As tension between Russia and the West has mounted in recent years, Moscow has increasingly turned to hybrid warfare to gain and hold ground in their contest for power and clout. This is the fourth installment of a five-part series exploring the geopolitical context, targets and tools of that strategy, as well as the steps Russia's adversaries are taking to counter it.
Russia has breathed new life into the concept of war by other means. Using an increasingly diverse array of tactics, conventional and otherwise, the country has deftly wielded its political sway in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc. But its reach extends well beyond its traditional sphere of influence to countries such as the United States, France and Germany. Moscow's dealings with these powers have showcased its hybrid warfare strategy, combining various techniques to try to create political chaos and undermine the leading members of the Transatlantic alliance.
To get to the countries in the third tier of its hybrid warfare target set — geographically distant military powers with few crucial economic ties to Russia — Moscow's options are limited. Political manipulation, electoral meddling, cyberattacks and information warfare are the only tools at its disposal, though its involvement in theaters of mutual interest to Washington, Berlin and Paris, such as Syria, also comes in handy. Yet given the importance of the United States, Germany and France in the Transatlantic alliance (and, for the latter two countries, in the European Union), along with their diverse and sometimes discordant societies, these tactics can pack a punch.
A Dramatic Display
Russia's interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, perhaps the most significant example of its hybrid warfare strategy in the West, is still wreaking havoc on the United States' political system. Without the conventional abilities to challenge the United States' power projection, Russia opted for other ways to try to undermine the country's geopolitical influence. The Kremlin knew that Hillary Clinton, as Barack Obama's former secretary of state, would continue — if not intensify — her predecessor's policies against Russia if she assumed the presidency. Considering the alternative, Moscow had an interest in supporting Donald Trump, the less-experienced and more sympathetic candidate who called to improve ties with Russia and questioned the efficacy of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization during his campaign.
And so, in a breach traced back to Russian intelligence agencies, hackers accessed Democratic National Committee servers and released thousands of emails in July 2016 at the height of the presidential race. The incident is widely interpreted as an effort to aid Trump's campaign in defeating Clinton and has become the focus of several investigations by Congress and the FBI. It wasn't the first time a government had tried to influence a foreign election; the United States itself has meddled in votes abroad. But the hack's high-profile target, and efficacy, raised global awareness of Moscow's hybrid warfare tactics to new heights.
Trump's presidency hasn't transformed the United States' policy toward Russia as Moscow hoped. Institutional barriers, including those in Congress and in the military and intelligence establishment, stand in the way of improved relations between Moscow and Washington. In fact, the United States has increased its sanctions against Russia since Trump's election, and Congress imposed additional checks and oversight to keep the president from removing the measures unilaterally. Even so, the controversy surrounding the election and Trump's alleged links to Russia has disrupted and destabilized U.S. politics. Moscow has used information operations against the Trump administration to intensify distrust between branches of the U.S. government and create greater confusion. It has also increased its involvement in theaters of strategic interest to the United States, including Syria, North Korea and Afghanistan, to gain leverage in its negotiations with Washington. And Russia's conventional military capabilities — particularly its vast nuclear arsenal — will continue to deter the United States from challenging its forces directly.
After Paris, the Deluge?
France is no stranger to Russia's intrusions, either. After its success in the U.S. vote, Moscow set its sights on the French elections in April and May of this year. Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front, a right-wing, anti-immigrant party that Moscow had long backed, emerged as a leading contender for the country's presidency, advancing to face off against centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron in the run-off vote. Her victory would have been a huge boon for Russia in its efforts to undermine Western unity. Not only did Le Pen campaign to lift the European Union's sanctions against Moscow, but her pledge to withdraw France from the eurozone could have endangered the bloc's very existence. Russia provided political and financial support to Le Pen and her party. Investigations linked hacking attempts against Macron's campaign website in the lead-up to the elections back to Moscow. Russian media outlets such as Sputnik, meanwhile, ramped up their anti-EU propaganda, running articles reporting that a plurality of people in France believed more countries would follow the United Kingdom's example and pull out of the Continental bloc.
Macron won the vote by a wide margin despite Moscow's best efforts and dashed Russia's hopes of an existential crisis in the European Union. Following his victory, the president-elect called Russia out for its attempts to influence the election and referred to its state-run news outlets as "agents of influence and propaganda." Nevertheless, Le Pen's strong showing in the first round of the vote revealed the popularity of the Euroskeptic movement that Russia has worked hard to craft and promote in France.
Try, Try Again
In Germany, Moscow will soon have another chance to hone its techniques for electoral intervention. The country is gearing up for general elections in September, and Russia likely will throw its weight behind anti-EU groups such as Alternative for Germany (AfD), much as it did for the National Front. But as was the case in France, Moscow's attempts to sway the vote in Germany probably won't achieve their desired result. AfD has a much smaller support base, compared with the National Front in France. And its popularity is on the decline, falling below 10 percent in the latest polls.
The results of the election are unlikely to change Germany's position on NATO or the European Union. As a result, Russia can be expected to ramp up its disinformation campaign against the country. Moscow so far has focused on sowing discord among anti-immigration movements in Germany because of the large number of refugees it has admitted. Russia's state media outlets, for example, spread a false story that migrants had raped a Russian teenager in Germany, sparking protests in the country and prompting German officials to label the report "fake news."
So far, the middling results of Russia's bids to influence politics in the West haven't discouraged the country. The possible gains of extending its hybrid warfare strategy to Western powers outweigh the risks. And what its interferences have failed to achieve in policy, Moscow has tried to make up for in political upheaval.