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President Trump’s War Room on Russia, As If Russia Were Running It

President Trump’s War Room on Russia, As If Russia Were Running It

President Trump is setting up a “war room” to counter the Russia probe. With all of the talk about Russian government tactics for meddling in Western democratic processes, I thought it would be interesting to tease out what the Russians might do in such a war room.

There are several timely monographs detailing Russian tactics in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), including from the Center for Strategic and International StudiesJamestown Foundation, the journal of Comparative Strategies, and Yale Press. Together, these pieces highlight three tactics that Russia might use if it were running Trump’s new war room:  high-level pressure, information dissemination and persuasion, and revisionism.

We have already witnessed high-level pressure in the form of Trump asking investigators in federal agencies to halt a line of query and pledge loyalty to the president, or be fired. The White House could next offer deceptive interactions, such as pretending to support an investigation by slowly offering information, while at the same time trying to subvert it.

This has been used by Russia in regard to conflict resolution measures in separatist and war torn parts of Eurasia. By pretending to be for peace, Russia has been able to delay resolving conflicts, while aiding one side, or sometimes both.

Meanwhile, the White House could find an otherwise legitimate actor to apply pressure on members of the investigation teams. This could include carrots, such as favors, or sticks, such as the collection and threat of dissemination of personally embarrassing information or threatening to support a politician’s opponent in the next race. This has done by Russia to gain leverage over political outcomes and business assets in CEE.

Another means to apply pressure could be a significant increase in White House staff allegiant to the president. Tens more people working the case for the White House could substantially strengthen their collection of information and abilities to counter information. Since Putin came to power, Russian embassy staff in every CEE capital has increased, including hundreds of intelligence agents working across Europe. This has strengthened counterespionage efforts, as well as recruitment.

The Trump team could tap into a growing admiration of the ‘strongman’ Putin and his way of governing.  Among broader society, there is already a sympathetic base that does not like the ‘Russia bashing’ by the liberal media.

A counter effort to recruit businesspeople, journalists, academics, and other public figures in the U.S. to speak more positively about ties to Russia could take place. Russia has covert and overt funds for this and has managed to retain a list of pro-Russian voices throughout Europe.

The Trump Administration could also infiltrate and pressure civil society in America by creating a fund to cultivate divides, and then offer mediation services, all the while recruiting subversives. By manipulating societal tensions, the government and society will turn their attention to addressing this issue rather than the Russia probe. In Russia’s case, this has included encouraging campaigns for minorities, advising on separatist tactics, and even arming groups in third countries.

The second tactic—sophisticated information dissemination—has become a hallmark of Russia in CEE, including the buying up of media outlets.

More recently, Russia’s toolkit includes cyber, trolling, and propaganda dissemination combined with actions, or “active measures,” such as disinformation campaigns, media manipulation (particularly on political and public opinion), media creation, or spreading confusion and fear, i.e. “psychological operations.” The White House has several loyal media outlets that could ramp up their operations.

Ideologically, the White House could claim victimization by creating an alternative story behind the “witch hunt” on Russia. Russia has gone after foreign funded NGOs, multinational institutions, and the media, labeling them “enemies of the state” and crippling their capability, including jailing citizens and closing down organizations.

An image of the wounded Russians at the hands of the sinful, racist, and fascist Russophobic Westerners could translate into the wounded conservative at the hands of sinful, violent, and irrational liberals.

Finally, rewriting the wrongs of history by literally revising history is a Russian tactic. According to current historical rewriting, Russia tried to join the West, but was rebuffed. So, it had no option but to create new alliances by revising borders and international alliances. In blaming ‘the other’ by revising the Obama/Clinton years as sacrificing American greatness and making America weak, the Trump Administration is righting wrongs by making relations with Russia great again.

Trump’s war room against the Russia probe, if run by the Russians, could employ the tactics of high-level pressure, information dissemination and persuasion, and revisionism. Governments in CEE, meanwhile, are taking measures to counter Russian tactics.

The first step is recognizing what is happening and mobilizing to counter it.

The second step is informing society about potential subterfuge, such as false media reports and disruptive organizations.

The third step is to strengthen government institutions and ensure they remain independent and immune from corrupt practices.

The fourth step is ensuring freedom of the press, protecting journalists from influence as well as external financing for media outlets.

Fifth and final, educational bodies must continue to check for historical accuracies and take measures to reeducate society.

Perhaps most important of these countermeasures is that we, the people, make more of an effort to discern when these tactics are being used and urge our lawmakers to take action. We face a critical point in preserving our democratic system, our freedom of the press, and our own interpretation of ourselves.

Stacy Closson is a Global Fellow with the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. and a Truman National Security Fellow. She lives with her family in Bismarck. Views expressed are her own.