Subversion, disruption, upheaval: Grey zone conflict targets Americans and American thinking

The message from the Kremlin is consistently that Americans are fair targets, even when they aren’t players in the game. 

This article is Part 3 of Order from Chaos: The Architecture of American Renewal Comes from a Mindset of Grey-Zone Superiority — a Great Power monograph. You can read the introduction here, Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, Part 4 here, and Part 5 here, but you can also read each section as a separate piece.

PART 3: Subversion, disruption, upheaval: Grey zone conflict targets Americans and American thinking

This brings us back to America, which is deep in the grey zone of below-threshold conflict. Since 2016, we have had the opportunity to more aggressively map and confront these activities: there have been excellent pieces of work done by the Mueller team, the Senate investigation into Russian activities in the 2016 elections, and independent research and academic projects to document parts of the Russian influence and information machinery that has operated so efficiently and expansively within the American domain. But these things that we see so clearly abroad — and are willing to acknowledge the significant impact of — we often become instantaneously blind to at home.

For some reason that I think has primarily to do with the fact that no one wants to believe how bad it actually is, the perpetual soft narrative of Kremlin aggression seems like deep wisdom to too many people. This is the myth that since Russia can’t pick up the garbage, it couldn’t possibly design an operation to, say, annex European lands or seek to achieve a specific outcome in an American election — and that if they did do these things (which, ok, they do), it should be dismissed or excused because it’s really just internal Russian squabbles, not directed from the top, and also punishing the Kremlin’s aggression against others somehow only proves Putin’s point and makes him stronger, because really the West has been the problem all along. 

This is, of course, a nonsense narrative — this idea that it doesn’t really matter what the Kremlin does to other countries because there’s nothing to be done about it anyway. But that’s the whole point of this line of effort: it is a narrative designed to disarm us with smoke and mirrors, and it enlists people who should know better in the cause. Sure, there is a lot of internal weakness in Russia — at least in part because of the amount of Russian wealth funneled into the external influence operations that have been a primary focus under Putin.

The list of Kremlin actions tells a very different story about the nature and focus and intention of the threat. This is particularly true with how they’ve toed the line forward in activities targeting America and Americans in recent years.   

Let’s leave aside for the moment the influence, information, and psychological operations that the Kremlin directed to sway the outcome of the US elections in 2016, and the fact that this is warfare that directly targeted the American public and will have lasting societal, political, and cognitive impacts. Everyone has already made up their mind about whether this “mattered” or not — a metric measured against Trump and his complicity, which had always been the wrong metric. 

But let’s keep in mind some of the worst bits of what we have learned about the Russian operations: they target conspiracies and radicalization narrative at vulnerable groups; in many cases, they were supporting multiple sides of a divisive topic to accelerate the appearance of conflict and even spark physical confrontation; these operations bled into the human domain, recruiting Americans (and foreigners) to conduct online and real-life operations on their behalf, and they found plenty of takers, both paid and volunteer, aware and unaware; and that these operations are ongoing and harder to attribute than before as they mature and saturate. Kremlin narrative is deeply entrenched all over our discourse and information domain. That’s not changing anytime soon. This whole category of influence is dismissed by too many as something that isn’t really a thing when ensuring the decline of our “spiritual resources” is an ongoing and perpetual objective of the Kremlin. 

So let’s look to the more tangible below-threshold attacks that can’t be dismissed as “Facebook ads.” Like how Russian intelligence offered the Taliban bounties to kill Americans in Afghanistan. Like how Russia has been targeting US diplomats and intelligence officers — in Russia, but also other nations, including possibly the United States — with some sort of microwave or directed-energy weapon that leaves lasting and permanent brain damage. Like expanded espionage activities across the United States to map personnel, critical infrastructure, and vulnerabilities. Like meticulously looking for opportunities to recruit Americans as intelligence assets, including guiding their careers. Like specifically targeting US troops and veterans with information operations that push them toward extreme views. Like ransomware campaigns crippling local governments and targeting hospitals, including during the COVID pandemic. Like running networks of deep-cover illegal intelligence operatives in the United States, and a newer, more informal generation of such assets. Like cultivating ties and providing support and training to US white identity and neo-Nazi groups — many of whom were present at Charlottesville and at the storming of the Capitol, and have been escalating the right toward violent extremism. Like trying to stoke unrest around environmental movement and anti-pipeline protests. Like exploiting anti-LGBT sentiment to get US evangelicals to be a conduit for Russian propaganda and influence. Like how oligarchs close to Putin are deployed to corrupt — or at least buy complicity from — key political constituencies in the United States, and rarely have a hard time finding takers for their free money.

(And the money — oh the money. The oligarch money in particular to law firms and lobbying firms and PR firms to conflict them out of doing any work against the Kremlin’s interests, and to academics and universities — to silence too many elite and powerful voices who should otherwise have something to say. This invisible web of silence stays largely hidden and uncriticized among peers.) 

I highlight the above because these activities target and directly impact the lives of Americans, the vast majority of them civilians, with attacks that can do lasting harm or erode security and governance in ways that can immediately impact their lives. The message is consistently that Americans are fair targets, even when they aren’t players in the game. 

The thing perhaps most absent from our understanding of how the Kremlin targets us is this concept of subversion — of encouraging us to act against our own best interests. This is a consistent theme in the archives of their information operations, and in the groups they target within the US. Anti-5G conspiracies and anti-vaccine sentiment are only two of the latest, and it’s notable that these are deeply enmeshed in the broader conspiracy universe in which Trump “won” the election. Us versus us, not us versus them — all the way to the ballot box and the steps of the Capitol. 

There are plenty of other activities meant primarily to influence military, foreign policy, and government decision-making. The Kremlin is skilled at using diplomatic channels to manipulate our intelligence assessments, particularly on issues where they can play off confirmation bias. Across the past two administrations, they have done this in particular on issues like Iran. Iran is a strategic ally of Russia; sometimes we don’t seem very clear on this. Russia encouraged the rehabilitation of Iran, and then unleashed Iran as a specific, targeted tool against us in the Middle East, and continues to point to Iran as a reason that we should ignore the mindbending things Russia has done around Syria and Libya. We take the bait every time. The same is largely true of “cooperating on terrorism.” 

Russian planes and warships and mercenaries constantly make dangerous approaches at US forces and NATO patrols. It’s not just for cheap headlines: it is part of training a mindset in their pilots and soldiers and sailors. We should take that seriously — especially when most of these confrontations take place in or over our territory or that of our allies. Russia has also become more expansive in how it deploys electronic warfare capabilities, even in areas it doesn’t control. 

Whataboutism remains a primary tactic of Kremlin deniers — “oh but America does it too.” But really when you dig into what the Kremlin does — in open warfare and conflict, and below the threshold of conflict in grey domains — this feint falls apart pretty fast. Show me the American sniper school that trains by shooting the soldiers of a Russian partner nation at their defensive posts in their own country. Show me the Russian intelligence officers and their families that we have maimed and damaged with classified sci-fi weaponry. Show me the terrorist groups we are sharing intelligence with so they can kill Russians and push them out of areas of strategic interest. Show me the Russian hospitals we have crippled with cyberattacks even though regular people might die. You won’t find them. There is no tactical or moral equivalency, even during the morally pathetic presidency of Donald Trump. 

To be clear: none of this is to say that the Kremlin is an unstoppable monolith with magical powers. They aren’t. They are a chaotic but diligent adversary that constantly presses for advantage in innovative ways because they must constantly operate from this position of relative weakness. They leverage concepts of limited war imposed by their massive nuclear arsenal. They maintain one of the largest militaries in the world, but their instinct is to act from a guerrilla mindset and with irregular warfare techniques. And our refusal to understand this seeming conflict — and to re-task our own toolkit to better identify, analyze, and offset their insurgent attacks — leaves more Americans exposed to an escalating series of attacks, and more of the homeland vulnerable to their preferred manipulations. Like Putin’s speech in 2007, the Kremlin tells us what they are going to do, and then they do it. And we have conditioned ourselves to shrug it off despite their accelerating success in disruption. 

The Trump administration began in the aftermath of Russian hacking and information operations targeting our elections and our society, and it ends with a sweeping, indiscriminate Russian cyber operation that has compromised the networks of government agencies and thousands of private entities. It was an elegant and ambitious campaign of infiltration, quietly observing, collecting, mapping — and likely more, but we don’t know the full parameters yet. It was a classically Russian, persistent approach: when we focus in one direction, finally figure out an effective deterrence mechanism, and Russian operators just shift to one of the parallel lines of effort they have been preparing all along. I think the best way to describe this mindset, in intelligence operations and active measures campaigns, is there is no focus on whatever “victory” would be, and startlingly little even on “success” — but consistent focus on operationalizing new attacks. The continuous offense sharpens skills and yields results, particularly when coupled with a relative spirit of entrepreneurism that encourages creativity and risk-taking even as it improves mechanisms for deniability.

There are a lot of potential vulnerabilities from this latest Russian hack, but a primary one is that this data will help the Kremlin better influence our process of decision-making by exploiting our own internal policy debates. The same way they bait us with information about Iran, Ukraine, Syria. The other aspect of this is how they marry this information to human intelligence work — a vastly more resourced effort than we acknowledge or like to admit. But still, I’m not sure we’re learning the right lessons. 

Already, there is a riot of commentary on how General Nakasone, who heads the NSA and US Cyber Command, somehow got this all wrong, and that his “defend forward” concept left us exposed. This misses the point that what Nakasone has done has been successful enough that our Russian opponents had to adapt their tactics, focusing — in the unique way that they do — on understanding the authorities and rules that create awkward vulnerabilities between foreign and domestic intelligence and surveillance in the US, and finding ways to act from within those safe harbors. In the case of this latest hack, this included using US-based servers to evade monitoring of “foreign” cyber activity, and gaining access via individuals in the supply chain of the software, which allowed them inject code from within a verified update network so it wouldn’t be identified as malware. Officials at CyberCom and at DHS have been pushing to close gaps in authorities for some time. Some of it has been addressed in the defense authorization legislation that Trump tried to veto. 

The latest hack is quite deflating. While we were executing the most secure election in history, Russian hackers were deep inside other systems, watching what we were doing, figuring out how they could use this information to weaken America and further exploit President Trump. 

But the argument that “defense” is the only thing that actually defends against a capable aggressor has failed over and over again related to the Kremlin. We keep ceding ground thinking it makes us safer even when we know the opposite is true. We know that Russians operate with entirely different rules of engagement than we do. But we fail to assess their vulnerabilities in the same way they probe ours, or to operationalize a mindset that uses what we know beyond the tactical level. We’re not going to win every judo match, and it doesn’t matter if we do. What matters is that our strategic goals in our Russia policy are high-level and global and actually account for the true nature of great power competition in this sometimes very steampunk millennium. 

This issue of mindset is essential. How wrong ours has become on Putin’s Russia is also exposed by the opportunities we have missed. For example: no one has really been paying attention to it beyond occasional rah-rah tweets for Belarusian demonstrations — but the region around Russia doesn’t look so good right now. In the past few years, in the arc from Central Asia through the Caucasus, and then across the Black Sea to Ukraine and Moldova and then up to the Baltic Sea, there has been significant political instability and in some cases open conflict and revolt. And sure, I can point to a smattering of American initiatives that I think are positive but largely not very public in some of these places, but mostly I find myself looking around and asking “where the hell are we?” There was a war in the Caucasus, and Russian actions shaped the outcome, establishing new delineations of power that leave their hold on the region more firmly entrenched. 

Governments rise and fall, and the Kremlin is present to influence what comes after. We cheer moments of seeming good news — an election in Ukraine or Moldova, an uprising in Belarus — and then we find something else to do while any momentum toward progress erodes and the Kremlin waits it out, planting poison pills in necessary progress. We continually miss that Putin isn’t looking for a new generation of Marine Le Pens or Lukashenkos, overt in their orientation toward Moscow. Far more useful for him are unconventional politicians who attack their own systems (and all those inside it who are ardent advocates of action against Moscow), simmer asinine conflicts with allies, and argue for a softening of attitude towards the Kremlin. “Oh but wouldn’t it be nice if we could have better relations with Moscow” is often how this refrain begins. “Pragmatic” is how we often review it, failing to see the rot that it sows. Across this region closest to Russia, there are countless examples of parties or leaders like this, many which have found their way into government and leadership, more then a few with squishy financial ties to Russia. They introduce unnecessarily controversial laws to stoke internal conflict from halls of government. They break rules to gain advantage, and it’s difficult to get them out once they are in. The edge dulls as focus turns inward, and sure, it’s a mess — but this is an environment in which the Kremlin is comfortable working, and in which the United States get notoriously squeamish. 

Since the rise of Putin, but particularly across this past decade, we have accepted as valid the idea that Russia is a mess, and struggling just to survive, and that that struggle means Russia lashes out and does silly things in the neighborhood it views as its own. From the shadows and from the diplomatic halls, we have allowed this perspective of “Russia’s near abroad” to corrupt our thinking. We give Russia sanctuary to do what it wants, to attack and retreat to safe harbor. We barely even conceptualize how to cross this geographic and mental barrier.

If we had a strategic center to how we approach the containment of Putin’s disruption and ambitions, we would have seen the opportunity in helping to shape a range of outcomes that make the region around Russia more secure and perhaps even more democratic. Instead, the only unifying principle to how we talk to these places has been badgering them on Huawei. I wish I was kidding — but I’m not. 

Our mindset on what the threat matrix is, and what we need to do about it, is all misaligned. And this is inseparable from how below-threshold measures target us.

So, this is Russia — what it does and want it wants, as visible through their actions in the world, and toward us. Now let’s look again at what they have gained while Donald Trump sits in the White House. 

/end Part 3

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Catch up on all the sections of Order from Chaos: The Architecture of American Renewal Comes from a Mindset of Grey-Zone Superiority, on Great Power:

Introduction: Autocracy ascends the cracks of democracy

Part 1: Understanding why Putin bet on Trump

Part 2: Tracking Russian disruption across the past 15 years 

Part 3: Understanding how grey-zone conflict has targeted America and Americans

Part 4: The subversion of American interests and the Trump presidency 

Part 5: THE WAY AHEADCivil defense to build resilience. Influence monitoring to lessen infiltration. Enhanced unconventional warfare capabilities to detect grey zone threats and help design a response. A whole-of-government approach to waging and deterring political warfare. Fight for our ideals at home and abroad. 

A full copy of the monograph will also be available on Great Power. It is my hope that it will orient us toward action that structures order that allows us to navigate this time of disruption, and to lead again.

MM

An EXTRA SPECIAL THANK YOU to Great Power’s founding subscribers, who supported the writing of this monograph, and who want thoughtful American leadership, at home and abroad. —MM