WASHINGTON - Russian efforts to weaken the West through a relentless campaign of information warfare may be starting to pay off, cracking a key bastion of the U.S. line of defense: the military.
While most Americans still see Moscow as a key U.S. adversary, new polling suggests that view is changing, most notably among the households of military members.
The second annual Reagan National Defense Survey, completed in late October, found nearly half of armed services households questioned, 46%, said they viewed Russia as ally.
Overall, the survey found 28% of Americans identified Russia as an ally, up from 19% the previous year.A sun ray illuminates St. Basil's Cathedral on Red Square during a cold winter day in Moscow, Russia, Jan. 11, 2019.
Generally, the pollsters found the positive views of Russia seemed to be “predominantly driven by Republicans who have responded to positive cues from [U.S.] President [Donald] Trump about Russia,” according to an executive summary accompanying the results.
While a majority, 71% of all Americans and 53% of military households, still views Russia as an enemy, the spike in pro-Russian sentiment has defense officials concerned.
“There is an effort, on the part of Russia, to flood the media with disinformation to sow doubt and confusion,” Defense Department spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Carla Gleason told VOA.
“This is not only through discordant and inflammatory dialogue but through false narratives designed to elicit sympathetic views,” she said, adding, “we are actively working to expose and counter Russian disinformation whenever possible.”
Reagan National Defense Survey
The Reagan National Defense Survey, conducted on behalf of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, questioned just more than 1,000 adults between Oct. 24 and Oct. 30, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
Concern among U.S. officials runs deep, partly because other surveys have also found a growing willingness in the U.S. to view Russia positively.
For example, a survey of more than 1,000 U.S. adults by the Pew Research Center from September 2018 found 35% of Americans wanted more cooperation with Russia.FILE - The "troll farm" in St. Petersburg, Russia, Feb. 17, 2018. Yevgeny Prigozhin is considered the driving force in a media empire that includes the Internet Research Agency, the St. Petersburg "troll farm" whose members were indicted by U.S. special investigator Robert Mueller.
However, there is more to the fears than just polling data.
U.S. defense and security officials have told VOA that Russia has been targeting U.S. military personnel, specifically, with a ramped-up influence campaign, as far back as 2017 in preparation for the November 2018 midterm elections.
Russia’s goal, they said, was not so much to swing the result of the elections but to seed U.S. military personnel with the right type of disinformation so that they would be predisposed to view Russia and its actions in a more favorable way in the future.
“We know it goes on,” said Ed Wilson, then deputy assistant secretary of defense for cyber policy, said at the time. “That’s why we’ve amped up and increased the attention that we’re paying.”
Countering Russia’s efforts, both against the U.S. military and American society at large, has not been easy, according to both analysts and former officials, because of the political climate and the rhetoric coming from the White House.
“It is dangerous,” said Jorge Benitez, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who specializes in transatlantic relations, U.S. security and Russia.
“The new polls reveal a significant change among Republican voters who historically have been opposed to Russia,” he said. “More and more Republicans have changed their views on Russia because of President Trump’s positive statements about Russia and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin.”
Others fear Russia’s gains in public opinion are symptomatic of a bigger problem that the Kremlin has managed to exploit.
“People’s beliefs and perceptions are shaped more by whatever the leaders of their own political tribe say than by ideology, history, or even their own self-interest,” said Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA officer now with Georgetown University.
He said, for now though, the gradual change in U.S. perceptions of Russia has had limited impact.
“Many Republicans can slavishly follow Trump’s lead on most matters, including the rhetorical line on Russia, but still, say, support defense expenditures designed to maintain strength vis-a-vis Russia,” Pillar said, noting a variety of U.S. sanctions against Moscow are still in place.
The U.S. national defense strategy, updated just two years ago, likewise lists Russia along with China, as the prime threats to the U.S.
For the most part, the Reagan National Defense Survey found a majority of Americans are in agreement.
“When we asked Americans which countries were tops on their list in terms of the threat that they posed to the United States the first was China [28%] and the second was Russia [25%],” said Ronald Reagan Institute Policy Director Rachel Hoff.
She also said there was strong sentiment that the U.S. should not cede any ground on the global stage, to Russia or anyone else.
“They want America to take the lead when it comes to international events rather than a less engaged posture where our country is reacting to global events,” Hoff told VOA, pointing to a 50% to 33% margin.
At the same time, other polls have pointed to a lingering wariness on the part of a majority of Americans when it comes to Russia.
A Gallup survey published in February of this year found only 24% of Americans had a positive view of Russia, down from a 44% favorable rating in February of 2013.