On March 1, 2018, Senator Warner delivered the keynote address at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's launch of the Global Russia Project. Video of the speech and text of Senator Warner's remarks, as prepared for delivery, are below:
After the Berlin Wall fell, the United States reached out to the “new Russia” under Yeltsin and attempted to bring it into the western community of nations. We, perhaps naively, assumed that Russia’s eventual integration into institutions like the G7 and the EU was both natural and inevitable. Many of us imagined that, after the failure of communism, the allure and the success of western, free-market democracy would attract and breed success further east. At the same time, we watched as Russia’s conventional military capabilities atrophied and its economy stagnated, and concluded that the Russian threat was reduced. Facing this changed world, we declared victory in the Cold War, and moved on.
We turned our focus from superpower rivalry to counterterrorism, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the challenges emanating from failed states. We worked to track, chase and kill terrorists around the world. This was a logical and understandable transformation, given the 9/11 attack, and other threats to our security posed by failing states. However, there was a cost to these decisions – and we took our eyes off the re-emerging threat posed by Russia.
What we did not imagine at the time – and perhaps we should have – was the resentment many Russians felt at the economic uncertainties of the free market… the chaos and inflation that wiped out life savings… the corruption of a small clique of oligarchs… and the loss of the Soviet Union’s superpower status.
These feelings fed directly into ordinary Russians’ desire for stability and their disenchantment with the Russian experiment with democracy, ultimately entrenching President Putin’s authority.
Meanwhile, Putin continued to nurse a grudge against the West. He called the demise of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” He used his growing control of television, the press, film, and popular culture to stoke and encourage Russian disillusionment.
Putin relied on these powers to boost his standing with the Russian public and breed a new Russian nationalism. And he began an ambitious program of rearmament – all with the aim of challenging the United States and the global order.
So while our gaze shifted away from Russia – which we began to write off as a “regional power” – Russia never really lost focus on us. Its geo-strategic aim remained squarely targeted on the western liberal order, and more specifically, on what its KGB-trained leadership still views as the “Main Enemy” – the United States.
So Russia diligently honed and updated its toolkit for a different kind of Great Power rivalry. They couldn’t match us in the old Cold War paradigm, so Russia needed a strategy that would allow them to compete with us on the new emerging battlefield. Russia’s Chief of General Staff, General Valéry Gerasimov, gave Putin exactly what he needed.
Gerasimov and Hybrid War
General Gerasimov outlined a new security doctrine for the Kremlin – one that was more suited to the type of fight they could win, and one that could bring Russia back on par with the West.
He recognized a “blurring” of the lines between war and peace in the 21st century. He emphasized “non-military means” … “informational conflict” … and measures of a “concealed character.” Gerasimov outlined a vision for Russia’s military doctrine that relies not just on the conventional military, but on asymmetric means.
In Gerasimov’s vision, hacking, cyberattacks, information warfare, and propaganda would be the weapons of choice. He painted a vivid picture of a fight in the shadows – a type of “hybrid warfare.” It is a fight the Kremlin is intent on winning.
Putin quickly went to work implementing the doctrine across the border in Ukraine, employing “little green men” and information warfare to create a state of perpetual chaos and instability. He also targeted Estonia and Georgia, and continued to invest in the types of deniable, asymmetric tools that would help him overcome the West’s more traditional advantages. He has now aimed those weapons directly at the United States, and we are inadequately prepared to defend ourselves.
Today’s Asymmetric Weapons
In recent months, Senator Cardin and the Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee delivered an extremely well researched report on Russia’s asymmetric assault on European democracies. They outline a comprehensive array of weapons in the Kremlin toolkit, including the use of organized crime, corruption, energy security, and even the Russian Orthodox Church to increase Russian influence. We don’t have time to get into all of those today, but I recommend that everyone read Senator Cardin’s excellent report.
What I do want to address today are the three main avenues of attack that Russia employed during the 2016 election: the targeting of election infrastructure; the hacking and weaponized leaks; and information warfare. The Senate Intelligence Committee – on a bipartisan basis – is intently focused on each of these three areas.
First, the beauty and curse of our voting system is that it is fragmented and decentralized. But that thought is less comforting than it might seem, since non-national elections can often come down to a few hundred votes, and even Presidential elections can be decided by a few thousand votes in one swing county in one battleground state.
And even the threat of potential Russian incursions is enough to undermine public confidence in our electoral process. The Russians have tremendous cyber capacities, and we still have much work to do to ensure that our elections infrastructure can withstand anything the Russians or others might try.
Second, the Kremlin has gone to great lengths to foster one of the most permissive environments for malicious cyber activity in the world today, including hacking and weaponized leaks. While Putin maintains some of the most prolific state-sponsored cyber capabilities, much of his active measures have not been state-led.
The Kremlin is able to employ, co-opt, and at times, compel assistance from a detached corps of non-governmental hackers that Russia has nurtured, and now harbors from international law enforcement.\
Rather than being always government-employed and taking direction top-down, these hackers are generally free to engage in criminal activity and money-making endeavors around the globe… as long as they keep their activities focused away from the private accounts of Russian oligarchs.
When it suits them, Putin and his cronies are able to utilize these capabilities to further their own active measures campaigns, while allowing the Kremlin to deny any involvement. Putin himself has trolled us here in the states by denying meddling during the U.S. election, but allowing for the possibility that, quote, “Russian patriotic hackers” may have done something.
Hacking is obviously not unique to the Kremlin; however, weaponizing leaks from those hacks is a growing part of the Russian playbook.
The truth is, we should have seen this coming a lot sooner. Recall in 2014, when a bugged phone conversation between then-Assistant Secretary of State Toria Nuland and the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine made its way onto YouTube, where it caused a diplomatic uproar. In retrospect, we should have seen this incident as a test-run for the types of attacks and leaks we saw during the 2016 Presidential campaign.
Third, the Kremlin is also making an unprecedented investment in 21st century information warfare.
During the Cold War, the Soviets tried to spread “fake news” that the U.S. government was involved in Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and that the American military had manufactured the AIDS virus. Much like today, their aim was to undermine Americans’ faith in democratic government.
But the widespread use of social media has allowed Russia to super-charge its disinformation efforts. Before, the KGB had to go through the tedious, time-consuming process of starting a newspaper in a neutral country, or crafting a dubious forgery that would ultimately be seen by a very small audience.
Now they have instantaneous access to hundreds of millions of social media accounts where propaganda and fake news can spread like wildfire. While we all recognize the power and value of social media platforms, from the viewpoint of a hostile intelligence organization, they are nearly ideal vehicles for information warfare.
The rise of new platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube has reshaped our entire culture, and the ways we communicate and access information. But while we marveled at the new opportunities offered by this technology, our government and the companies themselves were slow to appreciate the ramifications of offering free and almost instantaneous access to millions and millions of Americans, and the degree to which these platforms could be abused.
Tracking the impact of Russian disinformation is inherently difficult. One 2011 Russian operations manual suggests that disinformation “acts like an invisible radiation,” silently and covertly pushing you in the direction that the Kremlin wants. But you don’t even know you are being attacked.
That’s how the Russians were able to target and co-opt unwitting Americans into spreading their content online. They even succeeded in transferring these efforts from Facebook into the real world – at one point, spurring a pair of dueling rallies at an Islamic center in Houston. The Russians succeeded in pitting Americans against Americans from a troll factory half a world away.
The Threat Continues and Expands
These active measures have two things in common: They are effective, and they are cheap.
We are spending hundreds of billions of dollars on national security, and in this arena, we’re on our heels. The Kremlin is spending pennies on the dollar, and wreaking havoc.
Worse still, they haven’t stopped. The fact is, this threat did not go away on Election Day. Russian operatives remain active today, stoking hate and discord online.
We saw Russian-linked accounts pushing hashtags on both sides of the NFL national anthem debate. We’ve seen them attack the President’s National Security Advisor. We saw them push the “Release The Memo” controversy. More recent reports suggest that they were even stoking anger on both sides of the gun debate after the Parkland shooting.
And now that this playbook is out in the open, we have to worry about more than just the Russians. These tools can be used by other actors across the board – China, non-state actors, and terrorists.
What Can We Do?
Unfortunately, there are no easy answers in this space – no single counter-measure that will stop this wave of attacks from Russia.
As the premise of Carnegie’s Global Russia Project notes, Russia seeks to take advantage where it can to amplify internal divisions. It is focused on boosting cynicism and tearing down Western institutions from the inside.
In response, we need to start right here at home. We need to recognize the threat, expose Putin’s game-plan and inoculate our society against these efforts.
In order to do that, we need to understand the Russian playbook and deliver a thorough accounting of what they did in 2016. This is why our Committee investigation, as well as the Mueller inquiry, is so critical. We have to get to the bottom of what happened, and we need to do so in a bipartisan way. Politicization will only undermine the American public’s understanding of the threat.
The question of whether any Americans knew about or assisted Russian efforts in 2016 is vital. However, it is only one part of the important work our committee is doing. This is not about Democrats or Republicans – this is about defending Americans and our institutions from a foreign attack.
Next, we have to recognize that we have much work to do to strengthen our security against these asymmetric threats. Our strategies and our resources have not shifted aggressively enough to target these new threats in cyberspace and on social media.
Russia spends about $70 billion a year on their military. We spend ten times that. But we’re spending it mostly on weapons designed to win wars that take place in the air, on land, and at sea. And while we need to have these conventional capabilities, we must also expand our toolkit so that we can win on all the battlefields of the 21st century. Until we do that, Russia is going to continue getting a lot more bang for its security buck.
No one questions that America possesses superior technological capability. But ironically, our technological dependence makes us more vulnerable on the asymmetrical battlefield where Russia attacks us.
We must spell out a deterrence doctrine, so that our adversaries don’t see cyberattacks against us as a “free lunch.” The U.S. has often done too little to respond to cyberattacks against us or our allies. When we do respond, it has often been done quietly, and on a one-off basis. That has clearly not been enough to deter our adversaries.
We need to make clear to Russia and other nations, that if you go after us using cyberweapons or disinformation, we’re going to call you out, and we’re going to punch back.
We need to more quickly attribute cyber-attacks. And we need to increase their costs with robust sanctions and other tools. That should include the sanctions against Russia passed overwhelmingly by Congress, but which the President has refused to implement.
The sad truth is, we are handicapped in our response by a lack of Presidential leadership. We need a president who recognizes this problem, not one who sees any discussion of Russian election interference as an affront. We need a president who will lead not just a whole-of-government effort, but a whole-of-society effort, to protect our institutions. We need someone who will unite our country against this threat.
We can’t let Putin and his allies succeed. We have to – as a nation – learn how to fight back and shine a light on this shadow conflict. We have to get our act together here at home. Otherwise, we’ll still be shooting blindly into the shadows.