March 9, 2017
Trump, Putin, and the New Cold War
What lay behind Russia’s interference in the 2016 election—and what lies ahead?
On April 12, 1982, Yuri Andropov, the chairman of the K.G.B., ordered foreign-intelligence operatives to carry out “active measures”—aktivniye meropriyatiya—against the reëlection campaign of President Ronald Reagan. Unlike classic espionage, which involves the collection of foreign secrets, active measures aim at influencing events—at undermining a rival power with forgeries, front groups, and countless other techniques honed during the Cold War. The Soviet leadership considered Reagan an implacable militarist. According to extensive notes made by Vasili Mitrokhin, a high-ranking K.G.B. officer and archivist who later defected to Great Britain, Soviet intelligence tried to infiltrate the headquarters of the Republican and Democratic National Committees, popularize the slogan “Reagan Means War!,” and discredit the President as a corrupt servant of the military-industrial complex. The effort had no evident effect. Reagan won forty-nine of fifty states.
Active measures were used by both sides throughout the Cold War. In the nineteen-sixties, Soviet intelligence officers spread a rumor that the U.S. government was involved in the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. In the eighties, they spread the rumor that American intelligence had “created” the AIDS virus, at Fort Detrick, Maryland. They regularly lent support to leftist parties and insurgencies. The C.I.A., for its part, worked to overthrow regimes in Iran, Cuba, Haiti, Brazil, Chile, and Panama. It used cash payments, propaganda, and sometimes violent measures to sway elections away from leftist parties in Italy, Guatemala, Indonesia, South Vietnam, and Nicaragua. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the early nineties, the C.I.A. asked Russia to abandon active measures to spread disinformation that could harm the U.S. Russia promised to do so. But when Sergey Tretyakov, the station chief for Russian intelligence in New York, defected, in 2000, he revealed that Moscow’s active measures had never subsided. “Nothing has changed,” he wrote, in 2008. “Russia is doing everything it can today to embarrass the U.S.”
Vladimir Putin, who is quick to accuse the West of hypocrisy, frequently points to this history. He sees a straight line from the West’s support of the anti-Moscow “color revolutions,” in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine, which deposed corrupt, Soviet-era leaders, to its endorsement of the uprisings of the Arab Spring. Five years ago, he blamed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the anti-Kremlin protests in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square. “She set the tone for some of our actors in the country and gave the signal,” Putin said. “They heard this and, with the support of the U.S. State Department, began active work.” (No evidence was provided for the accusation.) He considers nongovernmental agencies and civil-society groups like the National Endowment for Democracy, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the election-monitoring group Golos to be barely disguised instruments of regime change.
The U.S. officials who administer the system that Putin sees as such an existential danger to his own reject his rhetoric as “whataboutism,” a strategy of false moral equivalences. Benjamin Rhodes, a deputy national-security adviser under President Obama, is among those who reject Putin’s logic, but he said, “Putin is not entirely wrong,” adding that, in the past, “we engaged in regime change around the world. There is just enough rope for him to hang us.”*
The 2016 Presidential campaign in the United States was of keen interest to Putin. He loathed Obama, who had applied economic sanctions against Putin’s cronies after the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of eastern Ukraine. (Russian state television derided Obama as “weak,” “uncivilized,” and a “eunuch.”) Clinton, in Putin’s view, was worse—the embodiment of the liberal interventionist strain of U.S. foreign policy, more hawkish than Obama, and an obstacle to ending sanctions and reëstablishing Russian geopolitical influence. At the same time, Putin deftly flattered Trump, who was uncommonly positive in his statements about Putin’s strength and effectiveness as a leader. As early as 2007, Trump declared that Putin was “doing a great job in rebuilding the image of Russia and also rebuilding Russia period.” In 2013, before visiting Moscow for the Miss Universe pageant, Trump wondered, in a tweet, if he would meet Putin, and, “if so, will he become my new best friend?” During the Presidential campaign, Trump delighted in saying that Putin was a superior leader who had turned the Obama Administration into a “laughingstock.”
For those interested in active measures, the digital age presented opportunities far more alluring than anything available in the era of Andropov. The Democratic and Republican National Committees offered what cybersecurity experts call a large “attack surface.” Tied into politics at the highest level, they were nonetheless unprotected by the defenses afforded to sensitive government institutions. John Podesta, the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s campaign and a former chief of staff of Bill Clinton’s, had every reason to be aware of the fragile nature of modern communications. As a senior counsellor in the Obama White House, he was involved in digital policy. Yet even he had not bothered to use the most elementary sort of defense, two-step verification, for his e-mail account…