Understanding Russian Deception


On November 15, the Center for the National Interest organized a panel discussion entitled “Understanding Russian Deception.” Speakers included Paul Saunders, executive director of the Center for the National Interest, and Samuel Charap, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. George Beebe, director of intelligence and national security programs at the Center for the National Interest, a former national security aide to Vice President Dick Cheney who earlier served as the head of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Russia analysis, moderated. The event was streamed live on The National Interest’s Facebook page and can be found here. A summary of the event can be found below.

Is the use of deception by the Russian government always a deliberate choice? Paul Saunders, executive director of the Center for the National Interest, asked this and other analytical questions in assessing Russia’s use of deception. For example, Saunders said, in some cases U.S. and Russian officials may simply be operating with different information than their American counterparts. He related how Russian media sources covered the issue of chemical weapons in Syria, reporting a few years ago that Al Qaeda-tied extremists obtained chemical weapon precursors in Iraq, something Western media did not cover despite official Iraqi statements. Thus, when Russian leaders argued that ISIS or other extremists might have used chemical weapons in Syria, they might have approached the issue from a different perspective rather than deliberately attempting to mislead an audience.

Saunders also argued that specificity is important. Some actors may be speaking with incomplete information. “If [Russian Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov, or for that matter, a Kremlin spokesperson issues a denial on [the topic of Russian interference in the U.S. elections], is it an informed denial? Or is it an uninformed denial?” Similarly, which audience is being addressed? Are Russian statements public or private, in official meetings? And, what is the apparent purpose of deceptive statements? Different target audiences require different techniques and points to be conveyed. Samuel Charap, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, agreed with these questions, positing that Russian deceptive behavior on some level is “more about reputation and status than it is about convincing interlocutors.”

Asked if Russian academics and experts are “having this same conversation about us right now,” both experts indicated that they thought so. Saunders noted that a number of Moscow’s grievances stem from the belief that Western leaders deceived by Russian officials on issues such as NATO expansion and U.S. plans to oust Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. Charap concurred, saying that “I think what really gets under elite Russians’ skin is the fact that they think the U.S. does this all the time but we refuse to acknowledge it, from their perspective.”

Russian officials may think they are following the United States’ playbook, suggesting that Russia might be less revisionist than it seems or is suggested by Western leaders, Charap contended. “What is interesting about [Russian denials of a military role in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine] is that they’re about construing the violation of norms as norm compliance,” he explained, pointing to the portrayal of Russia’s troop presence in Crimea as in compliance with bilateral agreements and the referendum in that region as “consistent with the principle of self-determination and even the ICJ decision on Kosovo.”

Charap argued Russia is doing what it believes great powers are supposed to do: breaking international rules and norms, yet cloaking these violations in rhetoric to reinforce the rules and preventing other lesser actors from doing likewise. Russia sees the United States as engaged in the same general practice, using extensive legal arguments to justify its own violations of rules and norms, such as in the invasion of Iraq or the recognition of Kosovo. In this interpretation, Russian deception is perhaps a way of preserving the existing international order rather than a deliberate attempt to be a revisionist power, Charap said.

Asked about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, both Saunders and Charap questioned Moscow’s effectiveness. Saunders contended that Russian interference efforts might have had a wide array of goals: getting Donald Trump elected, sowing general discord, or simply ensuring that Hillary Clinton entered office with a weakened mandate. He noted that the effectiveness of these efforts is in question, and that “[i]f I were a Russian government official, I would have some very big questions in my own mind over whether it was worth it to do things like that.” Charap, in a similar vein, noted that independent Russian media sources have been instrumental in uncovering details about the Russian interference efforts, also raising questions over the effectiveness of these operations.

Neither Charap nor Saunders expected Russia to offer an outright confession of guilt on this matter or others. To highlight this, Saunders recounted an anecdote of a meeting he and other members of a U.S. group had with a senior Russian diplomat a few years ago. When the Russian diplomat was asked why he and his government refused to admit that there were Russian troops in eastern Ukraine, the diplomat responded by asking (paraphrased), “Would you prefer that we admit that they’re there? And do you think that would help to resolve this situation?”