How Does Russia Target the U.S. Military?
U.S. intelligence experts say that Russia has dramatically increased its “active measures” against the United States through distributing disinformation and propaganda, and bribing and blackmailing leaders.
Russian agents have particularly targeted United States service members and veterans in their attempt to disrupt the American political process and heighten support for Russia.
Pro-Russian Propaganda Aimed at Military Community Among Misinformation Tactics
American news site Veterans Today, popular among the military community, partnered with Russian government-sponsored internet journal New Eastern Outlook in 2013. Since then, the site has largely published pro-Russia content, with headlines such as “Ukraine’s Ku Klux Klan — NATO’s New Ally.”
Veterans Today, which at one point had over 45,000 Facebook followers and has over 900,000 unique site visitors per month, has been successful in spreading pro-Russian propaganda and misinformation.
Former Army intelligence officer and independent researcher Joel Harding has described Veterans Today and partner sites South Front and Veterans News Now as “Russian proxy sites.” He said that they could successfully influence the military community over time, because “if someone regards them as a reliable source of truthful information, does not recognize that they are pushing Russian propaganda or information with a pro-Russian perspective, over time they will change [to become pro-Russian.]”
Gordon Duff, senior editor of Veterans Today, said in a 2012 interview that “about 30% of what’s written on Veterans Today, is patently false. About 40% of what I write, is at least purposely, partially false, because if I didn’t write false information I wouldn’t be alive.”
Veterans Today is part of the larger “Veterans Today Network, which also hosts a jobs board, a cancer foundation, and a sister site. A form on VeteransTodayCancerFoundation.org asked veterans to fill out a form with personal details, including their social media handles.
Russian Social Media Targeting and Hacking to Influence Americans
Russian actors have notably targeted American military members, using tactics such as friending service members and their families under fake accounts to gather intelligence.
Russian propagandists oftentimes will use tactics such as posing as attractive young women in order to become Facebook friends with American soldiers. Then, these foreign agents have the ability to post propaganda that will be shown on their feeds. Sites such as Veterans Today act as easily consumable sources of propaganda, veiled simply as veterans’ news.
Russian agents have also victimized accounts of Defense Department employees with advanced “phishing” attacks, and Russian military hacking groups such as “Fancy Bear,” known for breaching the Democratic National Committee, have posted stolen Army data online.
In addition to propaganda campaigns, Russia has actively sponsored hacking attempts of military personnel and veterans. According to a report by cybersecurity firm SecureWorks, 41 percent of people targeted by hacking group Fancy Bear outside of the former Soviet Union were current or former military members. Authors and journalists made up another 22 percent, with one-fifth of them being spouses of military members.
Russian Targeting Increases During War
Russia notably heightened their online campaign during the 2014 annexation of Crimea, and has done so again during their war with Ukraine in 2022.
During the 2014 annexation of Crimea, Russia pestered Ukrainian soldiers with messages such as, “Soldier you are just a raw meat for your commanders,” in efforts to demoralize them.
Recent pro-Russia headlines on Veterans Today during the war with Ukraine include: “Kiev’s Forces Shelled a Detention Center in Donbass because “the Nazi began to Testify on War Crimes,” “Zelensky’s Conscription Now Targeting Nursing Homes,” and “The Risks of US Military Assistance to Ukraine. Disturbing Alert by NATO’s Media Partner Defense One.”
Over time, Russia’s online campaigns to disrupt American news cycles and social media and hacking attempts have only increased. As Russia continues to increase its pressure, it is important to be cautious online and check for signs of Russian propaganda while reading and before sharing news.