Russia is the most pressing near-term threat to the United States, while China remains a more long-term threat, said the U.S. Army Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Brig. Gen. Kevin Wulfhorst, during a panel at the Association of the United States Army Monday.
“These great power competitors have invested heavily in anti-access area denial capabilities to compensate for their own perceived military weaknesses against the United States,” Wulfhorst said. “Both have demonstrated a desire and capacity to challenge the United States in their respective regions.”
But state-sponsored information operations to intrude on the United States’ internal affairs are mostly practiced by the Russian Federation, and are especially concerning today, Wulfhorst said.
Much of that Russian influence began in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, said Vera Zakem, director, Strategy and Partnerships for the Center for Strategic Studies at the CNA Corporation. One of Russia’s primary objectives is “to discredit Western institutions and what Western institutions stand for,” she added.
“Where there are frictions in society, where there are internal divisions in society, Russia has tried to play up these divisions,” Zakem said. “If there are grievances to attach yourself, Russia will use those grievances.”
Zakem pointed to Russia’s use of radio shows, such as Sputnik International, television shows, such as Russia Today, and social media posts as examples of a media propaganda portfolio Russia employs not only in the United States but across Eastern Europe.
“It’s part of a constant campaign,” Zakem said. “So if you’re putting out constant lies, deception and propaganda, it actually becomes, to some degree, virtually impossible to counteract.”
Weak institutions and cultural division in the Balkan states, for instance, are ripe for Russian interference, Zakem said. Russia has managed to kindle a strong alliance with Serbia exactly because there is a weak media vacuum it can occupy with RT and Sputnik and a strong sense of cultural identity it can exacerbate, she added.
“We traveled to Serbia and Macedonia last year, and Russia plays up the inter-ethnic conflict,” Zakem said. “About a year ago...there were huge riots in Skopje, [Macedonia], and basically Sputnik and [Russia Today] were spinning these riots that they were basically for the greater Albanian project.”
In order to counter Russian disinformation campaigns, it’s up to the United States to debunk Russian propaganda, Zakem said. One way to do this is with the Army’s civil affairs units, she added.
But beyond propaganda networks, countering Russia also involves a certain amount of introspection by Americans, said Jeffrey Mankoff, deputy director and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.
“We disregard their own narrative and the stories they tell about themselves and the current world at our own peril,” Mankoff said. “If you listen to how Russian analysts and leaders talk about the current strategic environment, they point to the continued bifurcation of the European security space.”
The way Russia was treated by the West after the Cold War was more similar to the reparations Germany was forced to repay after World War I, than the Marshall Plan that brought stability to the European continent after World War II, Mankoff said.
“Many Russians would argue that … despite the rhetoric of partnership, institutional apparatuses that were created for the Cold War … continued to operate on the basis of containment,” Mankoff said. “Russia was stuck on the outside looking in.”
Instead of a transition towards a functioning democracy, Russia was allowed to atrophy into a chaotic kleptocracy, with a declining standard of living and decrease in security, Mankoff said. Now, Russia has sought to challenge that settlement and seeks a place in the multipolar order, he added.
“It‘s important to understand that the Russians have a story too,” Mankoff said. “Their narrative about how the world works ... helps us better figure out what they’re trying to do and, more importantly, what we’re going to do about it.”