An underlying theme running through special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation is that Russia’s ultimate goal was to make sure Donald Trump was elected president. That’s just part of the picture. Last month, Mueller’s team released the details of the grand jury indictments of 13 Russian nationals, as well as a shadowy Russian firm known as the Internet Research Agency, for conducting information warfare against the United States and breaking three U.S. federal laws. Our research looks at Russian cyber and information warfare activity — and distinct patterns begin to emerge. But this is a nonlinear strategy and a long-term assault on Russia’s adversaries. Although boosting the Trump campaign may have been one of Russia’s primary goals in 2016, the 2020 goal could just as easily be helping the president’s Democratic challenger.
Russia has been conducting information warfare for a very long time — current doctrine has roots that go back to Soviet times. The nonlinear warfare (or reflexive control) tactics include the ability to control information — inject, alter, obfuscate or withhold altogether — as well as the timing for these actions. The Kremlin’s aim is to sow perpetual discord in governments and populations, beyond just one election cycle.
By changing an adversary’s perception of reality, Russia hopes to exert pressure on that country’s decision-making. For example, in Ukraine, Russia has used a wide array of measures to divide that country’s population and keep it in perpetual conflict. This includes overt tactics such as spreading disinformation about pro-Western candidates on social media, as well as covert tactics such as contracting organized crime to commit atrocities to create fear in unsuspecting populations.