At a glance.
- Election meddling: a look at the US midterms.
- Contrasting takes on Russia's war against Ukraine.
- Contrasting leadership styles.
- Nuclear fantasy in Russian domestic influence operations.
- Addressing battlefield morale: musical shows as friendly influence.
Election meddling: a look at the US midterms.
Mandiant has offered an assessment of attempts to influence the US midterm elections. The major actors, and this is unsurprising, were Russia, China, and Iran, but in general their activities were more muted and less consequential than they have been in earlier campaigns. Mandiant summarizes their three major conclusions about influence operations during the election season:
- "Detected operations were limited to moderate in scale; and in multiple operations, ongoing information operations campaigns pivoted to promote election related narratives as part of their broader activity targeting the U.S., including audiences on both sides of the political spectrum.
- "Some activity appeared intended to 'troll' defenders, potentially to generate the perception of foreign influence while investing limited resources in the effort.
- "Other narratives we identified attempted to exploit controversial issues to widen existing political divisions within the country, or alternatively targeted specific contested election races, which are likely to receive the highest degree of attention."
Why the efforts were relatively muted has a complex but obvious answer, as CNN summarizes: the threat actors, especially the Russians, were preoccupied and had other fires to put out, and, second, US Cyber Command worked to disrupt the infrastructure that influence operators would have used.
Contrasting takes on Russia's war against Ukraine.
Ukraine's President Zelenskyy spoke to a joint session of Congress yesterday, self-consciously evoking Winston Churchill's appearance in December of 1941. He expressed Ukraine's gratitude for the aid promised and received, said that more would be needed, and that with such aid Ukraine would be victorious. He identified Ukraine's cause with the cause of democracy, and he urged Congress to think of aid rendered not as charity, but rather as investment, the New York Times reported.
During Mr. Zelenskyy's visit to Washington, the US Department of Defense announced a further $1.85 billion in aid. "This includes the authorization of a Presidential Drawdown of security assistance valued at up to $1 billion, as well as $850 million in assistance via the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative (USAI)," the Pentagon said. The most prominent article in the aid package was a battery of Patriot air defense missiles.
Russia reacted to the visit, and the new round of assistance, in a foreseeably negative fashion. Of course news that its enemy would receive an additional tranche of US military aid would be unwelcome to Russia, but what striking about Moscow's reaction is the construction of an alternative reality about the war. The whole performance in Washington was staged by the Americans, who are the real villains of the piece.
Russian Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov shared his derisory and outraged reaction at a press conference, and he thought it worth repeating them in his Telegram channel. "The Hollywood-style trip to Washington by the head of the Kiev regime has confirmed that the administration's conciliatory statements about the lack of intention to start a confrontation with Russia are just empty words." The true aggressor, in Russia's view of things, is the United States. Ambassador Antonov explained, "What was essentially announced to applauses and sarcastic smirks, was the need to continue the 'proxy war' against our country. Till a full victory over us. Enormous resources, weapons, intelligence capabilities are thrown in. The manic idea of 'victory over the Russians on the battlefield' is put at the forefront. Some legislators even argue that the Russian Federation can be conquered in three days."
The Ambassador finds the Patriots particularly objectionable, and suggests that the systems will of necessity be crewed by Americans. "Despite our warnings, Patriot air defense system will be sent to Kyiv. However, the country does not have specialists to work with them. So, will those be American specialists? Or citizens of another NATO country? They cannot but realize here that Western weapons are being systematically destroyed by our military. I think everyone understands perfectly well what fate the personnel, manning these complexes on the territory of Ukraine, can face." Russia sees deployment of the Patriot (in fairness to the US aid, it should be pointed out that the Patriot is a tactically defensive, not offensive, weapon) as provocative and escalatory. "I want to emphasize that we have repeatedly tried and are still trying to appeal to common sense at all levels. It was stressed that the provocative actions by the U.S. are steadily leading to an escalation, the consequences of which cannot even be imagined. Thusly, discussions about the hypothetical supply of ATACMS missiles and long-range strike UAVs to Ukrainians are deeply disturbing." (And in fairness to Mr. Antonov, ATACMS is a tactically offensive weapon.)
Russia's war goes back to 2014, and Mr. Antonov blames the US for that year's Russian invasion of Crimea. "The United States are fully responsible for unleashing the Ukrainian conflict in 2014."
The Ambassador's statement closes with mendacity that's remarkable even by recent Russian standards. "All these years, Washington has stubbornly ignored or pretended not to notice the inhuman crimes of the Kiev regime against the Russian population in Ukraine. Zelensky's visit to the American capital, the talks in Washington showed that neither the administration nor Zelensky is ready for peace. Focus is on war, on the death of ordinary soldiers, on further tying the Ukrainian regime to the needs of Washington. The notions mulled by the U.S. media that Russia is not interested in achieving peace are a blatant lie. The Russian position was repeatedly voiced by the President of Russia."
Mr. Antonov's statements represent a somewhat less temperate version of remarks made yesterday by President Putin in an overview of the war he provided. The war has been pushed on Russia by the West, and fighting in Ukraine merely represents the latest phase of Western aggression that's continued for centuries, RT reports Mr. Putin as saying. "Russia spent years doing everything it could to build not just neighborly, but brotherly relations with Ukraine, and nothing worked, said Putin, noting that 'we have always considered Ukrainians to be a brotherly people. I still believe that. Everything that is happening is a tragedy. Our common tragedy. But it is not the result of our policies,' the president said."
Contrasting leadership styles.
President Zelenskyy was in Bakhmut just before his departure for Washington, the AP reports. His visit to the front has drawn a contrast with Russian President Putin's recent reception in honor of Russian soldiers fighting in the special military operation. The contrast is all to Mr. Putin's disadvantage: he comes across as cozened, protected, remote from battlefield realities, and indifferent to the suffering his ambitions have produced. The Telegraph reports that even Mr. Putin's supporters have begun to express dismay at their leader's lack of touch. (Similar contrast may be seen in other Russian state occasions, like the recent ceremony that recognized the award of the Putin Prize, "Knowledge," honoring excellence in education. The set prepared for the presentation looked like something designed by Leni Riefenstahl and Albert Speer.) Performance counts, and it's not just for style points.
Nuclear fantasy in Russian domestic influence operations.
Public fantasizing about nuclear war remains a staple of Russian propaganda. A popular song making the video circuit, "Sarmatushka," celebrates the new RS-28 Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile. Performed by Denis Maidanov, a pop star and Duma member who inter alia missed the expiration date on those leather pants he wears in the video, the song debuted this past Saturday, which is, as it happens, Strategic Missile Forces Day, an annual celebration of the Russian nuclear arsenal. The video was produced by the Ministry of Defense. The title, "Sarmatushka," is a diminutive of "Sarmat," difficult to translate, but which might be rendered "Li'l' ol' Sarmat." The RS-28 is supposed to enter service this month, but, as Task & Purpose points out, such deadlines in Russia tend to be aspirational at best.
The Daily Beast reviews recent Russian media content and sees an official line that publicly at least rejects the prospect of negotiation. Calls for peace, expressions of doubt or dissatisfaction with the war as the talk of turncoats who've been manipulated by Western influence operations. (And these are accompanied by lots of Sarmat-fantasy, too.)
Addressing battlefield morale: musical shows as friendly influence.
Russia has announced the formation of two "creative brigades" whose mission will be to raise the morale of troops at the front. The UK's MoD explains: "On 14 December 2022, the Russian Ministry of Defence announced the establishment of two ‘front line creative brigades’ tasked with raising the morale of troops deployed on the ‘special military operation’. Russian media reports that the ranks will include opera singers, actors and circus performers. This follows a recent campaign by the Russian MoD to encourage the public to donate musical instruments to deployed soldiers." This kind of thing has a long and benign tradition in many armies (think, for example, of the American USO). "Military music and organised entertainment for deployed troops have a long history in many militaries but in Russia they are strongly intertwined with the Soviet-era concept of ideological political education." But the UK's MoD thinks it unlikely that the creative brigades will have much effect on the root causes of low morale. "Fragile morale almost certainly continues to be a significant vulnerability across much of the Russian force. However, soldiers’ concerns primarily focus on very high casualty rates, poor leadership, pay problems...lack of equipment and ammunition, and lack of clarity about the war’s objectives. The creative brigades’ efforts are unlikely to substantively alleviate these concerns."