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Expert Voices

Mueller indictment shows the evolution of Kremlin political warfare

Vladimir Putin in front of Kremlin
Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow's Red Square. Photo: Mikhail Metzel / TASS via Getty Images

Robert Mueller's indictment against 13 Russians involved with the St. Petersburg–based Internet Research Agency (IRA) reveals that the organization was much more than a social media "troll farm." Rather, it was the hub of a multi-layered, methodical and well-funded intelligence operation against the United States.

Why it matters: The Kremlin, heavily staffed by former KGB and FSB intelligence officers, has adapted its old "chaos strategy" for the digital age. And cyber-fueled political warfare is cheaper, more efficient and far more difficult to contain.

Far deeper than an online disinformation campaign, the IRA's work included extensive research on American politics and society and real rallies on U.S. soil. Its operatives impersonated Americans to dupe an unspecified number of U.S. citizens and Trump campaign staff.

The indictment provides the clearest blow-by-blow assessment of how Moscow has adapted its influence operations for the 21st century. The basic tactics are straight from the Soviet "active measures" playbook: a continuous spread of disinformation during the Cold War to discredit American political leaders (including Martin Luther King, Jr.), fuel ethnic tensions and undermine trust in U.S. intelligence agencies.

In 1976, the KGB launched a smear campaign against the anti-Soviet Democratic candidate Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson, armed with forged FBI intelligence. In the post-Soviet era, Putin's advisers have boasted about how they pit different groups against each other inside of Russia. Sound familiar?

What’s next: The coming revolution in AI and machine learning will transform malicious actors’ capabilities to influence democracies. This won’t happen by the fall of 2018, but 2020 will likely usher in even more dangerous forms of political warfare.

Alina Polyakova is the David M. Rubenstein Fellow for Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution.

Axios 3 hours ago
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In Mideast, democracy struggles to strike root

Mohammad bin Salman
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in the Oval Office on Tuesday. Photo: Kevin Dietsch / Pool via Bloomberg

"Egyptians go to the polls next week in what is essentially a one-candidate election considered by critics to be a return of sorts to authoritarian rule, after a 2011 revolution that sparked loftier expectations for the region," AP Middle East Editor Dan Perry writes.

The big picture: "[I]n the Middle East as a whole, democracy has largely failed to take hold."

Shannon Vavra 6 hours ago
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What it's like to negotiate with North Korea

Cups and a weapon.
Illustration: Sarah Grillo / Axios

President Trump may find himself in a difficult position as soon as he sits down with Kim Jong-un, according to Jim Walsh, who has been in the room for previous talks and says North Korea’s first pitch is often a curveball.

“I’ve been in settings [in which they] set it at the top of the meeting, ‘we’re not going to talk about denuclearization,’" Walsh told Axios. "People on the other side say ‘why the hell are we meeting?’”