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.

Go deeper

Felix Salmon, author of Capital
1 hour ago - Economy & Business

Wall Street is living up to its bad reputation

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Recent headlines will have you convinced that Wall Street is hell-bent on living up to all of its stereotypes.

Driving the news: Goldman Sachs is the biggest and the boldest, paying more than $5 billion in fines in the wake of the 1MDB scandal, in which billions were stolen from the people of Malaysia.

2 hours ago - Health

Ex-FDA chief: Pence campaigning after COVID exposure puts others at risk

Former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb said "the short answer is yes" when asked whether Vice President Mike Pence is putting others at risk by continuing to campaign after several aides tested positive for COVID-19, stressing that the White House needs to be "very explicit about the risks that they're taking."

Why it matters: The New York Times reports that at least five members of Pence's inner circle, including his chief of staff Marc Short and outside adviser Marty Obst, have tested positive for the virus. Pence tested negative on Sunday morning, according to the VP's office, and he'll continue to travel for the final stretch of the 2020 campaign.

Pence to continue traveling despite aides testing positive for COVID-19

Marc Short with Pence in March. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Marc Short, Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, tested positive for the coronavirus Saturday and is quarantining, according to a White House statement.

Why it matters: Short is Pence's closest aide, and was one of the most powerful forces on the White House coronavirus task force. Pence and second lady Karen Pence tested negative for the virus on Sunday morning, according to the vice president's office.