Russia’s cyber war against the West – an asymmetry in systems & leadership

"Artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia, but for all humankind. It comes with colossal opportunities, but also threats that are difficult to predict. Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.”

Image Credit: Pavel Golovkin/AP

In the dawn of the new Age of Cyber warfare, Russian meddling in Western elections would pose a fundamental problem for America and the West no matter who occupied the Oval Office. With a severely impaired President in the White House, the problem is raised to the level of a clear and present danger to our constitutional order, political institutions, and the social contract that binds us together as a nation. It goes to the heart of a systemic disadvantage for the United States in its troubled relationship with Russia, namely the challenge open societies face in dealing with a new breed of cyber-capable dictatorships.

We are in a new Cold War with Russia, Iran, and North Korea. The Trump White House is also on a collision course with China, despite the time-out in the face-off over trade. The outcome of this new Cold War fought with a weaponized Internet is infinitely more vital to the survival of constitutional democracy and the rule of law than the fate of any single individual, including the outcome of a wide-ranging investigation that could quite possibly lead to the impeachment of a sitting president.

For our adversaries whatever serves to distract the voters, polarize society, and paralyze the government is good. The same divide-and-conquer logic applies to America’s alliance relationships, most notably in Europe and the Western Pacific.

Vladimir Putin has the means (social media) and opportunity (direct access to voters) to interfere in the political process of any country with competing political parties, independent news organizations and a system of government whose legitimacy depends on holding free and fair elections. His motive for giving top priority to targeting the United States – Russia’s decades-long archrival – is clear. But because Putin does not play by the same rules, the U.S. does not have an equal opportunity to interfere in Russian politics. Russia’s elections are farcical affairs. Russia has nothing resembling a free press. There is no guarantee of due process or impartial justice in Russia’s courts.

Bottom line: the playing field is not level.

i. The advent of the Nuclear Age created a bipolar world order – shorthand for the military-strategic stalemate that made a third world war “unthinkable” – while doing nothing to remove the sources of conflict. So the rivalry shifted to a different kind of battlefield, one made-to-order for the Kremlin, one that at best was not a good fit for democracies and at worst is the antithesis of everything they stand for.

The totalitarian state Stalin bequeathed his heirs depended heavily on Orwellian instruments of rule: strict control of the mass media, a vast network of spies and informants, and domestic surveillance. The stark contrast with a democratic republic anchored in constantly-touted Constitution, a Bill of Rights, a free press, and due process of law created a systemic imbalance in the political-strategic relationship.

Unlike the two world wars, the Cold War was fought primarily through intelligence agencies, covert operations, and the dark arts – propaganda, infiltration, subversion, and disinformation (дезинформация in Russian) – the very things Lenin first theorized and wrote about and then employed to great effect in the run-up to the October Revolution. These were the basic elements in the political strategy and tactics at which Stalin proved to be the most effective and deadly practitioner in the power struggle after Lenin’s death in 1924.

In the decades after World War II, the Kremlin learned an important lesson in dealing with the American superpower, namely that Republican presidents have more room for maneuver in dealing with Moscow than Democrats. That’s because wide swathes of the electorate perceived Republicans (“conservatives”) as tough on Communism and strong on national defense, while Democrats (“liberals”) were portrayed as soft on socialism and proponents of “welfare” at the expense of military spending. So voters typically gave Republican presidents more latitude to negotiate arms and trade deals with Moscow.

It’s easy to misinterpret the meaning of the Cold War that ended in 1991 because of the desirable outcome for the West. We didn’t win it so much as they lost it thanks to a woefully mismanaged economy and disastrous war in a part of the world where we are now inextricably entangled.

II.“I created all these pictures and posts, and the Americans believed that it was written by their people.” ~Irina Viktorovna Kaverzina

Fraudulent social media accounts impersonating Americans, political rallies planned in a Russian cyber bunker and promoted on Facebook, paid advertising touting Trump or haranguing against Hillary – it all sound like science fiction. But it isn’t. It’s the story of a major new threat to representative democracy. A story that emerged clearly into view only after the 2016 presidential election.

The Kremlin’s future investment in AI research is a closely guarded state secret, but estimates put Russia’s total AI spending at approximately $12.5 million a year. By comparison, China reportedly plans to invest $150 billion through 2030(!), while the U.S. Department of Defense spends $7.4 billion annually on unclassified research and development on AI and related fields. What these numbers tell us is that Russia cannot match China or the United States in AI research and development; what the same numbers mask, is that Putin’s Russia is putting its eggs in an AI basket – namely asymmetric political warfare – designed to make the gross strategic imbalance in R&D irrelevant.

Indeed, these new cyber-war weapons have become a central tenet of Russia’s strategy toward the West and one with which Russia has been able to project power and influence beyond its immediate neighborhood. In particular, AI has the potential to hyperpower Russia’s use of disinformation – the intentional spread of false and misleading information for the purpose of influencing politics and societies. And unlike in the conventional military space, the United States and Europe are ill-equipped to respond to AI-driven asymmetric warfare (ADAW) in the information space.

Far from abandoning Cold War-era “active measures” aimed at swaying public opinion, targeting policies, and subverting political systems abroad, Russia under Putin – has stepped up such efforts and adapted them to the digital age; in the process the Putin has elevated information warfare into a “core component” of the Kremlin’s foreign-policy strategy vis-à-vis the West. The re-emergence of a “gray zone” between war and peace is the new hallmark of Russia’s strategic doctrine in the Putin era. And it is not by chance that the role of cyber weapons in measures short of war is a recurring theme in contemporary Russian military thought.

iii. The Cyber Age has raised the potential for destabilizing democracies through dissemination of fake news and disinformation to new levels and in the process given the Kremlin a made-to-order weapon of mass disruption – the perfect tool for winning the Second Cold War.

Despite prolific gerrymandering efforts to favor Republicans, the 2018 midterm elections resulted in Democrats recapturing the U.S. House of Representatives. In its aftermath, the federal investigation of Russia’s intervention in the 2016 election has shifted into high gear. Even so, as Donald Trump’s second year in office draws to a close there is still no light at the end of the tunnel, no way to know what revelations yet to come, or the distraction, demoralization, and divisiveness in store.

No one knows what it means for the Trump presidency or what the Mueller investigation will mean for the course of history ultimately or the 2020 general election. What’s clear, however, is that public anger, general confusion, and political finger-pointing have weakened the country, divided the electorate, and lowered America’s esteem in the eyes of the world.

It’s Vladimir Putin’s dream-come-true.


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