Russia’s Toolkit for Undermining Democracy

The CIA recently announced its conclusion that the Russian government intentionally interfered in the U.S. presidential election. Much of the attention has focused on illegal hacking. While such hacking is deeply concerning, it is just one piece in a larger web of Russian interference— interference that has been an ongoing cause for concern over the past several years, just not in the United States.

Europe has been grappling with Russian interference most intensely since Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea. To combat this threat effectively, we must understand Russia’s goals and the tools it’s using to accomplish them.

Russia seeks to disrupt unity in the European Union and the West to push pro-Russian policies, such as repeal of sanctions. It aims to destabilize democracies to portray this form of government as weak and unable to secure the safety of its citizens. It hopes to dissuade countries from joining democratic coalitions such as the European Union and NATO. It promotes authoritarianism, corruption, and nationalism over democracy, rule of law, and tolerance or pluralism.

Russia posits itself as a counterweight to the idea that human rights are universal and an inherent part of democracy. It pushes the view that human rights are secondary concerns, subjective, and subject to limitation by the state. By weakening human rights protections—and the concept of human rights itself—Russia gains an ideological foothold in the West to advance its interests.

To accomplish these goals, Russia has created an invisible network of corruption—spanning faux NGOs and think tanks, corrupt business or political connections, false or misleading news, and yes, hacking.

Some examples:

Faux NGOs and think tanks. Russia sponsors supposedly neutral organizations to advance its worldview under a screen of legitimacy.

  • The Institute for Democracy and Cooperation in France is a propaganda outfit masquerading as a think tank. It defends Russia’s view of “managed democracy” and warped portrayal of human rights based on so-called traditional values. The Paris office is headed by a former Duma member for the ultranationalist Rodina (Fatherland) party.
  • The Russian Center for Science and Culture, an organization set up by Russian aid organization Rossotrudnichestvo, was investigated for spying in 2013. The center had been setting up all-expense paid trips for young professional Americans, including young advisors to politicians, apparently as an effort to cultivate them as intelligence assets.

Corrupt business or political connections. Russia courts business executives and politicians, offering them significant financial opportunities in Russia in exchange for influence in their home countries.

  • Gerhard Schroeder, former German Chancellor, was given presidency of the shareholders committee of the Nordstream pipeline consortium, which is owned by Russian state-owned gas company Gazprom. With this personal benefit from Russian gas coming to Europe, he publicly opposed sanctions on Russia for its Crimea invasion.
  • Martin Nejedly, Chief Economic Advisor to President Zeman of the Czech Republic, previously had a lucrative career working for Russian state-owned oil company Lukoil. Meanwhile the Czech president is spouting anti-migrant, anti-sanctions, and anti-Ukraine views in precise agreement with the Russian line, even pushing for a vote  to leave the European Union (Czechzit) in 2017.

False or misleading news. Russian-sponsored media masquerade as legitimate news sources while pushing a pro-Russia agenda. These outlets blend facts with outright lies or disproven sources to distort the truth.

  • After a 13-year-old of Russian descent was reported to have been raped by a gang of Muslims in Germany in 2016, the story was proven false. However, Russian media continued to push the story without correction, and thus knowingly spreading false media across Europe.
  • Russia sponsored a media blitz in the United Kingdom favoring Brexit, promoting stories that falsely equated refugees with criminality and terrorism. Russian-funded media was also a factor in developing opposition to a Dutch referendum in support of aid to Ukraine.

Hacking. Russia mobilizes a virtual army to access private information and disable digital infrastructure.

  • German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Party, was hacked in 2015. German intelligence reports it was by Russian state-supported actors. The German parliament was hacked as well.
  • In November 2015, Swedish air-traffic control was disabled for five days, according to Swedish intelligence, because Russia hacked into the system as a means of testing its own electronic warfare capabilities.

These strategies capitalize on and exacerbate existing fissures in Western countries, making Russian interference all the more difficult to attribute. But they have real consequences for human rights principles and democratic institutions.

The United States must be vigilant against Russian interference, naming it publicly wherever it appears. Shoring up democratic institutions and restoring faith in legitimate news sources—or at least combating the use of illegitimate ones—is an essential part of this effort. Anti-corruption measures for business and non-governmental entities and a firm line on sanctions are also pivotal.

The European Union has a head start on the United States in dealing with covert Russian interference—but not on addressing it. The United States should work with its partners in the European Union to identify and implement effective strategies for defending democracy and human rights from Russian undermining.


Published on December 13, 2016


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