Today, the Cold War echoes through the war between Ukraine and Russia. Espionage, propaganda, and election meddling were hallmarks of the conflict with the former Soviet Union, but as Lisa Fletcher found out, what’s old is new again, in growing tensions between the U.S. and Russia.
Hundreds of social media accounts, including this fake Tennessee Republican party Twitter profile, were created ahead of the 2016 elections by Russians intent on manipulating voters, according to federal investigators. They say posts like these contained false information, meant to expand divides among presidential political supporters.
Lisa: How successful has Putin been in sowing disinformation in American society?
Calder Walton: Before the war in Ukraine, we would say very successful, astonishingly successful. At this point, we are all expecting him to try to sow disinformation again in the U.S. One of his close associates said that, “Yes, we have meddled in the past and we will continue to medal in the future."
Calder Walton studies the past and present of interference tactics here at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
Walton: There are echoes of a new cold war right now between the West and Russia. And a lot of the trade craft that was pioneered in the 1950s and 60s about spies and spying, espionage and counter-espionage, is still very active today.
Like Russian spy conspirator Anna Chapman, whose cover was a TV personality and catwalk model. Russian agent Maria Butina posed as a journalist but was actually infiltrating U.S. organizations and influential conservative political circles. And fake billionaire heiress Anna de Rothschild, suspected of being a Russian spy. She infiltrated former President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home and is now being probed by the FBI.
Walton: In the old Cold War, it all seemed very pedestrian. The Soviets would concoct a forgery. They would plant it in some Soviet-friendly press with the aim of discrediting the United States. Well now, with social media, for people that were trained in disinformation, like Putin himself, a former KGB officer, social media was just a golden opportunity, and he exploited it.
Lisa: What gives disinformation the credibility now that allows so many people to buy into it?
Walton: Any kind of covert action will only be effective if it amplifies existing grievances in a society. If you come along and just make up a big lie, generally that's not going to work. It's much more effective to build on existing fears, and it disseminates around the world at lightning speed. The KGB tried to do everything possible to prevent Ronald Reagan getting a second term. They tried to orchestrate rallies against Reagan. They tried to recruit agents in either political parties to run against Reagan. They hated Reagan. They were more scared of Reagan than anyone else on the planet.
Walton says the U.S. has had its hand in meddling as well.
Walton: The U.S. interfered in elections in the past, indisputably. In 1948, the CIA proudly interfered in the Italian elections to prevent, as they saw it, the intrusion of Soviet subversion. They were trying to promote democratic candidates against communist candidates.
But in the war between Russia and Ukraine, the tables have turned. President Putin and his operatives are widely seen as losing the information battle. The U.S. declassified intelligence about Putin’s invasion plans to ward off doubt by U.S. allies and form a united front.
Walton: The U.S. and the British did an absolutely astonishing job of declassifying, in real-time, intelligence that they had about Putin's ambitions for a so-called false flag, an excuse, a pretext, to launch his invasion. And by going public with that they minimized Putin's chances for maneuvering. We kind of inoculated his excuse to go for war, and the information warfare battle space within Ukraine has not gone according to his plan ever since.
Walton says he hasn’t seen anything recently that’s of the scale of Russia’s 2016 meddling in the U.S., but that shouldn’t give anyone reason to relax.
Lisa: How likely is it that there are foreign agents among us actively spreading disinformation to create strife here in America?
Walton: Are there people in the U.S. that are being used by foreign actors — Russia, China, Iran — to spread disinformation? Yes, definitely.
Sharyl (on-camera): What issues do they think that Putin's operatives likely to exploit in the near future?
Lisa: Probably oil and gas. Walton says as inflation bites and oil prices continue to rise, that is going to provide a tinder box for Russian disinformation. It's probably going to go in the direction of us being able to take care of our own, like keeping the heat on in winter.
Sharyl: An old game, but yeah, we're starting to recognize when that's happening.