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Ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a war in Ukraine this February, his ouster has been predicted up the wazoo; the invasion hasn’t been the quick success he’d hoped it would be, his insider circle has been itching to get rid of him, and he’s rumored to have cancer.
But rather than counting on exiting the political scene in dramatic fashion, Putin might be betting that he can somehow outlast his detractors as well as the Biden Administration, whose security assistance for Ukraine has been pivotal in keeping a Russian win at bay. And part of Putin’s plot to outlive the Biden administration is likely to include influence operations aimed at securing an American political environment that’s more favorable to his goals, former CIA and Department of Homeland Security officials told The Daily Beast.
That scheme will inevitably aim to influence voters participating in both the midterms and the presidential election in 2024 in an attempt to get candidates elected who are somehow more sympathetic to Putin, according to Daniel Hoffman, a former CIA Moscow chief of station.
“He’s going to try really, really hard to… exacerbate those isolationist tendencies and kind of induce us to question, ‘Why are we supporting Ukraine?’” Hoffman said. “He’s trying to dilute U.S. support for [Ukrainian President] Zelensky.”
Already, Russian influence operations targeting American and Western audiences appear to be weakening Americans’ support and appetite for providing aid to Ukraine, according to a U.S. intelligence community bulletin obtained by The Daily Beast.
The May intelligence bulletin from the Office of Intelligence and Analysis at the Department of Homeland Security says the Kremlin’s influence arm has focused Russian influence operations that are targeting American audiences almost entirely on the war in Ukraine. Russian state media and proxy information operations are working to paint Western support for Ukraine as the reason the war is dragging on so long, and the reason there is a growing food crisis. Never mind the fact the conflict and grain export problems exist because Putin chose to invade Ukraine in the first place.
“Outlets claimed… that Western nations prolonged the conflict by sending military aid to Ukraine,” reads the intelligence brief, which focused on Russian information operations in May. “Outlets claimed that Western actions were causing global food prices to soar.”
The intelligence team also assesses that the Russian government remains one of the primary threats to the United States due to its “malicious cyber operations against federal and state, local, tribal, and territorial governments, election organizations,” and more.
The Russian influence shops have also particularly been zeroing in on the idea that Western security assistance to Ukraine has been escalating the war.
“Outlets regularly published stories about Western arms shipments and pledges of aid to Ukraine, saying that they further destabilize and prolong the conflict,” the intelligence assessment states. “Outlets spread claims that there was no accountability for weapons entering Ukraine, which would likely lead to them being misdirected.”
These kinds of narratives are only likely to increase in the coming days as Putin seeks to shore up his power, according to Brian Harrell, a former Assistant Secretary at the Department of Homeland Security.
“As health related rumors swirl surrounding Putin, I suspect we will see an uptick in propaganda and even counter-messages from loyalists,” Harrell told The Daily Beast.
Any good spy will tell you it’s impossible to get inside Putin’s head. But Russian information operations can offer a clue. In distracting Americans from supporting Ukraine, and as Russian forces continue to try to take key Ukrainian cities, Putin is likely hoping that he can stave off defeat in Ukraine and therefore stave off an ouster, too.
“Putin’s thinking: ‘I can outlast all you people. And if I get this to 2024, I might get a Republican who doesn’t feel like Joe Biden,’” Hoffman told The Daily Beast. “They’re students of American politics. Of course he’s going to look at the midterms and he’s looking at anybody who’s… against the war in Ukraine.”
Russian election interference may also include efforts to advance politicians or themes that would reverse sanctions against Russia, according to Gavin Wilde, a former director for Russia, Baltic, and Caucasus affairs on the White House National Security Council.
“Their major headache has been the idea that Washington is kind of facilitating Ukraine’s westward geopolitical tilt,” Wilde, who contributed to the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, told The Daily Beast. “To the extent that they can both delegitimize that in Ukraine proper as well as delegitimize those forces in Washington, D.C. and break that strain of support over the longer term, that’s kind of the major end goal.”
Russia has long intervened in American politics by choosing a preferred candidate to support in influence operations. In 2016, Putin developed a preference for Donald Trump’s candidacy, according to a Senate Intelligence Committee assessment. In the buildup to the 2020 presidential elections, Putin had Russian influence operations denigrating Biden’s candidacy while supporting Trump’s reelection, according to a National Intelligence Council briefing on the matter.
Russian proxies and information operations teams have also worked to meddle in U.S. politics by exacerbating existing divisions in the United States in order to sow discord and create distrust in the U.S. government. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, vaccination debates were a favorite of the Kremlin. Between 2014 and 2017 Russian influence operations linked to the Russian government Internet Research Agency (IRA) focused on pumping both pro- and anti-vaccination narratives online to amplify divisions around vaccination in the United States. In the buildup to the 2016 presidential elections, Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) aimed to stoke racial divisions by creating fake Black Lives Matter groups on Facebook. In 2020, Russian efforts focused on inflaming racial tensions and on duping real journalists to publish posts that would inflame political tensions.
Some of Putin’s influence operations in the coming months are likely to try to dig in on existing divisive issues to create more tension and drama in the United States, just as Russian operations have before, both to sow discord and distract from the war in Ukraine.
“Certainly there’s probably a line of thought out of Moscow that any country if distracted by its own internal problems will have less of an appetite for foreign problems,” Wilde told The Daily Beast. “All politics are local in that sense and I think the Kremlin certainly grasps that—that might be one kind of avenue through which to kind of limit Washington’s appetite or capacity to support Ukraine.”
And according to a second intelligence bulletin from the Office of Intelligence and Analysis that The Daily Beast obtained, the intelligence community already believes that the Kremlin is seeking to interfere in the midterm elections this year.
“We expect Russian interference in the upcoming 2022 midterm elections, as Russia views this activity as an equitable response to perceived actions by Washington and an opportunity to both undermine U.S. global standing and influence U.S. decision-making,” the June intelligence bulletin, which was first reported by CNN, reads.
The DHS intelligence team expects the Russian government to continue to rely on troll farms, state media outlets, and other proxies online to spread pro-Russia narratives and to try to divide Americans in the coming months.
“We assess that Russia will continue malign influence and interference activities designed to undermine U.S. global prestige, sow division among the American public, undermine faith in U.S. democratic institutions, and portray Russia as a global power,” the intelligence brief states.
One topic Putin might be eyeing is support in the United States for Europe, and in particular, U.S. dedication to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and other security assistance to Ukraine and Europe, according to Wilde.
“There’s going to probably be, by 2024, a crystallized debate about the degree of U.S. commitment to Europe… including Ukraine,” Wilde said. “Putin is very well aware that that debate is probably only going to become more acute.”
Part of the Kremlin’s information operations tactics to undermine the U.S. political process will be aimed at suppressing the American vote by dissuading voters from showing up to the polls, the report states.
“Russian malign influence actors likely will attempt to dissuade U.S. voters from participating in the 2022 midterm elections using similar tactics employed during the 2020 and 2016 presidential elections, such as targeting audiences with false information about voting logistics, exacerbating racial tensions, and levying attacks or praise on candidates from either political party,” the report states.