Foreign Relations & International Law

Summary: Senate Foreign Relations Committee Russia Report

Evelyn Douek, Ed Stein
Friday, January 26, 2018, 1:30 PM

The Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee released a report on Jan. 10 entitled “Putin’s Asymmetrical Assault on Democracy in Russia and Europe: Implications for U.S. National Security.” The report was commissioned by Sen.

Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With

The Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee released a report on Jan. 10 entitled “Putin’s Asymmetrical Assault on Democracy in Russia and Europe: Implications for U.S. National Security.” The report was commissioned by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and initial news coverage of the report suggests that Senate Democrats remain focused on Russia-related matters.

The report—which spans over 200 pages—describes Russian intervention in democratic processes around the world and makes a variety of policy recommendations for combating these efforts. Cardin writes in his letter of transmittal that the report “seeks to continue [the] tradition” of bipartisan support for firm policies to counter Russian aggression, but throughout the report, its authors express frustration at the Trump administration’s lack of response to this urgent and growing threat. For example, while the report alleges“[n]ew technologies, updated policy priorities, and a resurgent brashness in the Kremlin” have enabled Putin’s expanded range of disinformation operations, it argues that “the lack of presidential leadership in addressing the threat Putin poses has hampered a strong U.S. response.”

The report does not seem to contain new information; it relies instead on publicly available research and reporting. Nevertheless, it collects a good deal of reporting in a single document.

The report first seeks to provide insight into Putin’s motivations and tactics of manipulation and repression by surveying his rise to power, the architecture of control inside Russia, and Putin’s leveraging of organized crime and corruption to achieve his goals. The report then sets out a series of detailed case studies of Russia’s intervention in elections in mature and transitioning democracies, highlighting the diverse array of Russian tactics, including global disinformation campaigns, illicit financial activity, and use of energy policy in influence efforts.

The report also outlines past and ongoing efforts to combat Russia’s information activities. And the report concludes with a series of recommendations to “deter and defend against the Kremlin’s use of its asymmetric arsenal, while also strengthening international norms and values to blunt the effects of malign influence operations by any state actor, including Russia.”

Although the report is too long to cover in detail here, the following excerpts capture some of the high-level conclusions:

Putin’s Attacks Are Widespread and Serious.

The report wastes no time in pointing the finger for intervening in democratic processes directly at Russian President Vladimir Putin:

Mr. Putin has thus made it a priority of his regime to attack the democracies of Europe and the United States and undermine the transatlantic alliance upon which Europe’s peace and prosperity have depended upon for over 70 years. He has used the security services, the media, public and private companies, organized criminal groups, and social and religious organizations to spread malicious disinformation, interfere in elections, fuel corruption, threaten energy security, and more. At their most extreme, the Russian government’s security services have been used to harass and even assassinate political enemies at home and abroad; cheat at the Olympic Games; and protect and exploit cybercriminals in Russia who attack American businesses and steal the financial information of American consumers. (1)

Blame Trump’s Lack of Response

The report equally quickly points the finger at President Trump for ignoring the ongoing threat:

Following attacks like Pearl Harbor and 9/11, U.S. presidents have rallied the country and the world to address the challenges facing the nation. Yet the current President of the United States has barely acknowledged the threat posed by Mr. Putin’s repeated attacks on democratic governments and institutions, let alone exercised the kind of leadership history has shown is necessary to effectively counter this kind of aggression. Never before in American history has so clear a threat to national security been so clearly ignored by a U.S. president. . . . While many mid-level and some senior-level officials throughout the State Department and U.S. government are cognizant of the threat posed by Mr. Putin’s asymmetric arsenal, the U.S. President continues to deny that any such threat exists, creating a leadership vacuum in our own government and among our European partners and allies. (IV)

Highlight Asymmetric Vulnerability

The report emphasizes the vulnerability of democracies to Putin’s malign influence operations.

[T]he Kremlin’s efforts attempt to exploit the advantages of democratic societies. As the former president of Estonia put it, ‘‘[W]hat they do to us we cannot do to them ... Liberal democracies with a free press and free and fair elections are at an asymmetric disadvantage ... the tools of their democratic and free speech can be used against them.’’ (37-38)

Russia’s Broad Misinformation Efforts

The report suggests that Russia’s misinformation efforts are not limited to several methods or objectives. Rather, they are deployed broadly and use every available lever of influence:

Today, the Kremlin’s malign influence operations employ state and non-state resources to achieve their ends, including the security services, television stations and pseudo news agencies, social media and internet trolls, public and private companies, organized crime groups, think tanks and special foundations, and social and religious groups. These efforts have ‘‘weaponized’’ four spheres of activity: traditional and social media, ideology and culture, crime and corruption, and energy. Disinformation campaigns are used to discredit politicians and democratic institutions like elections and independent media. Cultural, religious, and political organizations are used to repeat the Kremlin’s narrative of the day and disrupt social cohesion. Corruption is used to influence politicians and infiltrate decisionmaking bodies. And energy resources are used to cajole and coerce vulnerable foreign governments ... While the Russian government supplies many of the resources for these efforts, Kremlin-linked oligarchs are also believed to help fund malign influence operations in Europe. (37)

Contesting Truth

The report argues that the goal of Russian propaganda efforts is to confuse and distort events that threaten Russia:

At their core, the Kremlin’s disinformation operations seek to challenge the concept of objective truth. … For Putin and the Kremlin, the truth is not objective fact; the truth is whatever will advance the interests of the current regime. (39)

Therefore, Russian disinformation seeks to sow division and discord by playing on already existing tensions in society, and undermine faith in democratic institutions.

Social Media

While the report concludes that disinformation campaigns are an old Kremlin tactic, it argues that technology has given Putin new tools to enhance the reach of these efforts. As Evelyn has written in greater detail, the report specifically examines the role social media has played in Russia’s misinformation activities:

Beyond RT and Sputnik, the Russian government uses a variety of additional tools to amplify and reinforce its disinformation campaigns. Internet ‘‘trolls’’ are one such tool—individuals who try to derail online debates and amplify the anti-West narratives propagated by RT and Sputnik. These trolls use thousands of fake social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms to attack articles or individuals that are critical of Putin and Kremlin policies, spread conspiracy theories and pro-Kremlin messages, attack opponents of Putin’s regime, and drown out constructive debate. (43-44)

Interference in Mature Democracies

The report finds that Russia specifically targets countries with established democratic institutions to make democratic governance seem less appealing:

Russia seeks to exacerbate divisions in consolidated democracies who are seen as the flagbearers for European values and institutions, and thus staunchly opposed to the Russian government’s agenda to undermine those values and institutions. And in its attempts to weaken the democratic systems of these nations, the Kremlin amplifies their perceived weaknesses and problems to countries on Russia’s periphery, in an attempt to show that consolidated democracy is not a goal worth pursuing. (99)

Sanctions and Sovereign Debt

The report’s authors suggest that government-issued debt could be used to lessen the bite of sanctions against designated actors:

Even though Mr. Putin has complained that sanctions are ‘’severely harming Russia,’’ when it comes to accessing international financial markets, the sanctions mostly affect state-owned companies and do not prohibit the government from selling bonds to Western investors. Furthermore, the Russian government can ease sanctioned firms’ access to financing by lending them money raised from bond sales in international capital markets. The U.S. Treasury Department is required to report in early 2018 on the possible effects on Russia’s economy of sanctions on sovereign debt, which could have the potential to foreclose external sources of funds. While the head of Russia’s central bank believes that ‘‘there won’t be any seriously negative consequences’’ from such sanctions, economists have warned that such sanctions ‘‘may totally stop other foreign investors, not the U.S. investors only, from buying the new government debt, fiercely pushing up borrowing costs for Russia.’’ (147-148)

Learning From Experience

The bulk of the report is a series of detailed case studies of recent Russian interference and the lessons the U.S. should take away from the experience of those countries and their responses. Some of the more pointed lessons that the United States should learn, according to the report, include:

  • The United Kingdom publicly chastised Russia for its meddling and moved to strengthen cybersecurity;
  • Germany preempted interference with a strong warning about consequences and an agreement among political parties to minimize exposure to interference efforts;
  • France fostered strong cooperation between government, political and media actors to blunt the impact of Russia’s campaigns; and
  • The Nordic and Baltic states educated their citizens about the threats, increasing public resilience against such activity.

What should be done?

In light of these lessons, the report calls for a “coherent, comprehensive, and coordinated approach to the Kremlin’s malign influence operations.” It notes that “[i]n early 2017, Congress provided the State Department’s Global Engagement Center the resources and mandate to address Kremlin disinformation campaigns, but operations have been stymied by the Department’s hiring freeze and unnecessarily long delays by its senior leadership in transferring authorized funds to the office.” Apparently tired of waiting for the State Department to formulate a strategy, the report itself outlines 10 concrete steps that the U.S. should take:

  1. President Trump should respond to the national security threat that Putin’s meddling poses by declaring that it is U.S. policy to counter Russian hybrid threats around the world, establishing an inter-agency fusion cell (modelled on the National Counterterrorism Center) to coordinate the U.S. response to Russian malign influence operations and increasing funding dedicated to countering these threats.

  2. The U.S. should demonstrate clear and sustained diplomatic leadership in support of human rights, “form the backbone of democratic systems,” especially in the European and Eurasian states most vulnerable to Russian interference.

  3. The U.S. should take further steps to expose and freeze Kremlin-linked “dirty money” obtained through corruption.

  4. Countries that employ malign influence operations should be subjected to a preemptive and escalatory sanctions regime as “Hybrid Threat Actors”.

  5. The intelligence community and the State Department should publicize the Kremlin’s global malign influence efforts, to boost public awareness but also drive effective responses from the private sector. Congress should also pass legislation to create an independent investigation into Russia’s meddling in elections.

  6. The U.S. should lead an international effort to build an international coalition to counter hybrid threats such as malign influence operations.

  7. The U.S. and European countries should make it harder for foreign actors to interfere in their democracies by passing legislation to require full disclosure of shell company owners and political funding.

  8. The U.S. and other NATO countries should increase cyber defenses—including rapid response teams—and build norms around cyber warfare and deterrence, including what constitutes an attack for the purposes of NATO’s Article 5 collective defense provision.

  9. Social Media companies should be held accountable for their role as conduits of disinformation campaigns.

  10. The U.S. should use its trade and development agencies to help reduce European dependence on Russian energy sources.

Overall, the report is a detailed summary of the breadth and depth of Russian malign influence operations around the world, as well as the high-level of resources and commitment that would be required to meet these threats.

Evelyn Douek is an Assistant Professor of Law at Stanford Law School and Senior Research Fellow at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. She holds a doctorate from Harvard Law School on the topic of private and public regulation of online speech. Prior to attending HLS, Evelyn was an Associate (clerk) to the Honourable Chief Justice Susan Kiefel of the High Court of Australia. She received her LL.B. from UNSW Sydney, where she was Executive Editor of the UNSW Law Journal.
Ed Stein is a graduate of Harvard Law School and Yale University. He previously worked at the Treasury Department on sanctions policy and anti-money laundering/counter-terrorist financing regulation and enforcement. He has also worked for the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia and the Council on Foreign Relations.

Subscribe to Lawfare