Election Meddling Is a 100-Year Russian Tradition

Tobin Harshaw
·7-min read

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As one may have predicted four years ago, the final weeks of the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign have unfolded amid a flurry of accusations about a hostile power undermining American democracy. What one was less likely to predict was that this nemesis would be not Russia but Silicon Valley.

So, amid the controversy over Facebook, Twitter and a heretofore obscure section of federal communications law, has Russian President Vladimir Putin chosen to let American democracy undermine itself? Not likely. The U.S. and Russia (FKA the Soviet Union) have a century-long tradition of seeking geopolitical advantage through electoral meddling around the globe. And no matter which candidate is victorious on Nov. 3 — or, alas, some days or weeks after — that rivalry is going to continue.This week I sought guidance on the past and future of this competition from David Shimer, author of “Rigged: America, Russia, and One Hundred Years of Covert Electoral Interference.” Shimer is also a global fellow at the Wilson Center and an associate fellow at Yale University. Here is a lightly edited transcript:

Tobin Harshaw: When the full extent of the Russian manipulation of social media became clear after 2016, everybody was looking ahead at how to stop it in 2020. But you chose to look backward first. What gave you that insight?

David Shimer: I was alarmed, frankly, that so many commentators were treating Russia’s 2016 operation as entirely unprecedented. I knew enough about Soviet history to know that Putin was not the first leader in the Kremlin to target a foreign election, and I believed — and still believe — that it would be to America’s benefit to use that history both to understand what Russia achieved in 2016 and to map out how to defend our elections in November and beyond.

So I decided, as you said, to look backward. I spent years examining CIA, KGB and East German Stasi files, and interviewing more than 130 officials, including eight former CIA directors. The result, which is “Rigged,” restores history to the subject of covert electoral interference: How the Soviet Union interfered in foreign elections during the interwar period, how the CIA and the KGB went toe-to-toe in elections around the world during the Cold War, and how Putin’s Russia is again interfering in elections on a global basis today.

Only then, with this instructive and fascinating history in the backdrop, do I examine Russian interference in America’s 2016 election and provide policy recommendations for the future.

TH: Timothy Snyder, whose “On Tyranny” adorns every self-respecting liberal’s bookshelf these days, was your mentor. What wisdom did he pass along that proved most helpful in writing the book?

DS: I can never thank Professor Snyder enough. He has ingrained in me the idea that it’s not just possible but essential to write books that fuse the past with the present. It’s an idea that underpins his teaching at Yale, where I was his student and advisee.

As for “Rigged,” when Knopf took on my book project — and gave me five and a half months to complete it — Professor Snyder remained my intellectual guide. In that period of time, he and I would meet in his office every few days, and we would talk through whatever part of my book I was drafting and the historical arc I was seeking to restore. He’s an astonishingly generous mentor and friend.

TH: You tracked down the former Soviet spymaster Oleg Kalugin and seem to have had an enjoyable chat. Old spooks are the best spooks. His goal during the Cold War, he said, was to “provide money and support to people who we thought would be friendly and would change the foreign and domestic policies of their countries.” Do you see today’s manipulation of social media as a continuation of those efforts, or something entirely new for a technological age unimaginable to the Soviets?

DS: Definitely the former. Every aspect of Russia’s interference in 2016 had roots in the past. Take what Russia was after: To sow discord, advantage one candidate, and damage another. That’s exactly what the Soviet Union did in various U.S. elections during the Cold War.

Each of Russia’s tactics also marked a direct continuation of past practices. First, Russia targeted our actual election infrastructure. Well, in the immediate postwar period, Joseph Stalin and his collaborators manipulated election systems across Eastern Europe, and Putin’s Russia has more recently sabotaged election systems in countries like Ukraine.

Second, Russia stole and released the private correspondence of public figures in the form of sensitive emails. This is yet another long-running idea: In the 1976 U.S. election, for instance, the KGB leaked private — and false — information about Senator Henry Jackson, who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination, to try to undermine his campaign.

And third, Russia used fake social media accounts to carry out familiar moves: to spread disinformation, scare some voters, target other voters, inflame racial tensions, turn out key voting groups, and suppress other voting groups. The KGB, using pre-digital means, ran each of those plays during the Cold War, in elections around the world.

So in 2016, Russia absolutely broke new ground, in using the Internet to manipulate an American election at scale; but the ideas behind its operation were consistent with past practices and can be used to help us anticipate what Putin will do in the final stretch.

TH: During the 2016 campaign, Trump infamously encouraged hacking and other measures against Hillary Clinton and the Democrats. Do you think that emboldened the Russians, or were they already prepared to do what they did?

DS: I can’t say whether Trump’s public rhetoric affected Russian policymaking, although Russian intelligence did escalate its hacking attempts just after the remarks you’re referencing. But what history does make clear is that America’s leaders should be defending against rather than soliciting foreign interference in our elections.

This is not a partisan issue. In 1960 and 1968, the Soviet Union targeted the campaigns of Richard Nixon, a Republican. In 1976 and 1984, the Soviet Union targeted the campaigns of Ronald Reagan, a Republican. Now, Russia is seeking to help a Republican, but the purpose of these operations is to advance Russia’s objectives, which are to choose our leaders for us, to sabotage our democratic processes, and to undermine the viability of the democratic model in the eyes of the world — and that should offend and alarm all Americans, regardless of their party loyalties.

TH: At the end of the book, you list 10 historical lessons that could guide future U.S. leaders in protecting against foreign interference. We don’t have time to discuss them all. But perhaps you could choose one you find particularly vital right now, and if learned, what would be the immediate steps to take?

DS: The lesson that comes to mind is that pre-existing societal divisions present opportunities for interfering actors. The more polarized a democracy, the more vulnerable it is to foreign subversion. Russia is tearing at fissures that already exist, so to protect itself, America should be renewing itself at home and abroad.

Domestically, that means securing our infrastructure, mitigating the effectiveness of influence operations, and investing in core priorities like education and health care, which will in turn fortify our democracy. And abroad, that means working with our allies to detect and deter covert operations to interfere in our electoral processes. If we can do both of those things at once, we’ll make long-lasting progress in securing our elections.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tobin Harshaw is an editor and writer on national security and military affairs for Bloomberg Opinion. He was an editor with the op-ed page of the New York Times and the paper’s letters editor.

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