What the Mueller Report Tells Us About Russia’s Designs on 2020

Political chaos in Washington is what Moscow was hoping for all along, U.S. intelligence officials say. And the Kremlin would like to create more of it.

By Amy Mackinnon, a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Foreign Policy illustration
Foreign Policy illustration

The release of Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election has only further inflamed the debate over U.S. President Donald Trump’s future—especially as it became apparent that the special counsel’s assessment of the evidence was far less exculpatory than Attorney General William Barr’s.

And this sort of political chaos is precisely what the Russians intended all along, some former U.S. intelligence officials and Russia specialists say. Indeed, there was one conclusion in the 22-month investigation that no one in Washington was disputing on Friday—with the possible exception of Trump himself. It came on Page 1: “The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion.”

Russia experts say the extensive detail about Russian activities in the Mueller probe reveals much about Moscow’s game plan—and what U.S. counterintelligence officials should watch for—in future elections, starting with 2020.

“Make no mistake: They are at war with us. Whether we want to recognize it or not,” said Daniel Hoffman, who served as CIA station chief in Moscow under the Obama administration.

It was the aggressiveness of Russia’s efforts in the run-up to the 2016 election that surprised several former senior intelligence officers interviewed by Foreign Policy. The internet served as a steroid for long-established features of Moscow’s toolkit: disinformation, propaganda, and strategic leaks. It was also an operation that Russia intended to be discovered, knowing the backlash it would cause, Hoffman said, suggesting that the political strife over the Mueller report is itself evidence that the Kremlin’s tactics are still succeeding.

“I think the fallout [from the discovery of Russia’s role] is far more damaging. It’s an amplification of their themes,” he said. “The strategy was to pit us against ourselves.” And having discovered how well that strategy has worked up to the present, Moscow will be encouraged to keep applying it.

“All the partisan fodder here is going to make it difficult for Democratic and Republican lawmakers to come together and form a real strategy to counter Russia,” Hoffman added.

With just over 18 months to go until the next U.S. presidential election, Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian organized crime, said Russia may even double down on this aspect of its campaign—despite a greater vigilance over Moscow-funded trolling on the part of U.S. intelligence officials as well as Facebook and other social media companies.

Assuming Trump runs again, he said, “It’s going to be a dirty campaign, and that suits the Russians just fine. They will just try and ensure that the dirt is that much dirtier.”

“The Russians can only exploit existing divisions,” he said. “You’re not going to deal with this by the NSA [National Security Agency surveillance] and indictments. It’s actually social cohesion” at stake.

Galeotti said that while Russia may focus on sowing chaos, there have been some signs that it has stepped back from rooting for or against particular candidates. “They’ve backed away on interfering in elections, because when they’ve tried it, it’s backfired on them in a big way,” he said. Galeotti pointed to the 2017 French presidential election, when candidate Emmanuel Macron’s team was able to deflect a Russian attempt to discredit him by hacking and leaking. Berlin braced itself for a Russian leak ahead of the German parliamentary elections later that year, but none appeared.

The past 2½ years have seen the biggest public exploration of Russian spycraft in the post-Cold War era, as investigations by the special counsel’s office, congressional inquiries, and the news media have all sought to shed light on Russia’s role in the election.

Steven Hall, a former chief of the CIA’s Russia operations in Moscow, said that while intelligence analysts have long sought to figure out what the Kremlin was up to, this is the first time it has received such scrutiny in the public square.

“This is the first time we’ve had the whole course of the Western press and others taking a look at it, which is a good thing,” he said.

In some ways, experts and former intelligence officials see little new in what has been revealed about Moscow’s approach. A degree of Russian espionage is even expected around a U.S. presidential election, said James Clapper, who served as U.S. director of national intelligence from 2010 to 2017.

“We have records going back to at least the ‘60’s of documented efforts by the Russians to interfere with, and influence our elections. As a consequence, I think we (the US IC) anticipate a certain ambient level of collection and interference,” he said in an email to FP.

What made 2016 different was not that Russia ran intelligence operations in the United States, said Galeotti, who is an honorary professor at University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies. It’s what they did with the information they found.

“What was crossing the line was when they actually then released the hacked emails. That’s what you might say is the difference between intelligence and active measures,” he said.

In weaponizing the information that it had gathered, Russia fell back on a long-established subversion tactic known as active measures, tools of political warfare such as fake news, propaganda, and the use of fringe groups and front organizations to sow chaos in the target country.

Oleg Kalugin, a former director of foreign counterintelligence for the KGB, described it in an interview with CNN in 1998 as the heart and soul of Soviet Intelligence, “subversion: active measures to weaken the West.”

A number of former intelligence officials said that Russia’s campaign in 2016 was also marked by its sheer intensity: “From about the spring of 2016, this election was different. We never experienced the depth, breadth, and aggressiveness previously, that the Russians displayed in the run-up to the 2016 election,” Clapper said. “The major difference, of course, was the enabler of social media. They used this to exploit the polarization and divisiveness that already existed in this country, and in doing so, reached some 126 million people.”

In using the internet for hacking and the spread of fake news, the Kremlin was able to give its long-established active measures a decidedly modern makeover. In the pre-internet age, obtaining thousands of pieces of documents from the inner sanctum of the Democratic National Committee would have been a complex operation. But indictments issued by the special counsel’s office last year reveal how a unit of Russian military intelligence officers was able to access and disseminate this information without ever leaving Moscow. In St. Petersburg, whole teams were set to work at the Internet Research Agency, better known as the troll factory, creating fake social media profiles to spread talking points and articles intended to pour salt in America’s social wounds.

“It’s cheap asymmetric warfare, and they’re good at it,” Hoffman said.

Recognizing that Russia does not have the means to achieve its geopolitical goals using conventional methods, Moscow has developed an arsenal of other tools to get what it wants, said Hall, who retired from the CIA in 2015.

Many experts point to 2007 as the first sign of Moscow’s budding cyberwar strategy, when attacks on networks in Estonia unleashed chaos in the tiny Baltic nation. Banking, government, and media websites were rendered inaccessible for days or even weeks. The next year, in the Republic of Georgia, cyberwar was swiftly followed by an actual war, while Ukraine has long been seen as a proving ground for Moscow’s tactics.

“I think he’s [Russian President Vladimir Putin] come to learn over the last decade-and-a-half or so that there hasn’t been much pushback or ramifications for Russian action,” said John Sipher, who spent 28 years with the CIA, serving in Moscow in the 1990s and later running the agency’s Russian operations.

“They do all these things, and we say, ‘That’s terrible,’ but then nothing really comes of it,” he said.

Sipher said that the CIA had tried to obtain covert action findings—a presidential determination allowing the intelligence agency to use covert action—under former President Barack Obama, to respond to Russian actions, but it was unable to do so. Sipher retired from the CIA in 2014.

“In previous administrations, both the [George W.] Bush and Obama administration, it seemed like it was a bit too far. That there was still hope, that if we could just work with the Russians, they would come round,” he said.

“People who worked on Russian issues realized that would never happen and were more skeptical,” Sipher said.

Numerous interactions between people from the Trump orbit and Kremlin-linked Russians were documented in the Mueller report. The investigation concluded that while Russia and the Trump campaign had the same goal in mind, there was no evidence to suggest that anyone from the campaign coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference.

The report did note that the investigation was not always able to build a complete picture: Some witnesses invoked their Fifth Amendment right to protect themselves from possible self-incrimination, some gave false or incomplete testimony, while others had deleted relevant communications or used encrypted apps that automatically delete content.

The special counsel’s office notes in the report that it is “accurate and complete to the greatest extent possible” but includes the caveat that information that was unavailable to the investigation could “shed additional light on (or cast in a new light) the events described in the report.”

“Just because the legal threshold hasn’t been met doesn’t mean there hasn’t been bad things going on,” said Hall, the former chief of Russia operations at the CIA.

For a criminal conviction, there has to be sufficient evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime has been committed. This, Hall said, is significantly higher than the bar used in making counterintelligence assessment of suspicious activity, which is more along the lines of if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, they will report to their superiors with a degree of confidence that they are dealing with a duck.

“I’ve always said that there is way too much smoke for there not to be a fire,” Hall said.

As the Russia investigation and attendant media coverage has unspooled events from 2016, it has shown in sharp relief how the work of Russia’s formal intelligence services is is interwoven with the efforts of Kremlin loyalists, grifters, and social climbers.

“Putin has weaponized the imaginations of so many Russians. Rather than try and run it all, you just simply let it be known what you want to happen,” Galeotti said.

Putin sets the course, and those below him will look to leverage whatever access or resources they have to curry favor with the Kremlin, secure a promotion, or extract some other kind of benefit.

“If you have something, and it fails, the Kremlin is no worse off. They can absolutely deny, because they have nothing to do with it,” Galeotti said.

Sipher, who spent decades at the CIA, said that Russia has long been comfortable with using a broad cast of characters to achieve their objectives: “They accept a wider range of agent assets or sources than we do.”

In contrast, the CIA is much more cautious when it comes to the assets it relies on overseas, as a way of ensuring their reliability, he said. It’s a distinction that reflects the central role that the intelligence services play in Russia’s statecraft.

“They use is as a propaganda tool, and they use it as a diplomatic tool, and they use it as a military and assassination tool,” said Sipher. “It’s just a bigger thing.”

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack