doolittle’s fundamentally repugnant philosophy.  

Michael Richter is a former intelligence officer with the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and now is a lawyer in private practice. The views expressed here are his own. 

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