Forget bots and trolls. Russia has stepped up its overt public diplomacy— taking a page from President Donald Trump’s Twitter playbook, and also taking comfort or refuge from his repeated refrain, undercutting his own national security team, that the Russia investigation is a “witch hunt.”
“Over the past nine months to a year, we’ve seen a much more aggressive overt messaging campaign from Russian outlets, from a lot of embassy accounts and the Foreign Ministry,” said Laura Rosenberger, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for Security Democracy, which tracks such interference. She attributed it to Russian President Vladimir Putin being emboldened by Trump’s dismissive attitude toward Russian interference.“If you look at polling in the United States, particularly among Republicans, President Trump has done a pretty effective job in shifting public opinion, and there is a sense that Putin’s not a bad guy and we should have a better relationship with Russia,” Rosenberger said. That’s lowered normal skepticism toward messages from Moscow, creating an opening for Putin.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova has embraced the open verbal combat, with her office running a competition among Russian embassies for the snarkiest twitter ripostes to criticism of Russia. The sharp-tongued Washington, D.C.-based embassy won this year, but a Russia official said that was only because “London couldn’t win two years in a row.”
A classic tweet from the Russian embassy in London includes a tableau of photos of Putin shaking hands with multiple world leaders, below a quote from Britain’s defense chief Gavin Williamson, “Russia is becoming a pariah nation.”
A recent tweet from the Washington-based embassy celebrated that the “35-day period of administrative segregation of Maria Butina, commonly applied to hardened criminals is over,” meaning she’d been transferred to minimum security while awaiting the outcome of charges of operating as an unregistered foreign agent of Russia with the hashtag #FreeMariaButina.
U.S. officials have warned Russia is already trying to covertly influence U.S. midterms, without revealing how, but some watchers in this space say this isn’t 2016 redux. Instead, the open messaging has stepped up.
“They are now overtly talking to and tagging from their social media accounts I saw pushing Syria-related content back in 2014,” said former FBI agent Clint Watts, author of How to Win an Election—Social Media Inception. “They also have responded to Trump tweets and sided with him in the open.”
“It fits their ground game approach, which is to be right out in the open about what they are doing, engaging congressmen etc.,” Watts said.
Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Antonov has held numerous cultural and film events at his embassy, drawing a fascinating mix of pro-Moscow diplomats, academics and members of the Russian community. Antonov held a small cocktail party at the embassy grounds to mark the 75th anniversary of the “Victory in the Battle of Kursk,” a turning point in the Russian battle over the Nazis in World War II. He reminded the crowd of the good that can come when Russia is part of the solution. (The ambassador did not mention that the day of the event was also the same day that in 1939, shortly before World War II began, that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had signed a nonaggression pact. Hitler later scrapped it in 1941.)
Antonov meets with only a handful of U.S. politicians like Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), as few other lawmakers will see him, and he has complained to other diplomats that his reception in D.C. has been frosty. So far, he’s been fairly press shy, talking amiably to journalists who attend his functions but mostly declining to be quoted.
He’s fighting uphill against the effects of Moscow’s messaging. British officials have griped over Moscow’s public diplomacy practice of offering multiple explanations through multiple outlets in response to accusations about the country’s actions. After Britain accused Moscow of attempted murder of Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, Russian officials and social media outlets spread a plethora of “could have been” explanations, including claiming that the Skripals were poisoned by a nerve agent possessed only by Britain and the U.S.
The multiple versions are meant to “muddy the waters,” a senior western official said. “None of this is new. We’ve seen it for months and years.”
A congressional staffer who tangled with Moscow over the years says the Kremlin hasn’t necessarily stepped up messaging overall—it’s just gotten better and more sophisticated.
“They’ve been really strong for a long time. They’ve come out swinging since Magnitsky,” referring to the punishing sanctions approved by Congress to punish Russian officials after the 2009 death of accountant Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow prison. “But they weren’t good at it. Everything was in broken English. In 2015 and 2016, they stepped it up. When they cleared ISIS from Palmyra in 2016, they got it going. They perfected it over Syria.” The various officials spoke anonymously as they didn’t want to become targets in the messaging arena.
The messaging campaign aims to confuse the U.S. public by blending elements of truth with multiple competing narratives, a technique used with great effect on the Russian people. One Western diplomat steeped in Russian matters said many of its people have given up figuring out the truth, resigned to never knowing which image in the Russian news hallway of mirrors is real.
The bot-and-troll campaign during the U.S. presidential election helped sow division here and across the West, leaving a growing number of Americans similarly doubtful of their own media news sources and unsure what to believe—and a more receptive audience to Moscow, just like their president.