A Guide to Russia’s High Tech Tool Box for Subverting US Democracy
A dead dog in Moscow. A dead dissident in London. Twitter trolls run by the Kremlin’s Internet Research Agency. Denial of service attacks and ransomware deployed across Ukraine. News reports from the DC offices of Sputnik and RT. Spies hidden in the heart of Wall Street. The hacking of John Podesta’s creamy risotto recipe. And a century-old fabricated staple of anti-Semitic hate literature.
At first glance these disparate phenomena might seem only vaguely connected. Sure, they can all be traced back to Russia. But is there any method to their badness? The definitive answer, according to Russia experts inside and outside the US government, is most certainly yes. In fact, they are part of an increasingly digital intelligence playbook known as “active measures,” a wide-ranging set of techniques and strategies that Russian military and intelligence services deploy to influence the affairs of nations across the globe.
As the investigation into Russia’s influence on the 2016 election—and the Trump campaign’s potential participation in that effort—has intensified this summer, the Putin regime’s systematic effort to undermine and destabilize democracies has become the subject of urgent focus in the West. According to interviews with more than a dozen US and European intelligence officials and diplomats, Russian active measures represent perhaps the biggest challenge to the Western order since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The consensus: Vladimir Putin, playing a poor hand economically and demographically at home, is seeking to destabilize the multilateral institutions, partnerships, and Western democracies that have kept the peace during the past seven decades.
The coordinated and multifaceted Russia efforts in the 2016 election—from the attacks on the DNC and John Podesta’s email to a meeting between a Russian lawyer and Donald Trump Jr. that bears all the hallmarks of an intelligence mission—likely involved every major Russian intelligence service: the foreign intelligence service (known as the SVR) as well as the state security service (the FSB, the successor to the KGB), and the military intelligence (the GRU), both of which separately penetrated servers at the DNC.
Understanding just how extensive and coordinated Russia’s operations against the West are represents the first step in confronting—and defeating—Putin’s increased aggression, particularly as it becomes clear that the 2016 election interference was just a starting point. “If there has ever been a clarion call for vigilance and action against a threat to the very foundation of our democratic political system, this episode is it,” former director of national intelligence James Clapper said this spring. “I hope the American people recognize the severity of this threat and that we collectively counter it before it further erodes the fabric of our democracy.”
Indeed, Western intelligence leaders have warned throughout the spring that they expect Russia to use similar tricks in German parliamentary election this fall, as well as in the 2018 US congressional midterms and the 2020 presidential race. “Russia is not constrained by a rule of law or a sense of ethics—same with ISIS, same with China,” says Chris Donnelly, director of the UK-based Institute for Statecraft. “They’re trying to change the rules of the game, which they’ve seen us set in our favor.”
Russia’s active-measures playbook, according to public and private-sector investigators, dates back to Czarist Russia and the beginning of the Soviet Union. It has been honed and deployed over decades to advance Russian interests both at home and abroad—and has long been driven by a consistent geopolitical worldview, executed in distinct ways, and guided by a unique tradecraft philosophy at odds with the approach of Western intelligence services.
But enough throat clearing. Let’s break it down, shall we?
THE GRAND STRATEGY
When he began his run for president, Donald Trump had almost certainly never heard of Valery Gerasimov. But the Russian general’s vision for war in the 21st century will almost certainly help define Trump’s administration in the history books. Gerasimov, who has spent more than 40 years in the Soviet and Russian military, is a complicated figure in global geopolitics: He is under international sanctions for his role in Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and its destabilizing war in eastern Ukraine, yet by dint of his office is the man US Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, sat down with personally in March to discuss Syria.
A few months after taking over as Russia’s chief of the general staff, Gerasimov outlined his vision for a 21st-century style of warfare. It erased the boundary between peace and war and relied on emerging technologies to provide a level of deniability for the Russian military. “In the 21st century…wars are no longer declared and, having begun, proceed according to an unfamiliar template,” he explained in a February 2013 article in the Russian journal, Military-Industrial Courier. Later, he outlined a coordinated and multi-pronged approach to warfare that relies on asymmetric tools to open up “a permanently operating front through the entire territory of the enemy state.”
In other words, times have changed. “The focus of applied methods of conflict has altered in the direction of the broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian, and other nonmilitary measures—applied in coordination with the protest potential of the population,” he wrote. These tools, he said, would be “supplemented by military means of a concealed character,” like special forces. Only in the final stage of a conflict would uniformed military be deployed, usually “under the guise of peacekeeping and crisis regulation.”
Gerasimov’s conception of modern conflict—now enshrined as Paragraph 15(a) of the official Russian military doctrine, published in December 2014—is perhaps the clearest current-day explanation of the coordinated doctrine that Lenin and Stalin might recognize. And it is almost stage-by-stage the playbook Russia used to annex Crimea and destabilize eastern Ukraine. “Russia’s concept of conflict does not distinguish between hybrid and classical warfare—there is simply warfare,” says Ben Nimmo, who studies Russian influence operations for the Atlantic Council.
The roots of those active measures go deep—and they are key to comprehending the way that Russia’s leaders have viewed global affairs for a century. “Looking back at the Soviet Union, they’re establishing an understanding that the world is completely hostile to them,” Donnelly says. “They’re in a constant state of conflict with the capitalist world. They’ve developed from the very start a military doctrine which is a structured framework of thinking, a very disciplined approach, and a precise terminology.”
Perhaps the first identifiable active-measures operation, Nimmo says, was the 1903 publication of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a fabricated anti-Semitic pamphlet circulated by the Czarist Russian police that described a Jewish plot for world domination. Its purpose: to give a pretext for Russia’s anti-Jewish pogroms. In the decades since, the active-measures toolbox has expanded and evolved as technologies and adversaries have, but the core of the efforts remains the same. “In some ways, it’s very old-fashioned,” says Robert Hannigan, who until this spring headed the Government Communications Headquarters, the British equivalent of the National Security Agency.
“It’s the same playbook they used in the Cold War era,” says Clint Watts, a researcher at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. In the 2016 election, he says, Russia “just used a digital battlefield instead of an analog one. They didn’t do anything in terms of strategic doctrine that was different. It was just much easier to execute in cyberspace and social media than they could have ever done in the 1980s, for example.”
And why not? As far removed as US politics may feel from the dark days of the Cold War—at least until recently—the Russian leadership remains dominated by those who began their careers rising through ranks controlled by stalwarts of the Communist Party. Putin began as a KGB officer, and today nearly all of his top advisers are aging products of the Cold War: Gerasimov is in his early 60s. Putin’s top foreign policy adviser, Yuri Ushakov—Sergey Kislyak’s predecessor as ambassador to the US—turned 70 in March, and the long-serving foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, is 67. The men who head the three main intelligence services are all in their early 60s and graduates of the Soviet Union’s top intelligence and military academies. “There’s no X-ray into someone else’s thoughts, but judging from my own soul, which I know well, we grew up in the Soviet Union seeing the US as the enemy,” Andrei Kozyrev, who served as Russia’s foreign minister in the 1990s, tells me.
Putin came to power—and held onto it—during a violent and turbulent time in Russia, a period that reinforced his mentality that the West is a constant, sustained adversary in geopolitics, not a partner for peace. That approach has given him and his leadership a fundamentally different worldview. “In the main, Western politicians—especially in Europe—have a peacetime approach,” Donnelly says. “They’ve thrived amid slow rates of change and a stable, rules-based system. Putin is the antithesis of this.”
While the operations against the 2016 election caught many in the US by surprise—officials in both the White House and the intelligence community have explained in recent months that their response was slowed by their failure to imagine that Russia would be so bold and coordinated in attacking the foundational pillars of a democratic election—Russia’s leadership simply sees it as the latest chapter in a long-running shadow battle.
Indeed, all of the operations—from those used in Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008 to those used to influence the Brexit referendum and the US election in 2016—are deployed with a singular goal in mind: to undermine Western democracies and weaken the multilateral alliances that Russia sees opposing its future, from NATO to the European Union (not to mention the international institutions—like the internet itself—that were created without much Russian input).
Michael McFaul, a Stanford political science professor who served as Barack Obama’s second-term ambassador to Moscow, says that as much as Obama tried to adopt what he called “win-win outcomes,” Putin sees the world as zero-sum game. And given Russia’s economic and demographic weaknesses right now, it’s easier to tear down the West than it is to build up things domestically. “The long-run objective is to have democracy break down,” Watts says. “To have so many internal divides and so many fights between elected officials that there is no policy—which is exactly where we’re at in the United States right now.”
So what, specifically, is in the bag of tricks?
At the broadest level, modern Russian active measures break down into at least eight distinct types, ranging from traditional diplomacy to covert assassinations. While each tool is important in its own way, it’s the combination of Russia’s efforts that make them so effective internationally. And they are self-reinforcing, because in Russia the intelligence apparatus, business community, organized crime groups, and media distribution networks blend together, blurring and erasing the line between public and private-sector initiatives and creating one amorphous state-controlled enterprise to advance the personal goals of Vladimir Putin and his allies.
Whereas many Kremlin efforts encompass two or more of these tools at once—and nearly all of them are visible in the still-unfolding investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia—Western intelligence officials break down Russia’s active measures into these distinct tactics:
Dezinformatsiya, as its known in Russia, is an umbrella term for so-called information influence operations that seek to muddy the political waters. It can involve both overt state-sponsored media—like the Russian news channels RT and Sputnik, which recently launched a radio station in DC—as well as less fringe news sites and, in recent years, a rising number of Twitter trolls and social media bots.
Yet as much as Twitter trolls dominate the headlines, driving online conversation by appearing to cause groundswells of conversation around pro-Kremlin hashtags, they represent just the tip of a coordinated and voluminous Russian message spear. “The bots and trolls are important, but they’re maybe 10 percent of the tools that are used. They’re used for amplification and they’re used for bullying,” says one European official who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about the Russian threat. “There’s so much more in the disinformation ecosystem that we should be concerned about.”
For instance: Russia’s legions of highly paid Washington lobbyists. The PR firm Ketchum represented the country for nine years, until 2015, and collected more than $60 million, according to federal lobbying disclosures, to advocate for and guide Russia through the capital. Its high-profile public victories were few, with the highlight being a September 11, 2013, op-ed in The New York Times by Vladimir Putin in which the Russian leader criticized American exceptionalism.
Beyond those PR efforts, which include regular “Russia Beyond the Headlines” inserts into The Washington Post, the Kremlin also appears to finance a number of less-visible news outlets around the world, often targeted to specific audiences—like financial news readers—or language populations. “Their readership is much higher than you might think. They’re really good on social media,” the European official says, explaining that one survey had mapped thousands of Russia-linked channels in dozens of countries. “We don’t know how many disinformation channels there are,” he says. “They have the full spectrum from full conspiracy to more trustworthy-appearing. It’s information carpet-bombing—let’s hit as many tools as we can.” (In 2015 The New York Times documented at length the countless hoaxes launched by just one of these groups, the Internet Research Agency, a troll farm in St. Petersburg.)
The reach of these efforts encompasses all levers of Russian power. One European researcher recalled with dark appreciation meeting a Russian Orthodox priest in a small city in the Czech Republic who ably parroted Kremlin propaganda and explained how he regularly received church bulletins reporting “the truth about Russia.” As the researcher says, “Here was a priest speaking to a tiny population in a mostly atheist country, and he was still looped into the latest from the Kremlin.”
Of course, not all of these efforts succeed—Sputnik shuttered many of its Scandinavian-language sites after they failed to gain traction in countries where English is widespread—but the cumulative impact can be quite effective, muddying the waters across the political spectrum. According to a report that examined the effect of Russian disinformation efforts in central Europe, “Although Russia has not been able to win the hearts and minds of the people in this region, it has managed to enchant them, ensuring that they are confused and frustrated, full of negative emotions toward their own values and institutions.” The report concluded that, “the goal of Russian propaganda is not necessarily to convince people that the Russian view of the world is the right one or that their interpretation of events is better, but rather to destroy and undermine confidence in the Western media.”
Sometimes, too, Russia finds a witting or unwitting ally in its information efforts. The most high-profile example of the past 18 months, of course, has been Donald Trump. Every time he tweets “#FAKENEWS” about a story that is, in fact, true, he helps undermine the trust and confidence in a free and independent press. As Watts says, “Not only was the Trump team willing to discuss with the Russians how to go about this—that’s sort of coming out—but they were repeating verbatim themes pushed by the Kremlin: ‘Clinton isn’t healthy.‘ ’She can’t endure.‘ ’Clinton is corrupt.‘ ’Clinton emails.’ All of that was pumped very heavily by the Russians even before Trump was a serious candidate. Then going into the last two months: ‘Election fraud, vote rigged, Sanders got a raw deal.’ It was all started by the Kremlin, and Trump repeated all of it.”
Perhaps nowhere is the blurring of lines between intelligence operations and organized crime groups more clear than in cyberspace, where Western law enforcement officials say that they’ve seen a steady rise of hybrid operations involving both organized crime and Russian officials. During the 2014 invasion of Ukraine, the FBI watched as Evgeny Bogachev, who was indicted for running the GameOver Zeus botnet—a complex financial fraud that stole more than $100 million from US banks—used his network of malware-infected computers to mine for classified information about Ukraine, Georgia, Turkey, and other Russian adversaries. Similarly, this spring, US authorities indicted four people—two Russian intelligence officers and two notorious Russian cybercriminals—for the hacking of nearly a billion Yahoo accounts.
The government itself employs sophisticated hacking teams. According to US investigators, the hack of the DNC’s servers was apparently the work of two separate Russian teams, one from the GRU and one from the FSB, neither of which appears to have known the other was also rooting around in the Democratic Party’s files. From there, the plundered files were laundered through online leak sites like WikiLeaks and DCLeaks, the later of which, cybersecurity researchers say, is a front for the GRU. Their impact on the 2016 election was sizable, yielding months of damaging headlines and helping confuse voters about whether Hillary Clinton’s emails as secretary of state had been compromised by the Russian government. Trump himself mentioned Wikileaks and the emails at least 164 times in the final month of the campaign, saying at one point, “Boy, that WikiLeaks has done a job on her, hasn’t it?”
But Russia’s cyber efforts have not been limited to financial fraud and information operations. More nefariously, Russia has repeatedly deployed cyber-activities in countries like Estonia and Ukraine, as WIRED’s Andy Greenberg traced in his cover story this spring, “How to Turn a Country Off.” The targeting of critical infrastructure like electrical grids and the mass disruption of online commerce and services through distributed denial of service attacks (which flood computer networks with bogus web traffic) remains just shy of overt warfare, allowing Russia to advance its geopolitical goals while remaining below the threshold that would prompt a real-world military response.
Beyond attacks on nation states, though, these cyber operations relentlessly pursue individual critics of the regime as well. Last summer, the World Anti-Doping Agency announced that hackers—believed to be linked to the Russian government—had accessed the personal information and address of Yulia Stepanova, an 800-meter runner who had been a key whistle-blower in Russia’s long-term athletic doping efforts. The announcement forced Stepanova, who had already fled to the US for safety, to move again to a new, undisclosed location.
Russia boasts the world’s largest natural gas reserves and the seventh-largest oil reserves and has long viewed Europe’s dependence on its hydrocarbons—roughly a third of Europe’s oil comes from Russian pipelines, as does even more of its natural gas—as a tool to be deployed geopolitically, especially since its top energy companies, like the state-owned Rosneft and Gazprom, are closely allied with Putin’s inner circle.
Since 2006, Russia has repeatedly played politics with its gas exports, each time with the goal of punishing Ukraine. In the winter of 2009, during a dispute with Ukraine, Russia dramatically reduced the amount of natural gas piped into that country, which had the downstream effect of paralyzing other eastern European neighbors like Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, and Croatia. The move sparked immediate crises, as industry was hobbled and fuel for heat became scarce in the middle of a cold snap.
The weaponization of oil and gas, though, has been only partially successful. For one thing, Russia is simply too reliant on the hard currency that foreign oil and gas sales provide, and the sustained low cost of oil is wreaking havoc on the Russian economy. Meanwhile, the rise of shale oil, liquefied natural gas, and renewables like wind and solar is allowing European nations to diversify and draw on a wider set of options to heat their homes and power their economies.
At the same time, though, Russia and Europe are moving forward with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would bypass eastern Europe and deliver natural gas straight to Germany, increasing that country’s reliance on Russian exports even as it provides a potential pathway for Russia to cut off Ukraine’s gas supply without affecting its neighbors.
The long-standing ties between Russian business and the more shadowy worlds of intelligence and criminal enterprise has meant that there’s no shortage of cash to throw around to advance Russia’s interests overseas and woo possible help.
According to US and European intelligence officials, Russia regularly funnels cash to fringe political parties across Europe that might trumpet pro-Kremlin rhetoric, a practice datindg back to the Cold War. The US has not been exempt from this practice: During the 1968 presidential campaign, the long-time Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin offered financial assistance to Richard Nixon’s opponent, Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey—only to have the aid firmly rejected.
Not all candidates—or business leaders—are as quick to refuse Russian money. “Money is a weapon used to buy weapons,” Donnelly says. “How many Brits take ‘consultancy’ payments from Russian companies? How seriously is the British ability to respond to Russian geopolitical aggression compromised because of the hundreds of millions that have been laundered—I mean invested—in London? The answer is: considerably.”
In many ways, these ties between Russian officials, oligarchs, and commercial enterprises make it hard to separate out business, politics, and espionage. According to Senate testimony this summer by hedge fund leader turned anticorruption activist Bill Browder, Putin has struck a deal with the country’s oligarchs that allows them to pillage the country’s economy in exchange for personal kickbacks. “From that moment on, Putin became the biggest oligarch in Russia and the richest man in the world,” Browder said. Recent revelations from the Panama Papers have shown that Putin’s closest childhood friend, Sergei Roldugin, a famous cellist, received $2 billion from Russian oligarchs and the Russian state.
When the Russian SVR intelligence service tried in 2013 to recruit Carter Page, who went on to be a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, it was partly because Page wanted to do business with Gazprom. One Russian SVR officer was caught on an FBI listening device saying about Page: “He got hooked on Gazprom thinking that if they have a project, he could rise up. Maybe he can. I don’t know, but it’s obvious that he wants to earn lots of money. For now his enthusiasm works for me. I also promised him a lot: that I have connections in the Trade Representation, meaning that you can push contracts [Laughs.] I will feed him empty promises.”
Donnelly says he thinks that if Trump himself were ever targeted by Russian intelligence as part of his business dealings in Russia, it wasn’t because of any prescience. It was just business as usual inside Russia. “The Russians didn’t identify Donald Trump six years ago as a likely president.” Donnelly says. “Every rich powerful person heading to Moscow is going to be targeted.”
Then there’s what is known as Mokroye Dyelo, the so-called “wet business” of beatings and assassinations that have long targeted regime critics and potential threats like Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky, murdered in Mexico City in 1940. The goal isn’t the elimination of overseas criticism but merely to inject enough fear into the Russian diaspora that it remains quiet and docile.
In the past few decades, dozens of Russian officials and Putin critics have died under suspicious circumstances. Often the assassinations are brazen, intended to send a message that public criticism will only be tolerated for so long. In 2006, former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned in London by radioactive polonium, a particularly noisy method of murder. Just a month before Litvinenko’s death, the muckraking journalist Anna Politkovskaya was shot to death in Moscow on Putin’s birthday. More recently, opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was gunned down within view of the Kremlin. And this spring, another opposition candidate, Alexei Navalny, suffered an eye injury after he was attacked on the street with a chemical agent. Another political activist, Vladimir Kara-Murza, who testified before the US Congress this spring, said that he’d twice been poisoned, both times hovering near death in a coma.
Another favorite of Russia’s special services is the “suspicious suicide,” like the December 2007 death of banker Oleg Zhukovsky, who had opposed the Kremlin’s efforts to take over his financial institution. According to authorities, Zhukovsky killed himself after pinning a suicide note to his chest, tying himself to a chair, placing a bag over his head, and throwing himself into his swimming pool.
More recently, it hasn’t escaped the notice of investigators and intelligence services that there have been a number of suspicious deaths tied to the 2016 election operation, including a one-time KGB official who appears to have been a source for the infamous Christopher Steele “dossier” assembled about alleged Trump ties to Russia. “Follow the trail of dead Russians,” Watts told the US Senate this spring during a hearing about Russia’s interference in the election. “There have been more dead Russians in the past three months that are tied to this investigation. They are dropping dead, even in Western countries.”
Russian “wet business” doesn’t always involve humans: US diplomats were aghast when, as part of an escalating harassment campaign against American officials in Moscow in the years since Putin retook office in 2012, Russian intelligence broke into the home of the US Embassy’s defense attaché and killed his dog.
While intelligence agencies the world over routinely blackmail and exploit emotional pressure points, Russia has long excelled in the use of kompromat, compromising material of a financial, sexual, or health-related nature that can coerce covert cooperation—or silence critics.
The history of Russian politics is dotted by the release of compromising sex tapes—one of which, authentic or not, helped lead to the firing of a prosecutor investigating Boris Yeltsin’s government. In August 2009, an American diplomat named Kyle Hatcher was caught up in a scandal over what the US Embassy declared was a faked sex tape that mixed video of Hatcher with scenes of another couple having sex. “Clearly the video we saw was a montage of lots of different clips, some of which are clearly fabricated,” ambassador John Beyrle told ABC News at the time, pointing to the fact that Hatcher worked on outreach to human rights groups as one reason he was likely targeted. “There may be some people here who don’t like that job description and would like to discredit him in the eyes of his contacts.”
Visiting journalists, diplomats, and influential figures are warned to beware of “honeypots,” people trying to seduce them or strangers offering deals that are seemingly too good to be true. Donnelly says he’s seen all too many people fall victim to such ploys, nearly all of which play out in similarly damaging ways—like when a senior manager at a US bank branch in Moscow was targeted for blackmail and eventually had to be pulled out of the country. “That gets him out of Russia, but it doesn’t solve the problem,” Donnelly says. “Now you have someone the Russians can blackmail operating in London, who can be pressured to do things.”
Russia takes special advantage of the openness of Western democracies to conduct advanced spying operations, leaning heavily on its UN consulate staff in New York to cloak intelligence officers under diplomatic cover. But Russia has also excelled over the years at hiding “nonofficial cover” agents, so-called NOCs, inside US society.
In 2010, after a years-long investigation known as Operation Ghost Stories, the FBI arrested 10 “sleeper” SVR agents who had been living under “deep cover” for years, working in seemingly apolitical jobs along the East Coast. That case, which inspired the FX series The Americans, captured the public imagination in part because the arrests included Anna Chapman, a striking redhead who became front-page tabloid fodder.
In early 2015, the FBI arrested another NOC, Evgeny Buryakov, who had been working in the New York office of the Russian investment bank VEB. Buryakov was expelled from the country earlier this year after spending more than a year in federal lockup—the first Russian intelligence officer to be imprisoned in the US in four decades.
Others cases have demonstrated the depth and breadth of Russian intelligence operations within the US. In 2012, the FBI arrested 11 people in Texas on charges of participating in what it called a “Russian military procurement network,” smuggling high tech tools out of the US. In 2015, one of those involved, businessman Alexander Fishenko, pleaded guilty to a 10-year effort helping smuggle more than $50 million in illegal technology to Russia through his Houston business, Arc Electronics. “Arc would receive shopping lists from Russian entities, and they would go about acquiring the parts on the shopping lists,” FBI agent Crosby Houpt testified.
Not all spies are caught or expelled, though—many operate under close surveillance by the FBI, which is responsible for domestic counterintelligence efforts. The FBI maintains surveillance posts that watch the entrances and exits at Russian missions across the country. Neighbors have long joked about suspiciously empty houses next door to the embassy in Washington, DC, and outside the massive apartment complex in the Bronx that houses most of Russia’s UN staff—seemingly vacant houses with drawn blinds and where the newspapers and mail are unfailingly collected.
Suspected Russian intelligence officers at the embassy in DC are assigned to two-agent FBI teams out of the Washington field office, who are responsible both for monitoring the officers’ activities as well as potentially laying the groundwork for possible recruitment as a spy or double-agent.
Sometimes that surveillance turns up intriguing and troubling intelligence operations: This spring, Politico’s Ali Watkins reported that US officials were concerned that an abnormally large number of domestic trips by Russian diplomats were a ruse to map the nation’s fiber-optic internet cables. As a source told Watkins, “They find these guys driving around in circles in Kansas. It’s a pretty aggressive effort.”
Through old-fashioned diplomacy, glad-handing, and a liberal dose of money, Putin’s government has amassed a varied set of Western political allies, from UK nationalist leader Nigel Farage to Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser. While much of the attention has focused on the Kremlin’s boosting of far-right nationalist movements in Europe, Russia is just as likely to embrace a far-left politician, as it did with 2016 Green Party candidate Jill Stein, who sat at a table with Flynn and Vladimir Putin during a December 2015 gala dinner in Russia. (Flynn was paid upward of $40,000 for his presence.) “It’s not that important what you’re for, it’s about what you’re against. If you’re against Europe, against globalization, they don’t care whether you’re a communist or a fascist,” the European official explained.
“Their goals are essentially to rebuild the Soviet Union’s territory, and to do that you’ve got to get rid of two things: the NATO alliance and the European Union,” Watts says. “The way they’re going to go about doing that is by trying to develop audiences and then elected officials in each of these countries that want the same objective on a foreign policy level.”
The co-chair of the US-Russia Economic Relations Caucus in Congress was at one point Michael Grimm, a former FBI agent known as “Mikey Suits,” who as a congressman was charged with 20 counts of fraud, wire fraud, and tax evasion. He pleaded guilty to a single felony, resigned from Congress, and was sentenced to eight months in federal prison.
The movie star Steven Seagal has cultivated a close relationship with Putin, based in part on their shared love of martial arts, and just before last year’s election the Russian government announced it was awarding him Russian citizenship. The embassy and the Russian government have also engaged in strange relationships with fringe secessionist movements in Texas and California and courted conservative groups like the Family Research Council.
To win over more friends, Russia annually flies American “influencers” on all-expenses-paid trips to its Valdai Discussion Club, a Putin-era invention set on the banks of Lake Valdai, outside St. Petersburg. The annual conference is Russia’s attempt to create a competitor to the West-centric Davos World Economic Forum and culminates in a large-group meeting with Putin himself. But its nascent prestige has foundered since the Crimea invasion, and today the Discussion Club has been largely populated by Putin sycophants and apologists.
Part of what makes the active-measures playbook effective, according to Western intelligence, is that the tactics are guided not just by Putin’s grand strategic goals but by uniquely Russian tradecraft which differs in key respects from Western efforts. The “illegals” operation was typical of Russian efforts: Run by the SVR’s Directorate S, the branch responsible for “nontraditional” or “illegal” espionage, it was the kind of long-term play US intelligence agencies—buffeted by ever-shifting political appointees—rarely attempt.
And whereas the technological prowess of American and European intelligence has led to those agencies sometimes overrelying on “signals intelligence”— intercepted calls and emails—Russian intelligence has tended to prize human sources and well-placed spies. That mindset stems in part from the fact that Russians, coming from a traditionally closed society where the media operates as an extension of the state and where misleading propaganda abounds, distrust the “open source” news and information of Western society.
As part of the Buryakov case, the FBI used an undercover agent to plant bugged binders inside the SVR’s “rezidentura” in New York that yielded hours and hours of recorded conversations in the heart of Russia’s US intelligence base. The surveillance provided a rare peek into the realities of Russian tradecraft. Even the FBI special agent who oversaw the operation—Maria Ricci, a Columbia University English major-turned-spyhunter who has spent the past 15 years chasing Russian spies in the US—was disturbed by the ruthlessness documented in the surveillance. “[They] were brutal in the way they used people. They squeezed them like a lemon and then discarded the rind,” Ricci told me last summer. “This isn’t about just stealing classified information. This is about stealing you. It’s about having you in a Rolodex down the road when they need it.”
Ricci, who was central to both the illegals operation and the Buryakov case, told me that the FBI often sees Americans become unwitting agents, passing along useful tips to Russian officers without realizing who they’re dealing with. “When the Russians come to you, they don’t say, ‘Hey, I’m an intelligence officer,’” she says. “They say, ‘Hey, friend, it’d be useful to have this information.’”
But recorded conversations made clear that the friendships were, to the Russian intelligence officers, nothing more than business transactions. As one of the SVR officers said on the tapes, “How else to work with foreigners? You promise a favor for a favor. You get the documents from him and tell him to go fuck himself. But not to upset you, I will take you to a restaurant and give you an expensive gift. You just need to sign for it. This is ideal working method.”
That observation was echoed by former CIA director John Brennan in congressional testimony this spring, where he explained how manipulative and subtle Russian intelligence methods can be. “I know what the Russians try to do,” Brennan told the Senate in May. “They try to suborn individuals and try to get individuals, including US individuals, to act on their behalf, wittingly or unwittingly.”
He then offered a chilling, general observation about what he’s seen—pointing, in a roundabout way, to one possible explanation for the Trump campaign’s repeated contacts with Russians. “Frequently, people who go along a treasonous path do not know they are on a treasonous path until it is too late,” Brennan said. That subtle, long-range philosophy is one reason intelligence professionals say the Trump Tower meeting between a Russian lawyer and Trump campaign leaders bears the hallmarks of a covert mission. Spy agencies worldwide rarely present themselves outright as intelligence agencies, relying instead on assets who are one- or two-degrees removed, so-called “cut-outs,” to help provide deniability if something goes wrong.
The Trump Tower meeting has all the earmarks of a so-called intelligence test—the ambiguous offer of Russian assistance, determining whether the meeting would be granted or reported to the FBI, who would participate, and what reaction the Russian discussion would elicit. Would the Trump campaign confront and reject Russian assistance or keep it silent? The fact that the meeting happened—and that the Trump campaign kept silent about it—was, according to a long-time CIA officer, perhaps the “green light Russia was looking for to launch a more aggressive phase of intervention in the U.S. election.”
It’s a sophisticated game, one that Russia has played particularly well in recent years, despite the high-profile failures like the arrest of the illegals. It succeeds because Russia knows how to effectively exploit the seams and systemic weaknesses in Western democracies. As Robert Hannigan tells me, “The Russians have always used the openness of democracy against us.”
And, after a year that saw the passage of Brexit and Trump’s election—both efforts aided by the amplification of the Kremlin message machine—Western democracy indeed seems deeply imperiled. “Putin thinks he’s being successful,” Donnelly says. “What he’s seeing is a crisis of democracy in Western countries. Our populations see the development of political elites who aren’t responding to their needs. We do have a problem. The world is moving at a wartime pace of change, and we’re facing it with peacetime leaders, peacetime regulations, and peacetime politics.”
For his part, though, the European official says he worries deeply about the debate since the 2016 election, which has focused on “fixing” American democracy—as if better civic education or news literacy is a panacea that will thwart Putin’s global ambition. Such an approach, he says, is “victim-blaming.”
“We want to be democracies, we want to have our weaknesses. We need to deal with the aggressor. It’s unfortunate that the argument has shifted to ‘Let’s repair our democracies and everything will be fine.’ No, it won’t. They’ll just shift direction—if one tool doesn’t work, they’ll try another,” the official says. “The problem is the aggression, not our democracy.”
Garrett M. Graff is a contributing editor at WIRED. He covers national security and is, most recently, the author of Raven Rock: The Story of the US Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself—While the Rest of Us Die. He can be reached at email@example.com.