On Aug. 21, 1968, Soviet tanks crushed Czechoslovakia’s fleeting “Prague Spring” reform era.
On Aug. 21, 2018, 50 years after that brutal incursion, a more modern invasion by Russia was detailed by Facebook: 652 accounts meant to spread disinformation and, ultimately, discord in multiple countries. Microsoft reported separate attacks. Many were reportedly tied to Russia (and Iran) in a spiral the New York Times deemed “Democracy Under Siege.”
Russian foreign policy — the subject of this month’s Global Minnesota “Great Decisions” dialogue — increasingly relies on such “cyber-enabled influence operations,” said Graham Brookie, director of the Digital Research Forensics Lab at the Atlantic Council.
“It’s much more cost-effective to sow discord within your adversaries than it is to fight them with tanks,” Brookie said. Like during the 2016 campaign, when Russia attacked America’s election with the intent of discrediting Hillary Clinton and aiding the Trump campaign, according to an Intelligence Community Assessment.
Beyond the U.S., Brookie said. “It’s much easier for a nation to discredit another nation’s policy on Syria than it is to actually fight a war on the ground in Syria. And it’s much easier to have undermined the government of Ukraine than it is to have command and control over a part of Ukraine, which I think the Russians are learning in spades.”
Russian leaders including President Vladimir Putin have learned other lessons in spades — including Soviet ones, said Alina Polyakova, a fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe. “I don’t think this is new; in some way media influence, information warfare, has been part and parcel of Soviet-era active measures,” Polyakova said. “What we’re seeing now that is new is the digital and cyber aspect, but what is in fact an old strategy of political warfare of the Soviet Union. And now Russia under Putin has reinvigorated or re-energized some of these practices and adapted them to the digital age.”
To nations reeling from the revanchism, Russia may seem strong. But Polyakova argues its actions are actually more motivated by weakness. “The bigger point here in terms of foreign policy is that Russia is a weak country; economically it can’t compete with any Western European country. It can’t really compete on global influence with the United States, and have the military projection capacity that the U.S. has, so it’s a relatively weak state, and this kind of tools and influence is what the Kremlin has to do to compensate for that weakness.”
And yet despite its strengths, the U.S. response has been feeble, too. “The revelations are evidence that Russia has not been deterred and that Iran is following in its footsteps,” Alex Stamos, a former chief security officer at Facebook, wrote for the Lawfare blog. “This underlines a sobering reality: America’s adversaries believe that it is still both safe and effective to attack U.S. democracy using American technologies and the freedoms we cherish.”
Stamos then rhetorically asked: “And why wouldn’t they believe that? In some ways, the United States has broadcast to the world that it doesn’t take these issues seriously and that any perpetrators of information warfare against the West will get, at most, a slap on the wrist. While this failure has left the U.S. unprepared to protect the 2018 elections, there is still a chance to defend American democracy in 2020.”
Protecting our elections, the DNA of our democracy, should be bipartisan. But when the White House is opaque on Russia’s role, and blocks bills like the Secure Elections Act, which it reportedly did on Friday, progress stalls.
Reluctance to confront Russia isn’t new, Stamos writes: “If the weak response of the Obama White House indicated to America’s adversaries that the U.S. government would not respond forcefully, then the subsequent actions of House Republicans and President [Donald] Trump have signaled that our adversaries can expect powerful elected officials to help a hostile foreign power cover up attacks against their domestic opposition.”
Polyakova dates the inconsistencies to 1991. “Every single president for both parties would come into office saying ‘I’m going to fix the Russia problem,’ and we’ve had four resets.”
Maybe what’s needed is not another Russian reset, but an American one to address divisions.
As evidenced from footage and photos from ‘68, Czechoslovaks were united in an aggrieved and at times aggressive response to their “Socialism with a human face” being replaced by a grim Soviet visage. Today, America is infinitely stronger than Czechoslovakia was, and yet its fissures are a force multiplier for Russia.
“Here comes the danger of the whole thing; the Russians are using our own polarization,” said Balázs Jarábik, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Jarábik, who was raised in communist Czechoslovakia, puts it starkly: “They don’t create the political, social problems of Central Europe or Germany or the United States — it’s done, it’s given. What they do is put their finger into it and make it more painful for us.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.