Putin’s Next Target: U.S. Support for Ukraine, Officials Say

Russia’s strategy to win the war in Ukraine is to outlast the West.

But how does Vladimir Putin plan to do that?

American officials said they are convinced that Mr. Putin intends to try to end U.S. and European support for Ukraine by using his spy agencies to push propaganda supporting pro-Russian political parties and by stoking conspiracy theories with new technologies.

The Russia disinformation aims to increase support for candidates opposing Ukraine aid with the ultimate goal of stopping international military assistance to Kyiv.

Russia has been frustrated that the United States and Europe have largely remained united on continued military and economic support for Ukraine, American officials said.

That military aid has kept Ukraine in the fight, put Russia’s original goals of taking Kyiv and Odesa out of reach and even halted its more modest objective to control all of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.

But Mr. Putin believes he can influence American politics to weaken support for Ukraine and potentially restore his battlefield advantage, U.S. officials said.

Mr. Putin, the officials said, appears to be closely watching U.S. political debates over Ukraine assistance. Republican opposition to sending more money to Kyiv forced congressional leaders to pass a stopgap spending bill on Saturday that did not include additional aid for the country.

Moscow is also likely to try to boost pro-Russian candidates in Europe, seeing potential fertile ground with recent results. A pro-Russian candidate won Slovakia’s parliamentary elections on Sunday. In addition to national elections, Russia could seek to influence the European parliamentary vote next year, officials said.

Russia has long used its intelligence services to influence democratic politics around the world.

U.S. intelligence assessments in 2017 and 2021 concluded that Russia had tried to influence elections in favor of Donald J. Trump. In 2016, Russia hacked and leaked Democratic National Committee emails that hurt Hillary Clinton’s campaign and pushed divisive messages on social media. In 2020, Russia sought to spread information denigrating Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Though many Republicans in Congress argued Russia’s goal was to intensify political fights, not support Mr. Trump.)

For the 2024 presidential election, American intelligence agencies believe the stakes for Mr. Putin are even higher.

President Biden has sent billions of dollars of aid to Ukraine and pledged that the United States and its allies would support Kyiv for “as long as it takes.” Mr. Trump, far ahead in the polls for the Republican nomination, has said supporting Ukraine is not a vital U.S. interest.

Russia, according to American officials, is constantly running information operations aimed at denigrating NATO and U.S. policies and is likely to ramp up efforts in the months to come. The American officials spoke on the condition their names not be reported so they could discuss sensitive intelligence.

The ultimate goal of Russia would be to help undermine candidates who support Ukraine and to change U.S. policy. Some U.S. officials doubt Russia would be able to do that.

But even if Moscow cannot influence the final election result, Russians may believe they can stir up enough debate over Ukraine aid that a future Congress could find it more difficult to pass additional support, U.S. officials said.

Beth Sanner, a former senior intelligence official, says artificial intelligence and other new technologies will change how Russia conducts influence campaigns. Russia is also likely to conduct influence laundering efforts, sending messages to the American public through allies inside nominally independent organizations, according to a recent declassified analysis.

“Russia will not give up on disinformation campaigns,” Ms. Sanner said. “But we don’t know what it is going to look like. We should assume the Russians are getting smarter.”

It is easy to overstate Russia’s ability to influence U.S. politics. Some American officials and social media executives have questioned how effective Russia’s troll farms and influence operations were in 2016, as opposed to hack and dump operations targeting Mrs. Clinton’s emails.

And the media landscape has shifted dramatically since then. U.S. and European consumers are more skeptical of what they see on social media. Russian state television, a source of Kremlin narratives, has been pushed off Google’s YouTube. Meta, the parent company of Facebook, has bolstered its search for disinformation and de-emphasized news on its platforms.

But for every development making life harder for Russia’s online trolls, there are trends pushing in the opposite direction. The X platform, formerly known as Twitter, has dismantled teams that were hunting for election interference efforts. And the most influential platform among young people is now TikTok, a Chinese company. China has been stepping up its own influence operations, modeled after Moscow’s operations.

American intelligence agencies have warned that several countries are seeking to influence American politics. In 2020, intelligence agencies outlined an Iranian scheme to influence voting in Florida. Cuba also conducted low-level intelligence operations, and Venezuela had the intent, but not the capabilities, to influence the vote.

But Russia is better than any other country at combining state media, private troll farms and intelligence service operations to attack in the digital space, U.S. officials said.

And it has continued to refine its efforts. Many of the disinformation experts who once worked for the Internet Research Agency, the Russian troll farm active in American elections in 2016 and 2018, have migrated to new firms or joined Russian military intelligence. And the internet, one U.S. official said, is the one place Russia will never run out of ammunition.

Shifting the debate in Europe and America is so important to Mr. Putin that if those influence operations fail to gain traction, Russia could decide to escalate.

U.S. officials say that escalation could include additional financial support for pro-Russian political parties in Europe or even covert operations in Europe aimed at weakening support for the war in Ukraine.

As a result, underestimating Russia’s ability to conduct influence operations would be a mistake, American officials said.

Russian disinformation that falsely claimed America had bioweapons labs in Ukraine continues to reverberate around the globe, for example.

Russia used the accusations to justify its invasion of Ukraine and has repeatedly requested United Nations’ investigations of its false claims. But far-right groups, including QAnon, have picked up, expanded and amplified the Russian bioweapons accusations.

In a world divided by polarized politics, conspiracy theories and disinformation have proved more resilient than ever.

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