Russia’s effort to encircle Ukraine with more than 150,000 troops has been accompanied by a shift in its information operations, including a noted increase in ongoing campaigns targeting audiences in the United States, according to a senior U.S. Homeland Security official.
The onslaught of Kremlin-linked influence operations by itself is not new. U.S. intelligence officials and the Department of Homeland Security have warned for months of sustained Russian efforts to sow discord with disinformation on a range of subjects, from the 2020 U.S. presidential elections to the coronavirus.
But over the past few weeks, as intelligence streamed in that Russian President Vladimir Putin might be closer to launching an invasion into Ukraine, the tone and tenor of the influence campaigns targeting U.S. audiences began to evolve.
There has been “an increase in the promotion of narratives trying to lay the blame for the Ukraine crisis and the potential escalation in that conflict at the feet of the U.S.,” said John Cohen, the senior official performing the duties of the undersecretary of the Office of Intelligence and Analysis at DHS. “Trying to shift blame away from Russia’s efforts.”
Officials also fear that Russian rhetoric about Ukraine, when mixed with information designed to anger and even incite segments of American society, could make the threat landscape in the U.S. that much more dangerous.
“The escalated tensions between Russia and Ukraine have the potential to exacerbate the threat environment here at home, particularly as it relates to the use by Russia of disinformation campaigns and active measure techniques,” Cohen said Tuesday during a virtual forum.
Homeland Security officials earlier this month issued an updated National Terrorism Advisory System bulletin warning that an increasingly volatile, unpredictable and complex threat environment necessitated keeping the U.S. in a heightened state of alert against terror attacks.
The updated bulletin also warned that much of the information environment, including social media, was being targeted by “malign foreign powers” seeking to amplify any and all divisions in American society.
Of the growing number of foreign powers seeking to manipulate the online environment, Russia has been especially active. Former intelligence officials and analysts told VOA that even before the 2020 election, Moscow was finding ways to ingratiate a stable of influence peddlers to U.S. audiences on the far right and the far left.
More recently, an assessment by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence obtained by Yahoo News concluded the Kremlin is providing “indirect and passive support” to U.S. groups on the far right, described by U.S. officials as racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists, or RMVEs.
“We lack indications of Russian Government direct support — such as financing, material support, training or guidance,” the ODNI assessment said. “However, Russian online influence operations amplify politically divisive issues that probably contribute to RMVE radicalization and recruitment.”
The ODNI report further warned that some Russian paramilitary groups have tried to recruit Western extremists.
“We have not seen a significant amount of plane travel at this point, but it’s obviously something we look at,” DHS’ Cohen said Tuesday, though he warned U.S. officials are trying to fight back.
“We have shared intelligence information with state and locals. We are making sure that we’re doing everything we can to protect key information infrastructures, particularly those having to do with critical infrastructure,” he said. “And we are continuing to think through strategies to counteract disinformation campaigns promoted by Russia.”
Pushing back against Russian disinformation and influence operations can be difficult because “success is measured by volume and relentlessness,” said John Sipher, a 28-year veteran of the CIA who once ran the spy agency’s Russia operations.
“They are no longer trying to push a cohesive narrative,” Sipher told VOA. “(Russia is) just trying to use a firehose to spread lies, disinformation and confusion in an effort to make it impossible to pick out truth from the huge pile of nonsense.”