November 8, 2022 | Insight

Russia seeking to poison American political discourse leading up to midterm elections

November 8, 2022 | Insight

Russia seeking to poison American political discourse leading up to midterm elections

Right now, the eyes of the world are focused on Russian aggression in Ukraine and escalating threats from Vladimir Putin. But Russia’s playbook goes well beyond Ukraine, including retaliation against the United States for working to stymie Putin’s plans. How will the Kremlin retaliate? Through information warfare and a focused effort to undermine America’s faith in the free elections that are the foundation of American democracy.

Russia’s number one target is the November 2022 midterm elections. With a track record of successful interference — and a history of weak U.S. responses — Russia is once again meddling in American democratic process.

In the lead-up to the 2022 U.S. midterm elections, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency issued a joint press release, warning U.S. citizens of election-related disinformation spread by foreign actors. With election day upon us, voters must be wary of nation-state directed efforts to destabilize the U.S. electoral system. This should not come as a surprise.

Moscow’s tactics follow a playbook developed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War — they aim to drive people in other countries to extreme positions to create division and gridlock. Putin’s primary goal is to polarize the United States and to sow distrust and social chaos causing both Republicans and Democrats to question their confidence in democratic institutions. The U.S. government has already unearthed numerous Kremlin-directed plots during this election cycle.

This past summer, the U.S. Department of the Treasury designated two Russian nationals for election interference activities. Aleksandr Viktorovich Ionov coordinated with Russia’s FSB and an entity known as Project Lakhta, which Treasury describes as a “government organized non-governmental organization” (GONGO) under the direction of the same Russian oligarch who finances the notorious Wagner Group mercenaries. Ionov established himself as the president and founder of the “Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia” and created a website called “STOP-Imperialism” to disseminate disinformation, hold conferences and protests within the United States, and develop relationships with U.S. citizen groups. During this process, Ionov relayed messages to contacts in Moscow about supporting a specific U.S. gubernatorial candidate and a separate U.S. citizen with political ambitions.

Natalya Valeryevna Burlinovna, the other Russian national designated by Treasury, is the founder and president of the Center for Support and Development of Public Initiative Creative Diplomacy (PICREADI). This organization claims to be “fully independent in its research and related activities,” but Treasury found that “it is reliant on state funding” and seeks “to hide its relationship with the Russian government and intelligence services.” For example, the group allowed Russian intelligence agencies to keep tabs on participants in the networking events it held in Moscow.

Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election demonstrates the extent of its intervention capabilities. According to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on election interference, Russia’s Internet Research Agency — a Saint Petersburg-based, Kremlin-linked group — published 80,000 posts on Facebook that reached up to 126 million people. Through collaboration with the Internet Research Agency, Moscow exploits pre-existing fault lines in the U.S., such as racial tension, immigration, and gun control. The Kremlin has been successful in influencing, for example, both white nationalist and Black Lives Matter groups. If anyone wonders why scrolling the internet leaves them depressed, they should consider that the Russian government is paying its citizens to post vitriolic comments on Americans’ favorite websites, in some cases for 11 hours a day.

A polarized, disunited America can help Putin end the era of U.S. world leadership, reestablish Russia as a global power, and restore a multipolar world.

Obviously, Russia pretends it plays no role in sowing division, distrust, and discontent. After the Department of Justice indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities for interference in the 2016 presidential election, the Russian government denied any involvement.

Ahead of the 2022 midterms, Russia targeted American audiences with messages related to the war in Ukraine. It is promoting isolationist rhetoric on the far right and the far left and questioning the cost of American military and financial support for Ukraine as the U.S. faces high inflation. Moscow is glad to see MAGA voters concerned about overspending on Ukraine’s defense while the far left questions American “imperialism.” In September, Putin declared that an “anti-colonial liberation movement against unipolar hegemony” was gaining momentum around the globe.

The U.S. should use both offensive and defensive measures to protect its elections. Social media companies should continue warning U.S. citizens about interference by sending push notifications to their users when major disinformation efforts come to light. A September report from Meta that documented Russian and Chinese election interference would benefit from a wider audience than those who read Meta press releases on their own initiative.

On the offensive side, Washington must start by giving Moscow a taste its own medicine. It should exploit Russia’s internal weak points and amplify the dissatisfaction so many Russians already feel about the Kremlin’s unjustified invasion of Ukraine.

This does not require peddling disinformation but rather spreading the truth about the weaknesses of Putin’s regime and the brutality of his war. U.S. efforts should focus on grassroots campaigning. For example, the U.S. should invest in a group of Russian-speaking social media influencers and help them spread messages inside Russia to counter the Kremlin’s pervasive disinformation related to the war in Ukraine.

Given Russia’s recent mobilization, the United States should engage in information operations that specifically help Russian women and encourage them to protest the mobilization. Such social media campaigns should be accompanied with memes and videos that show how young Russians are being killed in Ukraine.

Why stop there? Putin fears that ethnic minorities could form secessionist movements that divide Russia’s multiethnic society. Washington should promote anti-Putin complaints among Russia’s ethnic minority groups and tell them the truth about discrimination they face and how Putin is exploiting them for the war.

America needs to build its own messaging capabilities that will force the Kremlin to spend time and resources on defensive measures instead of attacking us. President Joe Biden has repeatedly warned that Kremlin agents are preparing to interfere in the 2022 U.S. midterm elections. Absent a credible deterrent, who can blame them? With a track record of successful interference and a history of weak U.S. responses, why wouldn’t the Kremlin meddle again?

Ivana Stradner is a research fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ (FDD) Barish Center for Media Integrity, where her research focuses on Russia’s information operations and cybersecurity. Jack Sullivan is a research associate at FDD. Follow Ivana on Twitter @ivanastradner. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, non-partisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Disinformation Domestic Extremism Russia