In 2016, Russians sitting in St. Petersburg, pretending online to be Americans, organized unwitting people in the U.S. to create jail cell-like cages for volunteers who played the role of Hillary Clinton in an orange prison jumpsuit. These displays showed up at numerous rallies around the country.
This year, someone spread the news online that “antifa” activists were coming to the Gettysburg battleground to remove a statue of Civil War rebel leader Robert Lee. In response, a large number of unwitting and heavily armed Americans showed up ready for a fight. In Portland, Oregon, and other cities, pro-Trump groups have spontaneously appeared, armed for combat, carrying rebel and Trump flags and parading in caravans of pickup trucks. Shootings and killings followed.
What role the Russians are playing this year in fomenting factionalism and violence in the U.S. is not yet publicly known. The Trump administration has tried to prevent counterintelligence experts from providing details to the public and Congress. What those government specialists have said, however, is that Russia already has and is likely to continue to interfere in the U.S. electoral season in support of Trump. That warning is supported by research from nongovernment experts.
But Russia’s goal is not just the reelection of Trump. That is a means to an end. What Vladimir Putin seeks is to rip the social and political fabric of America, to create chaos, to sow public distrust in the government and to set us at each others’ throats. As Putin himself once said about what he thought the West was doing to Russia, “There are certain people who want us to be focused on internal problems, and they pull the strings here so we don’t raise our heads internationally.”
An America on the verge of a new civil war will not be an impediment to Putin’s revanchist desires for gaining back control of neighboring countries and spreading Russian power in the Middle East and elsewhere.
We should be concerned that Russia will go beyond instigating jail cell pantomimes to actively agitating violence in the U.S. Fueled by social media, armed groups are already on the streets of our country. What Putin has done in Russia may tell us how far he is willing to go here. In at least two incidents in his political career when Putin needed a bounce in support, suspicious terrorist incidents occurred, killing Russians and allowing Putin to gain political support for his harsh responses and his promises of law and order.
As reported in “Putin’s People” by Catherine Belton, in 1999, in three incidents over nine days in September, 243 people were killed by bombings of apartment blocks. What looked like a fourth bombing was prevented, but those caught in the fourth incident were Russian intelligence officers. Russians who investigated whether Putin was behind the bombings were poisoned and murdered.
Putin, however, gained great popularity, portraying himself as the defender of Russia from such terrorism. In 2002, a group of “terrorists” took hostages at a suburban Moscow theater. Putin ordered the theater gassed, resulting in the death of 115 hostages. Independent investigators and journalists later found evidence that the incident might have been staged by Russian intelligence using fake bombs and prisoners playing parts, encouraged by promises to be whisked out of the country after the incident. Instead, they were shot dead on the site. Putin’s popularity again soared for his courageous (though botched) response to terrorism.
In 2020, faced with massive protests against his allied autocrat in Belarus and large scale demonstrations in the Russian Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk, Putin again seems to have opted for a lethal response from his intelligence services. Fearing that the opposition leader Alexi Navalny would succeed in rallying a large protest vote in upcoming regional elections, Putin seems to have ordered him killed by use of a nerve gas (Novichok) made and possessed only by Russian security services. It is the same gas that the British government says was used by Russian intelligence agents in an attempted assassination of a Putin opponent living in England.
We should brace ourselves for violence and lethal force being employed for political purposes in the U.S. in the weeks before the election and in the weeks after, when the results are likely to be contested. Incidents may occur and be blamed on “antifa.” Armed militias may engage peaceful protesters with increased violence. Those pulling the trigger may be unwitting American dupes, but orchestrating it will be the man in the Kremlin. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris should warn the American people about what may be coming.
Richard A. Clarke was the national coordinator for security and counterterrorism in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. He is the author of several books.