The Untold Story of How Russia is Attacking the U.S. Economy

With the avalanche of Russia-related news this week—the Flynn sentencing hearing, the release of two Senate-commissioned reports on Russian social media meddling, the President’s surprise pull-out of U.S. troops from Syria, the undoing of sanctions on oligarch Oleg Deripaska’s companies, and more—it’s easy to get caught up in the latest developments and lose sight of what the Kremlin and its allies are achieving here. 

Like the best Le Carré or Charles McCarry novels, recent news has been so full of interwoven characters and events that it’s nearly impossible to keep it all straight on first read. But revisit it we should, because far from some invented hardboiled espionage thriller, these plot twists are real and we are living in the story.

Russia is engaged in an extensive, multi-faceted, prolonged attack on U.S. institutions and civil society, including our electoral system, our energy infrastructure, our public discourse, and other facets of our economy.

Not only are Vladimir Putin and his government working to undermine American interests, they are going after our allies too: from the U.K. and France to Ukraine, the rest of Eastern Europe, the Baltic states and beyond.  

From a 30,000 foot view—which can be deadly over Russian air space—the current Russian campaign is part of their zero-sum view of the world that has existed since at least the start of the Cold War. The West must be diminished so that Russia can rise again. By attacking the pillars of the West, steadily, secretly when possible, Russia can sow chaos and geopolitical turmoil, and use that instability to widen its sphere of influence.

Democracy, personal liberty, a free press, and the rule of law are all anathema to Putin and his oligarch cronies. Those niceties get in the way of the kleptocracy that Putin has taken great care to create and protect over the past two decades. But to feed their corrupt machine, they need economic wins. And per their zero-sum mentality, this means delivering economic losses to their adversaries.  

So while 2016 election “meddling” remains a centerpiece of cable news, the Mueller investigation and several Congressional inquiries, we encourage everyone to follow the money and dig deeper into Russia’s ongoing interference in the U.S. economy. 

Every day, vital American industries from telecom to energy to agriculture face threats and direct sabotage from Russia and other foreign adversaries—costing American businesses potentially billions of dollars, and robbing American workers of their jobs and financial security.

Alongside its election interference in the U.S. this decade, Russia has:

  • Sought to slow construction of energy pipelines
  • Cast doubt on the efficacy of vaccines
  • Questioned the safety of U.S. agricultural products
  • Sabotaged the Net Neutrality debate
  • Hacked email accounts and computer networks—including critical electricity and telecommunications infrastructure
  • Stoked dissent and division among our government leaders and the general public.

These attacks on our economic security are similar in nature to ones Russia has carried out against Ukraine and other allies. The playbook is effective and it’s being repeated here, threatening not just our exercise of commerce but our national security as well.

Congress and the Administration must address not just electoral meddling, as it has been, but the totality of Russian interference and the damage it is causing to the U.S. economy.  

Today, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce released a report that addressed the lost economic benefits and job opportunities from recent anti-energy efforts in the U.S., such as New York State’s ban on hydraulic fracturing. The study found over $90 Billion in lost economic activity, 730,000 job opportunities missed, and another $20 Billion in unrealized tax revenue due to delays or cancellations of energy pipelines, power plants and terminals. 

NOW CONSIDER THIS: A portion of this sizable economic damage can be attributed to Russian active measures. It’s not just homespun activism, litigation and legislative battles blocking these domestic projects. There is foreign interference too.

Russia has a clear motive to stifle U.S. domestic energy development wherever and however it can; its own economy is overwhelmingly dependent on exporting oil and gas. Russia also has a track record of  butting into other countries’ matters around things such as fracking. And it has the wherewithal to finance and carry out influence operations abroad, as we saw most recently in the Mueller indictments of the IRA.

We don’t know yet how much to blame directly or indirectly on the Kremlin —more research is needed, along with more cooperation from social media companies to share evidence of Russian activities—but it could ultimately add up to a substantial percentage of the figures cited by the Chamber.  

What’s more: this new study only looked at 15 specific projects and the New York fracking ban. There are numerous other major projects, including the Dakota Access Pipeline and Sabal Trail Pipeline to name just two, that weren’t even included in the Chamber study but saw undeniable Russian interference per a 2018 Congressional report (pdf). So the dollar figure could be higher still. 

Do not naively dismiss Russia’s social media meddling as minimal in impact. For starters, as the pair of recent Senate Intelligence Committee reports demonstrated, we are still learning the full extent of the Kremlin’s online operations in 2016. They were “much more comprehensive, calculating and widespread than previously revealed.” And likely there are still more stones unturned.

Not only that, after-the-fact analyses of public debates can underestimate the effect that a well-placed, well-timed message can have on people “in the moment.” We must at least consider that the onslaught of troll and bot messages could have helped sway or cement someone’s opinion on a pipeline project or fracking referendum or, for that matter, other contentious issues like the safety of vaccines.    

And, the scale of the Russian social posts, while once pooh-poohed in some corners, has indeed been shown to be large: IRA posts on Facebook and Instagram were shared by 30+ million people, according to the new reports by New Knowledge and the Oxford University Computational Propaganda Research Project

Lost jobs, lost business income, lost tax revenue… these are real economic consequences that have lasting impact. To say nothing of the family and societal turmoil that comes from economic insecurity. 

From Kremlin-linked social media posts and television coverage that stirred up negative public sentiment to influence campaigns geared at policymakers to secret funneling of money to protest groups, Russia has been pursuing its own anti-Western agenda with aplomb.

It’s time that Congress and the Administration get serious about exposing the full scale of Russian interference… and stopping it.  

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