Meddling and Grievances The meddling in social media technologies to influence public opinion in America may have just scraped the surface during the 2016 US presidential election. Russia, or any other country, could learn from the data gathered and launch a more effective social media campaign in future elections or during security crises, say experts.  Samuel Woolley of the Institute for the Future (IFTF) is an expert on artificial intelligence, social technologies, and how social media can be weaponized to shape public opinion. He says “as machine learning and other social automation technologies (like bots) become more sophisticated it is likely that the level of specification of attacks will increase.” Twitter, Facebook, and Google have provided information linked to over 2,000 twitter accounts suspected of being Russian bots. The fake accounts spread disinformation and divisive political messages during the 2016 US presidential election. The Russian government has denied any involvement in the election. “Bot” is short for “robot.” And it’s a type of automated program that can be used to spread a particular message on a mass scale—so it can be used to push propaganda in the digital age. Woolley says political bots in particular are automated software programs that “operate on social media, written to mimic real people in order to manipulate public opinion. “Through likes and shares—political bots can manufacture a consensus by giving the illusion of significant online popularity in order to build real political support.” Artificial intelligence (AI) is the next level. AI programs allow for the automated consideration of a large numbers of possibilities and efficiently making a decision (think of when playing chess against a computer). AI can also learn from experience and recognize patterns. Woolley says “at the moment, automation and AI used over social media tends to be fairly clumsy.” But years from now it could be a different picture. “Political actors attempting to manipulate public opinion online during future events will be able to use AI and automation to target specific groups and even individuals. They will likely be able to deploy very convincing bots-automated accounts—to get their messages across,” explains Wolley. According to a declassified version of a report prepared by the CIA, FBI, and NSA released in January “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election.” The Intelligence Community (IC) determined one of Russia’s goals was to undermine public faith in democracy. But more recent reports seem to reveal another aspect of Russia’s alleged cyber campaign against the US. Russia was reportedly behind ads on social media, targeting Black Lives Matter, the Alt-Right, divisions within America’s religious and ethnic groups, immigration issues, racial injustice, LGBT and NFL kneeling protests. These messages were reportedly masked to look as though they were coming from American activists. Ads like these are now part of a congressional investigation. It’s no secret that the United States has deeply rooted racial and religious divides. And it appears to be something Putin may be aiming to exploit through bots. It appears as though Russian President Vladimir Putin believes that a strong United States threatens Russian interests. During his address at the 14th annual meeting of the Valdai discussion club in Sochi Mr. Putin said “Unfortunately, after dividing up the geopolitical heritage of the Soviet Union, our Western partners became convinced of the justness of their cause and declared themselves the victors of the Cold War, as I just mentioned, and started openly interfering in the affairs of sovereign states, and exporting democracy just like the Soviet leadership had tried to export the socialist revolution to the rest of the world in its time.” He added that Russia was then confronted with NATO expansion. And “two and a half decades gone to waste, a lot of missed opportunities, and a heavy burden of mutual distrust. The global imbalance has only intensified as a result.” Putin said openly that Russia was mistreated in agreeing to the disarmament of the HEU-LEU programme under conditions set by the US. The Russian president said “it is also common knowledge what we received from this: total neglect of our national interests, support for separatism in the Caucasus, military action that circumvented the UN Security Council, such as the bombing of Yugoslavia and Belgrade, the introduction of troops into Iraq, and so on.” Leo Michel has served as the Directorate for Intelligence in the Central Intelligence Agency. While in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (1986-2002) he served in multiple leadership positions including the Director for NATO Policy; Director for Non-Nuclear Arms Control and Deputy U.S. Representative to the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Consultative Commission. Michel says “Mr. Putin’s list of grievances against the United States is long and, to all appearances, deeply felt.” Michel says Putin’s foreign policy and military posture over “the past decade has become more assertive, even aggressive (as, for example, in the cases of Georgia and Ukraine).” And that while there are some similarities to the atmosphere of the Cold War “to suggest that the latter never ended would vastly over simplify the history of the past 26 years.” The Link Between Conservative Christianity and Russia Russia and the US haven’t always had a hate-hate relationship. Sean Costigan is a Senior Adviser to the NATO/GCSP/PfPC Emerging Security Challenges study group and is a chair of the Partnership for Peace Consortium of Defense Academies and Security Studies Institute. He advises government and corporations on risk, cybersecurity and foresight. He spoke with Diplomatic Courier in his own capacity and not on behalf of the US government, any of its branches or his employer. Costigan says “the end of the Soviet Union ushered in a period of great promise.” Leo Michel agrees. Michel says “the United States (and other allies) made a good faith effort to build, over time, a more constructive relationship with the Russian Federation and other states of the former Soviet Union.” He says it was based in part on the assessment that “Russia would become increasingly democratic and integrated with the West—economically and, in some ways, politically—and the rapprochement would translate into reduced military competition.” But the fall of the Soviet Union created a power vacuum where atheism and communism once reigned. Dr. Christopher Stroop has a PhD in Modern Russian History from Stanford University. His expertise lies in Russian religious and philosophical responses to war and revolution and the influence of Russian Christian intellectuals. Dr. Stroop says two major powers attempted to fill this void: the Russian Orthodox Church and capitalists. Dr. Stroop says after the fall of the Soviet Union the Russian Orthodox Church was seen as the only remaining moral authority in the country. No matter how strong communism or atheism were in Russia, conservative Christianity has always had a link to Russian identity says Dr. Stroop. And Professor of Sociology and Russian scholar Dr. Jerry Pankhurst echoed these thoughts on his paper on Religious Culture in Soviet and Post Soviet Russia: “underlying historical bond that was formed between Russianness as an ethnic or national identity and Russian Orthodoxy as a religious affiliation.” Dr. Stroop says among the “offspring of fundamentalist resistance to modernity and Cold War anti-Communism rose ‘bad ecumenism.’”  He says: “ironically, the associated movement has, of late, been forging an alliance with Moscow. Far-right voices in both Europe and North America have been looking to Russian President Vladimir Putin as a moral exemplar and a beacon of hope.” Dr. Stroop also told Diplomatic Courier that he believes there is “genuine affinity between Russia and conservative Christians. During the Cold War Americans on the right really idealized Russian Christians who were critical of communism, so in many ways we’re seeing the continuity of that.” Historically there has been a link between Conservative Christianity and nationalist movements, not just in the US, but globally.  In 2004, David Duke praised Russia as being a pro White Nation. In the post on his website entitled ‘Is Russia the Key to White Survival?’ Duke references the presence of ethnic minorities in Russia, but says out of the many capital cities in Europe “Moscow is the Whitest of them all...(because) Russia has a greater sense of racial understanding among its population than does any other predominantly White nation.” Dr. Stroop says “given the ethnic and religious diversity in Russia it is somewhat a bizarre thing to say. But there is among native ethnic Russians quite a bit of racism and anti-Semitism. So, David Duke was speaking to that.” More than a decade ago, David Duke said he felt “when a racially aware Russia and reawakened America become united in our cause, the world will change. Our race will survive and together we shall go to the stars!” He added that he felt “Russia and other Eastern countries have the greatest chance of having racially aware parties achieve political power (and that it is his) prayer that Mother Russia be strong and healthy, may Mother Russia be free; may she always be White.” In recent years, white nationalists such as Richard Spencer, a leader in the Alt-Right movement; Matthew Heimbach, the head of the white nationalist Traditionalist Worker Party, and Harold Covington, the white supremacist head of the secessionist Northwest Front, have echoed David Duke’s words from 13 years ago. While there is a shared ideology between White Nationalists, some Conservative Christians and Russia—it is possible that the Kremlin is also manipulating White Nationalists and some conservative Christians. Dr. Stroop says that Russian President Vladimir Putin “holds the furthest right Russians at bay in his own country. He’s not going to tolerate outright neo-Nazis and he tries to mobilize and work with the conservative religious establishments of all the major recognized religions in Russia (imams, rabbis, and Christian leaders) to promote his traditional values. Even though Post-Soviet Russia under Putin is undoubtedly a conservative state, the defeat of the Nazis in World War II is still central to Russian identity. So, they can’t outright identify with fascism even as they take on more right wing, authoritarian overtones” White Nationalism, identity-based political organizations, racism, inferiority complexes, and racial injustice are divisive legacies of America’s past and present. Sean Costigan says it’s a long-standing approach of Russian intelligence to find the divisions, however meager, and exploit such weaknesses. Costigan says “the Soviet Union funded extremists of all sorts, and the present day Russian government does the same. The forms are varied. It could be RT interviewing an academic who says the US caused Ebola, for instance, or funding 'studies' that purport to show that fluoride in the water was a government conspiracy, or crack cocaine was created by the CIA, or the underwriting of secessionist movements, racial or religious divisions.” Costigan says each story or rumor in isolation doesn’t do much damage. But when amplified (let’s say through social media) as a whole “they are effective at distracting and intensifying distrust of government. And they are cheap to orchestrate, made all the more effective by social media companies who—because of their own blindness and purported social missions—could not foresee how their powerful networks would come to be abused.” But Russia’s alleged effort to undermine and weaken the US isn’t just being fought by weaponizing social media and by attempting to strengthen and reopen the scar tissue of America’s religious, ethnic, and social divisions. It is also being fought across borders. One ideology that is in Russia’s interest and is shared with far-right political groups in both Europe and the US, is the weakening transnational institutions. A weaker Europe and weaker NATO would mean a stronger Russia. Far right, White Nationalist groups in the US like the Traditionalist Worker Party are anti-globalist. But defense experts in the US, including the US Secretary of Defense, say America must work with other nations to protect American interests. Putin’s Footprint and the Threat to Euro-US Relations Former Pentagon and US intelligence officials say all of the world’s threats are interconnected and US and European interests are at risk—whether it’s the volatility in the Korean peninsula, ongoing wars in the Middle East and Africa, or Russian aggression in Europe. Michel says he agrees with the US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis that America must work with other nations. Michel says “it would be a terrible mistake to disregard our allies and partners and embark, instead, on a dangerously unilateral, transactional, or ultra-nationalist ‘America first’ approach.” Sean Costigan agrees and says “Putin and his inner circle seek chaos for democracies to help ensure their own freedom of maneuver. There is also their persistent desire to see sanctions lifted. Reports are everywhere, not just in Europe. Eastern Europe is the unfortunate recipient of the bulk of Russian meddling. What is often overlooked is that Russia uses criminal gangs to execute cyber-attacks against perceived enemies, allowing for all the advantages of relative anonymity to accrue while unsettling democracy.” One thing that would certainly strengthen Russia is a weak Europe. In a keynote speech delivered at John Hopkins University in May, the Swedish Minister for Defense Peter Hultqvist presented what he referred to as a “harsh reality.” Minister Hultqvist said: “The European security order is no longer in place as we know it because of Russia's aggressive behavior.” And that the focus of the Kremlin is to “regain the greatness of the Motherland and once again become a world power.” He noted that Russia’s occupation of Georgian territory has increased and that the “proxy war in Eastern Ukraine continues.” Beyond the previously mentioned conflicts, Russia has also been supporting the Assad regime in Syria. And since the Swedish Defense Minister gave his speech, Russia has showed no sign of slowing down when it comes to its involvements in conflicts around the world—especially when a power vacuum ensues. Russia’s footprint has been increasing across the globe. There are reports of Russia’s increasing involvement with Libyan National Army’s Khalifa Haftar and ties with both Venezuela and South Africa remain strong. There appears to be increasing cooperation between Russia, Iran, Qatar, and Turkey. But as Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist pointed out during his address “A strong US link to Europe is important for the stability in NATO and Europe. And it is only together with the US that European countries can balance the Russians. By acting together in international fora, operations and exercises, we make the threshold against aggression higher. One example is the economic sanctions against Russia. We have to remember that the strategies of the Russian aggression, Chinese assertion, or Daesh's use of terror are to split us, to make us weaker, and make us hesitate to act.” Leo Michel has worked extensively in both Finland and Sweden and he says since the Russian intervention in Ukraine “Finland has sought to expand practical cooperation with NATO, to include training, exercises, and shared situational awareness.” While he acknowledges the government coalition’s language regarding NATO membership hasn’t changed much, “essentiality Finland maintains the option of seeking membership.” But, he draws attention to an April 2016 report, which he says broke new ground. It was commissioned by the Finnish Foreign ministry and was focused on the effects of possible Finnish membership in NATO. Michel says conversations about the pros and cons of joining NATO were muted until a few years ago. He drew attention to a 2017 Finnish government report, which noted that “military tensions have increased in the Baltic Sea region, warning for military crises has shortened, the threshold for using force has lowered and ‘Finland must prepare for the use of military force, or threat thereof, against it.’” Michel says “in addition to closer relations with Finland, Sweden has stepped up bilateral defense cooperation with the US, other regional partners, NATO, and the EU,” including a recent military exercise in September on land, air, and sea—known as Aurora 17. Sweden hasn’t seen a military exercise this large in over 23 years. And it reportedly involved 20,000 troops and contingents from NATO members Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Norway, Lithuania, and the US.  Michel says “these examples speak volumes regarding the important change in attitudes toward Russia that I’ve seen in Finland and Sweden.” It appears as though Russia is perfecting its chess moves and continuing the trajectory of increasing its global reach through hybrid means. Russia is not just a regional player as US President Barack Obama asserted in March 2014. In today’s interconnected world—which is undoubtedly facing several threats to the current geopolitical status quo—Russia remains a global power. And it’s one which appears to believe it cannot achieve its historical glory as long as the US remain a top super power. Leo Michel says the Cold War is most certainly over even though “there are some similarities to the atmosphere” of the height of US-Russian geopolitical tensions. But, maybe it’s just egos didn’t thaw completely? Sean Costigan says “frozen conflicts remain, several of which have been hot over the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union. We are seeing one Cold War leftover play out in the Korean Peninsula now.”  

Sarah Jones
Sarah Jones is an Istanbul based journalist and a Diplomatic Courier correspondent.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.