The intervention of Russian intelligence agencies in the elections of another country isn’t a new phenomenon. In fact, the Russians long ago coined a term for psychological and political warfare meant to influence global events: “active measures.”
Speaking to ATTN: in January, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said the Russians ran “a very successful active measures campaign” intending to “tear down Secretary Clinton and help Donald Trump.”
What Are ‘Active Measures’?
It’s the English translation of “aktivinyye meropriatia,” the term the KGB used for activities not directly related to gathering intelligence. Author and international security historian Calder Walton sums up the goal of KGB active measures as “influencing the course of world events in favor of the Soviet Union, while discrediting and undermining the influence of the United States.”
According to the New Yorker, “when Sergey Tretyakov, the station chief for Russian intelligence in New York, defected, in 2000, he revealed that Moscow’s active measures had never subsided. ‘Nothing has changed,’ he wrote, in 2008. ‘Russia is doing everything it can today to embarrass the United States.'”
What Are Some Examples of This?
According to KGB archives, active measures have included spreading disinformation and conspiracy theories, bribery, blackmail, gathering compromising material on politicians (known as “kompromat”), media manipulation, forging documents and, in extreme cases, assassination.
An exhaustive history of Russian espionage published in The New Yorkerlists some of the most alarming examples of KGB meddling in U.S. political and cultural affairs:
- actively trying to disrupt Ronald Reagan’s re-election in 1984 through kompromat and inflammatory slogans
- spreading rumors the U.S. government created AIDS at a biological warfare laboratory
- forging letters and speeches by high-level diplomats impugning various countries
- planting stories in news outlets accusing the government of assassinating John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other prominent figures
Doesn’t the United States Do This Too?
The Central Intelligence Agency has definitely used active measures, and it also overthrew governments. Calder Walton lists some U.S. active measures as interfering in elections in Italy, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Chile (and helping remove heads of state in these countries); funding the overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected leader in 1953; and attempting to assassinate Fidel Castro.
The hacking of DNC emails and their dumping on Wikileaks, pushing false stories in Russian news outlets like RT and Sputnik, and using social media to spread disinformation — all are new twists on old KGB techniques that Russian President (and former KGB head) Vladimir Putin would be well-versed in.
So Did Russia Put Trump in the White House?
As the New Yorker put it, “no reasonable analyst believes that Russia’s active measures in the United States… have been the dominant force behind the ascent of Trump.” Even Rep. Schiff admitted that it’s impossible to know decisively what impact Russia had on the American election.
But Russian active measures are still making themselves known, from legions of Trump-supporting bots on Twitter to the lingering specter of an alleged kompromat tape alluded to in the intelligence dossier by former British spy Christopher Steele. With upcoming elections in France and Germany, where far-right pro-Russia candidates are hoping to make big gains, active measures are — in Schiff’s words — “a threat to liberal democracy around the world.”