Is the U.S. serious about countering Russia’s information war on democracies?

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Long before the 2016 presidential elections in the United States, Russia was engaged in an effort to subvert European democracies through the tactical deployment of “weaponized information.” A seminal 2014 report by Peter Pomerantsev and Michael Weiss (published by the New York-based Institute of Modern Russia) accurately described how the Kremlin sought “not to convince or persuade, but to keep the viewer hooked and distracted, passive and paranoid, rather than agitated to action.” By exploiting existing societal fissures—race, class, ethnicity, immigration status, etc.—the Kremlin has successfully created political instability in Germany, Estonia, France, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, and elsewhere.

Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolution of 2013 should have been a wake-up call to those in the United States about the looming Russian threat. General Philip Breedlove, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe (SACEUR) at the time, called the Kremlin’s tactical use of propaganda to facilitate its invasion of Crimea  “the most amazing information warfare blitzkrieg we have ever seen in the history of information warfare.”

Unfortunately, many dismissed the threat as a European problem. In Congress, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) and Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-NY) were part of minority of officials who recognized the Russian threat early on and pushed for legislative action. Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Chris Murphy (D-CT) proposed the creation of a new interagency Center for Information Analysis and Response.

3 steps

Since 2016—when Russian interference in U.S. politics became widely discussed—there have been no shortage of articles dissecting Russia’s tactics and motives, but few have provided policy recommendations that Washington might undertake to respond. President Trump’s comments last week  contradicting the U.S. intelligence community assessment regarding Russian influence the 2016 elections further politicizes the issue and virtually ensures that the United States will continue to sputter in its response.

However, if sufficient political will coalesces, here are three concrete, albeit politically difficult, actions that policymakers should consider undertaking:

1Stop treating the Russian digital assault exclusively as an international problem to be addressed by our foreign policy institutions. Today, the U.S. government lead on understanding and responding to the Russian threat is divided between classified and unclassified efforts. On the classified side, the Department of Defense, through the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and the Intelligence Community agencies, have the lead. On the unclassified side, the Department of State, through the Global Engagement Center (GEC) and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), do. Conspicuously absent are the relevant domestic agencies.

The United States could learn a lot from the Czech Republic, which established an interagency Center for Terrorism and Hybrid Threats within the Ministry of the Interior—not the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Czechs correctly understand that a successful defensive strategy is fundamentally a domestic issue. In the U.S. context, such an effort would be led by either the Departments of Justice or Homeland Security and would focus on building resilient communities through media literacy campaigns, connecting law enforcement with hacking attacks, protecting the integrity of electoral systems, and debunking false narratives that infect the media environment. To be sure, there is an international aspect to all of this, but a defensive strategy should be led by domestic agencies; international agencies should feed in but not lead.

2The United States and its allies must complement their defensive strategy with an offensive strategy. Right now, the Europeans are focused on protecting their domestic populations—especially ethnolinguistic Russian groups—from Russian information warfare. In practice, this has meant that governments are trying to message in the Russian language to counter messages coming across the border from Russia. The United States, through the BBG, is helping in this effort with its Current Time program. What is missing is any concerted attempt to message to the Russian people inside Russia. In Europe and in the United States (including under the Obama administration) there has been a reluctance to directly challenge Moscow by providing news and information to the Russian people. Some fear that to communicate on a mass scale with the Russian people would be an escalation and therefore should be avoided.

There are challenges to messaging directly into Russia: The Kremlin jams radio and television transmissions, arrests and kills journalists, closes down news bureaus, and tightly controls entry and exit for foreign journalists. These are all valid concerns but they are not demonstrably different from what the governments in Iran, China, North Korea, Zimbabwe, Cuba, and elsewhere do, yet the United States makes a concerted effort to exploit all possible ways to get news and information to local populations. We are not making the same effort when it comes to Russia and that’s a policy decision—not an issue of feasibility or access.

Earlier this month, the Kremlin’s international propaganda outlet RT was forced to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Russian lawmakers responded last week by announcing passage of a new law that requires all foreign news agencies (not just state-run outlets) operating inside to Russia to register as foreign agents. The Russian actions will have very little impact on federally funded news outlets like Voice of America, which was closed in Russia in 2014 but could impact outlets like CNN and BBC.

If we want to stop Russia from attacking our democracy and the democracies of Europe, we need an offensive strategy that provokes the Russian people into pressuring behavior modification of their own regime. The only way to do that is to provide the Russian people with factual and accurate information about what is happening inside Russia and what its leaders are doing. Even if the Russian people are not capable of forcing the Kremlin to change its foreign policy, they can press Putin to divert resources away from his efforts to subvert sovereign states to pacify domestic unrest.

3The United States should lead in starting an international conversation at the United Nations about the rules that will govern the use of weaponized information. After decades of negotiation, there are international treaties (with vary degrees of impact) on many weapons, including: nuclear, chemical, biological, landmines, conventional weapons, cluster munitions, even on small arms and light weapons. It’s time we started a conversation about the rules that will govern the use of information as a weapon. Informational warfare can be every bit as destabilizing and destructive as conventional weapons, only without the immediate catastrophic property damage. Today, there are no rules, which increases the probability of a country using conventional weapons to respond to an information attack. Without some set of rules or guidelines, there is also no way to collectively impose sanctions on a country for using information to undermine the stability of another.

Creating a framework to govern the use of information by states will be difficult; the topic is somewhat nebulous and very subjective but discussions around this topic have already begun with the help of some unlikely participants. At least as recently as 2010, there were those who believed that social media and the internet more broadly should have little or no government regulation. But in the last year alone, we have seen Facebook and Google pivot and start taking steps to regulate the content that consumers receive.

Attitudes about information and usage are changing and there is a growing number of companies and governments that now understand that information is being weaponized by states like Russia to undermine political stability, sow fear and mistrust, and incite violence. The United States should assume a leadership role in getting other countries to start a dialogue about how this new era of information warfare will be governed and what will be the repercussions for states that do not abide by the rules.