Today, I rise to continue my series of speeches on Russian hybrid warfare and the threat it poses to our national security. Russian hybrid warfare occurs below the level of direct military conflict, yet it is no less a threat to our national security and the integrity of our democracy and society. We must reframe our thinking to understand that these are attacks from a foreign adversary on our democratic institutions, our free markets, and our open society. We recently honored our fallen and observed the attacks of September 11, 2001. The 9-11 Commission report, which looked into what happened after the attacks, assessed that one of our government’s failures in preventing those attacks was a failure of imagination. Now too, we have the Director of National Intelligence telling us that the “system is blinking red” akin to the threats we were seeing before 9-11. We must be focused on the current problem as a national security threat. This threat requires that the United States defend itself against hybrid attacks with the level of commitment and resolve as we would against a military attack against our country.
For far too long, we have failed to recognize that hybrid attacks are the new Russian form of warfare. As laid out in the Russian National Security Strategy of 2015, the Kremlin’s approach to conflict includes weaponizing tools and resources from across government and society. The Russian strategy states: “Interrelated political, military, military-technical, diplomatic, economic, informational, and other measures are being developed and implemented in order to ensure strategic deterrence and the prevention of armed conflicts.” The Russian strategy describes the conventional and non-conventional arenas of warfare as the Kremlin envisions it and how Russia has utilized all the tools of statecraft to engage an adversary without in many cases, firing actual shots. These different disciplines make up a Russian “hybrid” approach to confrontation below the threshold of direct-armed conflict, a method that has been developing and escalating since the earliest days of Putin’s rise to power in Russia.
The main tenets of the Kremlin’s hybrid operations are: information operations with cyber tools—which people commonly think of as hacking; propaganda and disinformation; manipulation of social media; and malign influence, which can be deployed through political, legal, or financial channels. A further characteristic of Russian hybrid warfare is denial and deception used to obscure its involvement. And the Kremlin deploys more than one hybrid warfare tactic simultaneously to provide maximum effect.
A look at the Russian hybrid warfare doctrine also illuminates that the Kremlin sees deterrence and prevention differently than we do. They are not merely using these tactics as deterrence or strategic prevention in the way we think about these concepts. Instead, they are deploying these tactics aggressively, but below the threshold of where they assess we will respond with conventional weapons. One such example was the hybrid warfare operations the Kremlin deployed in Crimea including covert forces sometimes referred to as “little green men” and the use of coercive political tactics including an illegitimate referendum.
Previously, I’ve addressed aspects of Russia’s hybrid warfare operations against the United States dealing with tactics of financial malign influence and multiple hybrid tools they have deployed against our democratic elections. Today, I will discuss another Russian tactic in its hybrid warfare arsenal, the use of assassination, politically motivated violence, intimidation or detention to pursue the Kremlin’s objectives. These tactics are sometimes referred to as “dirty active measures.” With dirty active measures, the immediate attack is deployed against an individual who is working counter to the Kremlin’s strategic goals by challenging Putin’s power base, exposing corruption, or unearthing hybrid warfare operations. But the damage of these hybrid warfare tactics goes well beyond the individual killed, hurt, threatened or jailed by the Kremlin. These tactics cause chaos, fear, and instability to bystanders and have a deterrent effect, sending a chilling message to others that might seek to challenge the Kremlin’s rule. Further, the reach with which Putin has deployed these weapons—inside Russia, across Ukraine, Europe, and even in the United States—instills fear that if the Kremlin wants to get rid of you, there is nowhere to hide.
Like all aspects of Russian hybrid warfare, dirty active measures are part of a pattern of behavior, which serves Russian strategic interests. Putin’s highest strategic objective is preserving his grip on power. He also seeks to operate unconstrained domestically and in the near abroad. Finally, Putin seeks for Russia to be seen as equal to the United States and to regain the great power status it lost at the end of the Cold War. He knows he cannot effectively compete with the United States in conventional ways and win. Instead, he seeks to use tools from his hybrid warfare arsenal in order to divide us from our allies and partners in the West and weaken our democratic societies from within. The Putin regime has been engaged in a pattern of dirty active measures for more than a decade, and the tempo has only increased since he retook the presidency in 2012. These tactics have increasing implications for U.S. and allied national security.
I wanted to address this tactic of dirty active measures because it has taken on greater urgency due to recent events. In particular, I am thinking of the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian Military Intelligence Officer, and his daughter on British soil, and Putin’s threat against Ambassador McFaul and other U.S. Government officials at the Helsinki Summit. These events may seem unrelated, but they actually are part of a pattern of malicious and threatening Russian behavior. Today, I will explain the connection and make recommendations for how we can deter and counter Russia’s use of dirty active measures as part of its hybrid warfare operations below the level of military conflict.
Dirty active measures have a long and sordid history in Russia and the Soviet Union, dating back to Tsarist times. For assassinations, poison was often the weapon of choice, including the attempted cyanide poisoning of Rasputin in 1916. In 1921, Lenin opened a poison laboratory to test methods to be used against political enemies named the “special room” which was also known as the “the lab of death.” At this lab, they developed the nerve agents known as novichoks, which were designed to be undetectable, and were recently deployed against the Skripals. These tactics were amplified under Stalin and featured killings by hired assassins, staged automobile accidents, and poisonings, used inside Russia and deployed abroad. As Stalin notoriously said, “Death solves all problems. No man, no problem.”
Given President Putin’s background as a spymaster, it should come as no surprise that Russia’s use of dirty active measures have continued under his regime. Before becoming Prime Minister and President, Putin spent the majority of his career in the KGB, the state’s security service and its successor, the FSB. As Russian journalist Andrei Soldatov wrote, the KGB’s “main task was always to protect the interests of whoever currently resided in the Kremlin.” In this system, loyalty and fidelity to the state is prized above all, and Putin’s values were shaped by it. In 2005, Putin lamented that the “breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.” When he assumed power, he resurrected a system that reflected Soviet methods. He employed all the instruments of the state, including the Parliament, the courts, and security services to protect his power base and allow him to pursue strategic objectives in the foreign arena unconstrained. Putin’s use of hybrid warfare tactics of assassination, political violence, intimidation, and detention—the dirty active measures—are tenets of this system he created to cement his hold on power.
Putin has also manipulated the Parliament and the court system to make and enforce laws that manufacture legal consent for tactics of dirty active measures. As opposition activist Vladimir Kara Murza, who survived being twice poisoned, wrote recently in The Washington Post, “[i]n Vladimir Putin’s Russia, laws are often passed with specific people in mind, whether to reward or punish.” Notably, in July of 2006, the Russian Parliament gave the President permission to use Russian armed forces and security services to perpetrate extra judicial killings abroad on people that Moscow accused of extremism. Companion legislation passed about the same time expanded the definition of extremism to include libelous statements about Putin’s administration. This legislation effectively gave those who carry out dirty active measures immunity.
In addition to the use of the legislative and legal mechanisms at their disposal, the Kremlin unleashes a barrage of propaganda against those targeted for dirty active measures. These information operations contribute to a climate of fear targeting both the individuals the Kremlin is trying to silence and the broader population. Propaganda campaigns are also deployed after the dirty active measure is carried out, in order to sow confusion and make people doubt whether Russia is culpable.
Putin and his inner circle have a drawn a distinct narrative, branding those who oppose the Kremlin as criminals, thus deeming them as deserving of punishment. They are also often accused of being part of the so-called “fifth column,” Russians that Putin defines as advancing foreign interests.
Worse than criminals in Putin’s mind, are those the Kremlin viewed as having been loyal in the past, but who are now working against the interests of the state. These people are branded as “traitors,” and as the New York Times reported last month, traitors hold a special status for Putin. Putin’s disdain for traitors stems from the early days of the end of the Cold War, when dozens of former-Soviet intelligence officers became defectors or informants for the West. According to the Times, quote, “Mr. Putin cannot speak of them without a lip curl of disgust. They are ‘beasts’ and ‘swine.’ Treachery, he told one interviewer is the one sin he is incapable of forgiving. It could also, he said darkly, be bad for your health.”
Putin publicly threatened those considered traitors on multiple occasions. One of these episodes occurred in 2010. After a spy swap between Russia and the United States, which included the recently poisoned Skripal, Putin stated ominously “A person gives his whole life for his homeland and then some bastard comes along and betrays such people. How will he be able to look into the eyes of his children, the pig? Whatever they got in exchange for it, those thirty pieces silver they were given, they will choke on them. Believe me.” For Putin, labeling his political opponents in these stark terms helps to justify the dirty active measures deployed against those individuals.
These tactics of dirty active measures have been used with impunity inside Russia to silence and intimidate Kremlin critics and preserve the system of power Putin created. They have been unleashed against journalists, opposition leaders, oligarchs and others seen as betraying the system. A Senate Foreign Relations minority staff report from January detailed more than two dozen Kremlin critics who died under mysterious circumstances in Russia since Putin took power in 2000. The report separately compiled violent attacks and harassment on human rights activists and journalists.
Russian opposition activists are also a target of dirty active measures inside Russia. One example was the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, a popular regional governor and Deputy Prime Minister under Yeltsin who became disenchanted with Putin’s political system. He publicly exposed extensive corruption and covert use of Russian hybrid warfare tactics in Ukraine. Arkady Ostrovsky, a Moscow correspondent for The Economist, described the tactics of intimidation deployed against him including that he was stigmatized as a “national traitor” and “American stooge.” He was demonized on television. And on the streets, banners with Nemtsov’s face were hung on building facades framed by the words “fifth column—aliens among us.” These threats were followed with Nemtsov being brazenly assassinated steps from the Kremlin. Nemtsov appears to have been killed for exposing corruption in Putin’s inner circle and trying to serve as a constraint on his ability to conduct hybrid warfare operations in Ukraine. These actions were clearly seen as a threat to Putin’s power and his ability to act with impunity.
Attacks of dirty active measures inside Russia continue unabated. This April, Russian journalist, Maxim Borodin fell to his death after investigating the Wagner para-military forces linked to close Putin ally and Russian troll farm patron Yevgeny Prigozhin. Three additional Russian journalists who were investigating Prigohzin sponsored, Kremlin-linked, military activities in the Central African Republic were killed under suspicious circumstances in August. And just a few weeks ago, the publisher of a website that exposes Kremlin abuses in the criminal justice system fell ill from apparent poisoning. This attack occurred on the same day he expected to receive the results of an investigation he commissioned into the deaths of the journalists in the Central African Republic. As I have detailed here, these attacks are not officially linked back to the Kremlin, allowing for plausible deniability, but are part of a clear pattern of tactics deployed against those that work to expose activities that may hurt Putin’s base of power.
Putin has resorted to using dirty active measures beyond Russia’s borders, which demonstrates the willingness of the Kremlin to use these tactics not only for domestic political purposes but also as part of its hybrid warfare to advance Russia’s strategic interests against other countries. Similar to other tactics of hybrid warfare operations, Ukraine is usually where Russia deploys these tactics first, a testing ground for tools they may deploy in the West at a later time. We see these tactics of dirty active measures deployed in Ukraine as far back as 2005, when the more western oriented Viktor Yushchencko was poisoned after he won the presidency, beating Victor Yanukovych, the preferred pro-Russian candidate.
The Kremlin continues to deploy dirty active measures, including assassination, in Ukraine with impunity. Last May, Denis Voronenkov, a former FSB colonel and former Russian Parliament Member, was shot in the head on a crowded Kiev sidewalk in broad daylight. Voronenkov was once a close Putin ally who used his position to promote key Kremlin priorities, including annexing Crimea. He fled to Ukraine in October of 2016, and began to criticize Putin’s government. He was slated to provide testimony to Ukrainian authorities that would expose Kremlin deliberations prior to hybrid warfare operations against Ukraine. Forebodingly, a few days before his murder he told The Washington Post, “They say we are traitors in Russia.” And again, the idea that he could be shot brazenly in broad daylight, served as a warning to others that may want to expose hybrid warfare operations to think twice, and that they can’t escape even if they leave Russia.
Similar tactics were deployed against Montenegro as it considered and ultimately chose to join NATO in 2015 and 2016. The Kremlin saw the Montenegrin government’s decision to move closer to the West as a threat to its strategic interests including Russia’s ability to operate in Eastern Europe unconstrained. When several other hybrid warfare operations including propaganda and information operations failed to keep Montenegro from joining the Alliance, Russian Military Intelligence Officers planned and attempted to execute an Election Day coup that included plans to assassinate the Montenegrin Prime Minister. The attempt on the Prime Minister’s life was unsuccessful. However, its shows the extremes to which the Kremlin would go and the methods it will use to try to maintain its strategic interests.
Beyond Ukraine and Montenegro, the Kremlin has increasingly demonstrated a willingness to use dirty active measures in the West, suggesting a sense that Russia feels it can operate with impunity even in these countries. One Western country where a pattern of Russian dirty active measures appears prominently is in the United Kingdom. Investigative reports have unearthed an estimated 16 suspicious deaths over the past twelve years, and that may not even be the totality.
The most well-known example of Russian dirty active measures inside the UK is Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB and FSB officer who blew the whistle on corrupt practices of the FSB. While Litvinenko had retired from spying, he did consulting work with the British and Spanish Intelligence Services, helping both governments understand connections between the Russian mafia, senior political figures and the FSB. Further, he continued to speak out against the Putin government and expose Kremlin corruption. Because of these actions, the Kremlin branded Litvinenko a traitor. He received a threatening email from a former colleague who told him to, quote, “start writing a will.” Litvinenko was later poisoned with polonium 210. The poisoning also served as a deterrent to others. The day after Litvinenko’s death, a member of the Russian Parliament stated, “The deserved punishment reached the traitor. I am sure his death will be a warning to all the traitors that Russian treason will not be forgiven.”
Litvinenko’s poisoning served as prologue for the poisoning of Sergei Skripal 12 years later. Skripal was a former Russian Military Intelligence Officer who was convicted of being a double agent and sentenced to prison. As I mentioned earlier, he was traded as part of spy swap in 2010. He was given asylum in the UK. Press reports indicate that similar to Litvinenko, Skripal appeared to have been working with the Spanish, Czech and Estonian Intelligence Services. This March, he and his daughter were poisoned by novichok sprayed on the door handle of his Salisbury home. In conjunction with the assassination attempt, Kremlin officials deflected, denied, and deployed absurd propaganda and disinformation. They unleashed an estimated 2,800 bots to cast doubt on Prime Minister May’s assessment that Russia was responsible and to amplify divisions amongst the British people. They blamed the West for the poisoning and suggested it was a hoax. Once the UK named suspects and pointed a finger at Russian Military Intelligence, the two alleged perpetrators went on TV and absurdly claimed to be sports nutritionists with a yearning desire to visit a Salisbury cathedral.
Again, these killings are part of a pattern. Both Litvinenko and Skripal were part of the security services, they turned on the state, and were deemed traitors. Even when they appeared to be safe, they were targeted for dirty active measures, sending the message that the Kremlin was the ultimate arbiter and that they can reach traitors anytime or anywhere. This message was also directed to others who might wish to expose Putin’s secrets in the future or try and constrain or challenge his power.
The pattern of dirty active measures also extends to the United States. This includes Mikhail Lesin, a former Kremlin insider who was crucial to Putin’s consolidation of the Russian media. Lesin was also responsible for the rise of the Russian TV and internet platform RT, a tool the Kremlin uses to deploy propaganda and disinformation across the world, including against the U.S. during the Presidential election in 2016. Lesin was reported to have had a falling out with two members of Putin’s inner circle, including a longtime friend that is known as Putin’s banker. Lesin was found dead under suspicious circumstances in a Washington D.C. hotel room in November of 2015. The D.C. coroner concluded that the death was accidental and that he died alone, despite noting that Lesin had sustained blunt force injuries to his neck, torso, upper and lower extremities. Lesin was allegedly planning to tell the secrets of a major component of the Kremlin’s hybrid warfare operations to the Justice Department, when he appeared to have conveniently died before he could explain its inner workings. And similar to other dirty active measures campaigns, the Kremlin unleashed a disinformation campaign to ensure plausible deniability and generate confusion about the circumstances surrounding his death. Here too, Lesin appears to fit the pattern of being targeted for revealing aspects of the hybrid warfare campaigns that the Kremlin has come to rely on.
In what appears to be an even more brazen move for Putin, he engaged in dirty active measures with the whole world watching. While standing next to President Trump in Helsinki, President Putin proposed that he would allow Special Counsel Mueller to interview the 12 Russian Military Intelligence Officers indicted on charges of “large scale cyber operations to interfere with the 2016 presidential election." But, there was a catch. Putin announced that in return, he would expect that Russian authorities would be able to question current and former U.S. government officials that Putin described as having, “something to do with illegal actions on the territory of Russia.” President Trump stood next to President Putin during this disinformation operation and endorsed it as being a quote, an “incredible” offer that he and his administration actually considered.
The very next day Russian officials announced a list of 11 accused “criminals” that they wanted to interrogate because in the course of doing the work of the United States of America, they took stances that the Kremlin opposed. Among those listed was a Congressional staffer who helped write the Magnitsky Sanctions Act and former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, who served as the point person for the Russia reset during the Obama Administration and as Ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014.
During McFaul’s time as Ambassador to Russia, the Kremlin unleashed its hybrid warfare playbook against him. They denounced him as an enemy and had the security services follow his family. The Kremlin also deployed a disinformation campaign against him that accused him of being a pedophile. The Kremlin was using these active measures in an attempt to instill fear in him and others that they could be killed, hurt, or jailed for doing the work of the United States government.
The United States and western countries more broadly, must understand that these attacks are not random. They are part of a pattern, a doctrine of hybrid warfare that is being spread across the globe. We need to understand that assassinations, violence, threats and intimidation are tools and tactics that Putin is using to achieve strategic or foreign policy goals and these activities are harming our national security. For instance, The New York Times reported in August that vital Kremlin informants have gone silent, leaving our Intelligence Community in the dark about what Russia’s plans are for November’s midterm elections. The report continues that American officials familiar with the intelligence “concluded they have gone to ground amid more aggressive counterintelligence by Moscow, including efforts to kill spies…” These are not just brutal tragedies or incidents. The use of dirty active measures are purposeful and are intended to advance Putin’s agenda short of using tools of conventional warfare.
The United States must lead with strong denouncements against dirty active measures and all other hybrid warfare tactics. It is particularly critical that the President denounce Russian threats against U.S. officials for their actions in carrying out U.S. foreign policy or advancing our national security interests. Instead, the President’s deference to Putin at Helsinki sent the wrong signal to Putin in the face of his threats. Fortunately, the Senate has taken some action including voting 98-0 to protect our diplomats and other foreign government officials implementing U.S. policy after Putin requested that they be turned over for questioning. However, the government must speak with one voice and send consistent messages that this kind of action will not be tolerated and that Putin will pay consequences for this behavior.
While it is important that we respond to these attacks, including with unequivocal denouncements of these tactics by President Trump, we should not be in the business of trying to respond to these attacks symmetrically. Putin resorts to using these dirty tactics because he believes they give him an advantage over the West. We need to stay true to our ideals of democracy, human rights, and liberty. We don’t want to normalize or legitimize these methods by engaging in them ourselves. Doing so would simply create a false moral equivalence that plays right into Putin’s hands.
Instead, we must employ responses that play to our strengths. We stand for transparency and accountability in the United States. We stand for the rule of law. We must develop and implement a comprehensive strategy that deploys tools and tactics that are consistent with and showcase these values. We must shine a light on the corruption at the highest levels of the Putin regime. We must shine a light on how Putin’s cronies are hiding their ill-gotten gains in the West. We must deploy a systematic and strategic messaging campaign that counters the base of Putin’s power, reputation and funding.
And we must take these actions in concert with our allies and partners. In response to the Skripal poisoning, the United States expelled 60 diplomats, joining with more than 25 ally and partner nations in applying diplomatic pressure on Russia. This action sent a strong signal that the world would not allow Putin to act with impunity. When we act together with our allies and partners to push back against these hybrid operations, it imposes a cost to Putin’s reputation on the world stage, which thwarts one of his main strategic interests. While these steps were in the right direction, they have been undermined by the President’s words and actions. Despite punitive measures in response to the Skripal poisoning, the Kremlin thought that the Helsinki Summit erased that damage. Press reports indicate that Western and U.S. Intelligence agencies assessed the Kremlin was pleased with the outcome of the summit at Helsinki and is confused as to why President Trump is not implementing more Russia friendly policies.
One important tool in our arsenal for holding the Kremlin accountable is sanctions including those on Putin’s inner circle. In particular, sanctions implemented under the Magntisky Act appear to be particularly threatening to him. This Act was passed in response to the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian attorney who uncovered massive tax fraud and corruption that was traced back to Kremlin officials. He was arrested in Russia and placed in jail where he was tortured until he died. The origins of the Magnitsky Act were to hold accountable those in the Russian Government who were complicit in Magnitsky’s abuse and death by sanctioning their assets and barring them from receiving American visas. Subsequently, the Magnitsky Act has been expanded to include others who are culpable of acts of significant corruption and abuse. Russia expert Heather Conley of the Center for Strategic and International Studies testified recently at a Banking Committee hearing about the significance of Magnitsky sanctions to Putin. She said,
“Because the Kremlin has based its economic model and its survival on kleptocracy, sanctions and other policy instruments dedicated to preventing the furtherance of corruption—or worse yet in the minds of the Kremlin, to providing accurate information to the Russian people of the extent of this corruption—are a powerful countermeasure to Russia’s malign behavior.”
The Magnitsky sanctions, along with those designated under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act or CAATSA, threaten Putin’s power structure and present a counter-narrative of corruption and abuse by the Kremlin. We need to continue to use these sanctions to hold those who are complicit in dirty active measures and those who are responsible for aggression, corruption, and interfering in our elections accountable. Ratcheting up sanctions on those in Putin’s inner circle is a way to make Putin and his cronies feel pain and has the potential to change their behavior. Additional sanctions should be imposed on oligarchs and high-ranking government officials to target Putin’s base of power and further expose the corrupt nature of their sources of income.
We should also consider declassifying the so-called “241 report” compiled by the Intelligence Community along with the Departments of Treasury and State. This report required an assessment of the net worth of senior Kremlin officials and oligarchs, their relationship to Putin and his inner circle, and evidence of corrupt practices. If we were to release such a report with redactions for portions with national security implications to the public, it would further expose malign influence activities and unexplained wealth streams.
Congress has provided many tools for the Administration to implement and it’s time to fully utilize them. It’s past time for the Administration to implement all the Russia related CAATSA provisions. Implementing them in a transparent, public manner is likely to cause reputational harm to Putin himself and restore a measure of confidence in the Administration here at home. However, specifically targeting sanctions this way is unlikely to cause large-scale harm to the Russian people or to our European allies.
It is very clear that implementing sanctions is far more effective when done with the cooperation of the international community. The most effective sanctions regimes are those that are implemented in a multilateral fashion. I urge the Administration to engage with our allies and partners to coordinate sanctions enforcement and further escalatory steps as warranted. That includes working through diplomatic channels to ensure that the sanctions placed on Russia by the European Union remain in place. A coordinated front of the United States and our European allies provides the greatest chance of successful implementation of sanctions and deterring further aggression by Russia.
The Administration must also place a premium on exerting diplomatic pressure to isolate those who flout or do not enforce sanctions on Russia.
Another form of pressure should be an increase in assistance to pro-democracy and civil society groups in Russia and in nations of the former Soviet Union. Working with these groups in conjunction with our allies, partners, and the private sector would provide another means of raising the costs on Putin and his oligarchs. Putin is threatened by the success of democracies and private enterprise.
In addition to sanctions, we must continue to play a strong role in law enforcement, along with our allies and partners. That includes aggressive prosecution of murders and threats of violence to limit impunity. With Litvinenko, it took almost 10 years for the UK to have an official inquiry into the assassination. The UK has acted quicker in the wake of the Skripal poisoning, moving to identify suspects and hold the Kremlin accountable for these actions. We need to adopt UK’s lessons learned to ensure that those who seek to use these weapons will be prosecuted fully and without delay.
We have missed too many of these dirty active measures operations for far too long. We must recognize that this is an element of Russia’s hybrid warfare. We must not fail to have the imagination to see what is happening right before our eyes. We must do more to identify and attribute these attacks from Russia. These attacks have only grown more brazen and won’t stop unless we take strong measures to counter them and send the message that dirty active measures are unacceptable and will be costly to Russia.<