According to a federal indictment released in Florida last week, Russian intelligence manipulated and co-opted multiple American political groups as part of a “malicious influence campaign” to “spread discord, spread pro-Russian propaganda and interfere in elections in the United States.” United States”. .” As a former intelligence officer, I recognize the tactic, and it portends a possible increase in hostilities to which Moscow has undoubtedly doubled due to the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol and US support for Ukraine. Unlike bots and distant hackers, this is covert action on the ground.
This tactic is nothing new to the Russian security services: they have been using it since the Tsarist era and it is often referred to as “social engineering” or Zubatovschina, in reference to Sergie Zubatov, a Tsarist spy chief who for a time successfully used this technique as part of the czar’s efforts to undermine groups seeking revolution. Zubatov’s agents clandestinely infiltrated revolutionary groups, manipulated their discourse and used money to direct their activities. Now, according to this federal indictment, Russia is doing just that on American soil with American political groups. The consequences can be significant if left unchecked.
Russia has turned to these techniques in difficult times. By the time Zubatov unleashed his covert campaign of action, the tsarist empire was reeling from a number of major security incidents: in 1878, the governor-general of St. Petersburg was shot and the head of the secret police murdered. In 1880 a bomb exploded against a wall in the Winter Palace where the Tsar dined regularly. And in 1881, Alexander II, the so-called Tsar Liberator, was murdered. After the Tsar’s assassination, his successor, Tsar Alexander III, used a number of aggressive techniques before turning to Zubatovschina in the early 20th century.
The Russian leadership almost certainly sees the present moment as a time of trouble. Ukraine’s plans for victory have been thwarted by unexpected and terrifying resistance, and it has become an international pariah grappling with a growing sanctions regime. And imagine the conclusions Vladimir Putin must have drawn from the intelligence report he no doubt received over his morning coffee on January 7, 2021: The US is more susceptible to manipulation and exploitation than previously thought.
Zubatovschina did not save tsarist Russia from revolution – and there is no reason to reduce US aid to Ukraine. But it requires the US national security apparatus to carefully consider the magnitude of the hostilities that now exist between Moscow and Washington, bearing an unfortunate resemblance to the hostilities at the beginning of the Cold War.
George Kennan, the US diplomat who advocated a policy of containment to limit Soviet expansion, warned that a more hostile Soviet Union forced the United States to adapt. As Kennan explained in 1948, “The Kremlin’s political warfare has become the most sophisticated and effective in history. We are, however, handicapped by a popular attachment to the concept of a fundamental difference between peace and war… now that we are involved in the full power of the Kremlin’s political warfare, we cannot afford to leave our resources unmobilized for secret political warfare.
Lieutenant General James Doolittle, who received the Medal of Honor for leading the daring Doolittle attack on Japan in World War II, agreed with Kennan and concluded that the United States needed to employ more aggressive covert action techniques to survive. Doolittle acknowledged that many Americans would reject his suggestion, but he considered it essential and concluded that “[h]so far, acceptable human conflict standards do not apply. If the United States is to survive, the long-standing American concepts of “fair play” must be reconsidered. We must develop effective espionage and counterintelligence services and must learn to undermine, sabotage and destroy our enemies using smarter, more sophisticated and more effective methods than those used against us. The American people may need to learn, understand and support this fundamentally abhorrent philosophy.”
Cold War memories need not send us every response, or prompt us to act hastily, but they are instructive, and we would be naive not to recognize the seriousness of Russian intelligence manipulating American political groups with a covert action campaign on the ground the United States. Unfortunately, we may all need to re-acquaint ourselves with the fundamentally repugnant philosophy of Kennan and Doolittle.
Michael Richter is a former intelligence officer with the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and now a lawyer in private practice. The opinions expressed here are his own.