The long tradition of Russian interference in the westby Tom Carver / December 15, 2016 / Leave a comment
The day before the US election, the blog “War on the Rocks” published a long article called “Trolling for Trump: how Russia is Trying to Destroy Our Democracy.” It was a careful analysis of how the Russian propaganda machine had apparently interfered in the American election campaign, identifying the ways that overt propaganda dovetailed with grey activities on social media and black ops such as the use of trolls, bots and hackers. In a short space of time, the Kremlin’s tactics of political interference have evolved from fairly crude hacking and service denial techniques to a sophisticated exploitation of social media.
By planting false stories and then promoting them through aggregators, bots, controlled accounts and in many cases unwitting bystanders, the Russians appear to have sown doubts and prejudice in the minds of American voters. Social media has proved to be the perfect vehicle for this type of work, since a campaign like this can be mounted from anywhere and carried out anonymously, making it very hard to distinguish genuine social media accounts from fraudulent ones. The conspiracy theories of a few extremists that once had only limited audiences now, with the assistance of outside help, have global reach. “In sum,” the article states, “these influence efforts weaken Russia’s enemies without the use of force.” And in the zero-sum world that Russian security forces reside in, anything that weakens your rival strengthens your own hand.
In all the discussion about these new cyber techniques, it is often forgotten that this kind of activity is part of a long tradition of interference that goes back to the early days of the Cold War. For decades, the Kremlin sought to undermine Europeans’ trust in their own institutions, and exploit weaknesses in the democratic processes of western countries.
However, in the days before algorithms and cyber trolls, the interference in communications and the planting of disinformation often had to be done physically. In 1967, Yuri Andropov, who embodied this offensive mindset, took over the KGB and set up a unit in the organisation called Department V. Its purpose was to carry out acts of sabotage inside western countries to cause confusion and alarm and precipitate a crisis in government. One of the most fascinating characters to pass through Department V was a KGB officer called Oleg Lyalin. After graduating from the KGB’s elite training school, KUOS, he was posted to London as a member of the Soviet trade delegation in 1970.