Over the past several decades, Putin has been building information warfare as a crucial dimension of Russia’s military capacity. We’ve seen evidence of this ‘hybrid warfare’ across neighbouring European countries. But, as journalist Carole Cadwalladr writes, Russia’s targets extend far beyond what most imagine.
Evidence of what is usually termed Russian ‘meddling’ was clear as far back as the Russian incursion into Georgia in 2008. Cyber-attacks were used prior to and in sync with conventional attacks on South Ossetia. In the annexation of Crimea six years later, this tactic was employed once more. Major cyber offensives targeted Ukrainian officials and news agencies.
But Russia has also been active in interference in the West.
In 2018, Putin attempted to poison ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. Cadwalladr wrote about the incident at the time, voicing concern about the ease with which Russian operatives were able to gain access to Skripal in Salisbury – which is home to major British military bases.
Following the Skripal incident, the UK parliamentary intelligence and security committee published the Russia report. It found the government had neglected to sufficiently investigate potential Russian influence in the 2016 Brexit Referendum.
It also noted ‘credible open-source commentary’ pointing to Russian influence in the Scottish independence referendum of 2014. These budding operations relied heavily on cyber-platforms.
The Mueller Report
Another infamous report detailing Russian interference in the West is the 2019 Mueller report, which details “numerous links between the Russian government and the Trump campaign.”
Unlike the UK, the USA launched a thorough federal investigation into potential Russian interference. During the 2016 Presidential election, the report concluded, Russian intelligence organisations used ‘computer-intrusion operations’ to discredit the Clinton campaign.
Chief investigator Mueller was unable to formally prove conspiracy between Trump campaign members and Russian operatives due to a rigorous burden of proof. But he still asserted in the report that Russia had interfered in the election in a “sweeping and systemic fashion.”
Evidence of collusion included that members of Trump’s campaign – including Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner – met with Russian operatives to receive discrediting information about Hillary Clinton. There was also sharing of polling data for Midwestern states (where Trump later won), and communications with Wikileaks after it received significant emails stolen by Russia.
As Cadwalladr notes, tech platforms were a crucial element in Russia’s 2016 interference, using open platforms like Facebook.
More than 100 fake Russia-backed Facebook pages published tens of thousands of posts reaching hundreds of millions of Americans. Russia also purchased ads on the platform sowing divide on key election flash-points like LGBT issues, race and immigration, and gun rights.
The cyber-dimension remains very prevalent in the current invasion of Ukraine. Attacks on government websites and the financial sector have been ongoing since the 15th of February. Some unconfirmed Twitter sources even report propaganda SMS messages urging Ukrainian soldiers to put down arms.
It may seem like Ukraine has the upper hand in the cyber-arena. While Putin forces a heavily-censored narrative of the ‘operation’ onto Russians, Ukraine takes advantage of these gaps and fills them with transparency.
But Russia’s cyber-warfare has been building behind the scenes for much longer, and on a much larger scale. Cadwalladr warns, “the first offensive in the Great Information War was from 2014-2022. And Putin won…by convincing us it wasn’t even a war.
And this new front, the invasion of Ukraine, is not just about Ukraine. We are part of the plan. We have always been part of the plan.”
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