Political Warfare

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Political warfare works through you or it does not work. So if you are not willing to think about yourself, you are not thinking about political warfare. - Tim Snyder

On Russian and Chinese infiltration of US politics.

Political Warfare and Congress My Testimony from 17 April TIMOTHY SNYDER APR 19


The essence of “political warfare,” in the sense defined by the Chinese communist party, is that Beijing uses media, psychology, and law to induce adversaries to do things counter to their own interests.

Political warfare works through you or it does not work. So if you are not willing to think about yourself, you are not thinking about political warfare.

I had the honor of testifying to Congress on the question of Chinese political warfare this past Wednesday, April 17th. This testimony was before the Oversight Committee, which has devoted months of time, money, and attention to an impeachment inquiry which is based on a mendacious claim by a man in contact with Russian intelligence services.

That congressional impeachment inquiry, based on a Russian fabrication, then became the subject of Chinese propaganda tropes, designed to spread the lie that President Biden took a bribe. This false notion, generated by Moscow, can only be spread by Beijing because there are Americans in the middle, American elected officials, who do their part.

A hearing on political warfare in Congress, and especially before this particular committee, requires self-reflection.

The hearing had some moments of interest, many of which are circulating as clips. Feel free to post your favorites in the comments.

The below text is my formal written testimony, which you can find in with all the notes and references on the congressional website. Video of my opening remarks is here. The entire session can be viewed here.

white concrete building under cloudy sky during daytime •••

Testimony to Oversight Committee, “Defending America from the Chinese Communist Party’s Political Warfare, Part I”

Professor Timothy Snyder, 17 April 2024

Democracy is in decline, dragged down by the autocratic lie. The autocrats offer no new visions; instead they lie about democracies and insert lies into democracies. The test of disinformation is its power to alter the course of crucial events, such as wars and elections.

Russia undertook a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on the basis of a big lie about Nazis.

Even as we meet today, Russian (and Chinese) propaganda shapes House debates about Ukraine, the most important foreign policy decision of our time. In domestic politics, the most important matter in coming months the coming presidential election.

To begin with the war. Beijing cares about Ukraine because it is the decisive conflict of our time. It can spread lies about Ukraine thanks to prior Russian labor. Beijing wrongly blames the war on Washington. Chinese information actions seek to attract American actors around to Russian propaganda tropes meant to justify Russian aggression and bring about American inaction.

Though Americans sometimes forget this, Ukrainian resistance is seen around the world as an obvious American cause and an easy American victory. So long as Ukraine fights, it is fulfilling the entire NATO mission by itself, defending a European order based in integration rather than empire, and affirming international order in general. It is also holding back nuclear proliferation.

Given these obvious strategic gains, American failure in Ukraine will lead other powers to conclude that a feckless and divided United States will also fail to meet future challenges. The fundamental goal of Russian (and thus Chinese) propaganda is to prevent American action, thereby making America seem impotent and democracy pointless -- also in the eyes of Americans themselves.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine is intimately connected to a possible Chinese war of aggression against Taiwan. As Taiwanese leaders continually and urgently remind us, Ukrainian resistance deters Chinese aggression. Ukraine deters China in a way that the United States cannot, without taking any action that Beijing could interpret as provocative. A Russian victory in Ukraine, therefore, would clear the way for Chinese aggression in the Pacific. It would strengthen China's ally, force Europe into a subordinate relationship to

Beijing, and discredit democracy. It would also bring into Russian hands Ukrainian military technologies that would be significant in a Chinese war of aggression.

Russia's one path to victory in Ukraine leads through minds and mouths in Washington, DC. Russian and Chinese propaganda therefore celebrates the inability of Congress to pass aid for Ukraine, and praises those who hinder the passage of such a bill. But the specific propaganda memes that China spreads (and some American leaders repeat) about the war are of Russian origin. Russia is the leader in this field; China is imitating Russian techniques and Russian tropes.

A central example is the Russo-Chinese invocation of "Nazism." Russian began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine with the grotesque claim that its aim was the "denazification" of Ukraine. (Ukraine is a democracy with freedom of expression, assembly and religion, which elected a Jewish president with more than 70% of the vote. Russia is a one-party state with a leader cult that is fighting a criminal war and suppressing all domestic opposition.) This "Nazi" meme was immediately boosted by the Chinese government. Over the weekend before this hearing, a Member of Congress tweeted this Russian disinformation trope.

The Russian war of destruction in Ukraine is the pre-eminent test of democracy; U.S. elections come next. Russia is also the leader here. China has has no Paul Manafort. It lacks American human assets with experience in directing foreign influence campaigns and close to American presidential campaigns. Nothing China has done (as yet) rivals the Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee in 2016.

On social media, CCP propaganda demeans the Biden administration. But China's social media campaign on behalf of Trump in 2024 looks like a copy (a poor one) of Russia's on behalf of Trump in 2016. CCP propaganda invokes the false charges raised in impeachment hearings, but the lies that China magnifies arose from a person in contact with Russian intelligence. What China can do is try an influence campaign based on a Russian initiative -- and American impeachment hearings. Insofar as this works at all, it is a cycle: Russia-America-China -- with the Chinese hope that the propaganda it generates from Russian initiatives and American actions will cycle back to distress Americans and hurt the Biden administration.

The CCP's internet propaganda is posted on X (Twitter). Likewise, Russia's denazification meme did not need a Russian or a Chinese channel to reach Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene. Nor did she need a Russian or Chinese platform to spread the disinformation trope further. She and her American followers used X (Twitter).

Marjory Taylor Greene is not the only member of Congress to have presented the Russian "denazification" trope in public debate. In the case of Matt Gaetz, we know that the transmission belt was Chinese, because he cited a Chinese state propaganda source in congressional debate.

It is not clear in what sense X is an American platform; in any event, its owner, Elon Musk, has removed prior safeguards identifying state propaganda outlets, driving much higher viewing of Russian and Chinese propaganda. Under Musk, X (Twitter) has been particularly lax in policing known Chinese propaganda accounts, ignoring their flagging by government and other platforms. Musk has also personally spread specific Russian propaganda tropes.

Russian lies are meant not only to disinform, to make action more difficult, but also to demotivate, to make action seem senseless. Russian memes work not by presenting Russia as a positive alternative, but by demoralizing others. No one wants to be close to "Nazis," and the simple introduction of the lie is confusing and saddening.

The same holds with the Russian meme to the effect that Ukraine is corrupt. A completely bogus Russian source introduced the entirely fake idea that the Ukrainian president had bought yachts. Although this was entirely untrue, Representative Greene then spread the fiction. Senator J.D. Vance also picked up the "yacht" example and used it as his justification for opposing aid to Ukraine.

The larger sense of that lie is that everyone everywhere is corrupt, even the people who seem most admirable; and so we might as well give up on our heroes, on any struggle for democracy, or any struggle at all. Ukraine's president, Volodymr Zelens'kyi, chose to risk his life by remaining in Kyiv and defending his country against a fearsome attack from Russia which almost all outsiders believed would succeed within days. His daring gamble saved not only his own democracy, but opened a window of faith that democracies can defend themselves. It confirmed the basis lesson of liberty that individual choices have consequences. The lie directed at Zelens'kyi was meant not only to discredit him personally and undermine support for Ukraine, but also to persuade Americans that no one is righteous and nothing is worth defending.

Insofar as legislators such as Marjorie Taylor Greene and J.D. Vance are vectors of propaganda, they are themselves playing a part of the Russian (or Russo-Chinese) operation. As such they are not merely spreading fictions; they are also modelling a "Russian" style of government, a politics of impotence, in which big lies are normal, corruption is thought to be routine, and nothing gets done. Russian lies about Ukraine are meant to prevent action to help Ukraine; but in a larger sense they are also meant to spread the view that those in power are incapable of any positive action at all.

When legislators embrace Russian lies, they demobilize the rest of us, conveying the underlying notion that all that matters is a clever fiction and a platform from which to spread it. A first step legislators can take is to cease to spread known propaganda tropes themselves. Russian (or Russo-Chinese) memes work in America when Americans choose to repeat them.

Republican leaders quite properly raise concerns about Russian memes in the Republican mouths. The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence have warned in recent weeks that Russian disinformation has shaped the views of Republican voters and the rhetoric of Republican elected officials. Representative Michael R. Turner said that "We see directly coming from Russia attempts to mask communications that are anti-Ukraine and pro-Russia messages — some of which we even hear being uttered on the House floor."

For this and other reasons, the problem cannot be dismissed as "foreign." Elite American actors such as Congressional representatives and billionaires know what they are doing when they spread Russian memes. Most Americans, however, confront them unknowingly.

From the perspective of Russia (and China), all social media platforms present an attack surface. Non-Chinese platforms are the main vectors of Russian and disinformation. During the 2020 presidential election, for example, the largest Facebook group for American Christians was run by people who were neither. While ByteDance/TikTok is important, it is less so than Twitter and Facebook. Social media as such favors hostile interventions over locally reported news. During the 2020 presidential election, for example, the main Facebook site for American Christians was run by people who are neither.

ByteDance/TikTok is an attractive target for legislation, but a ban on TikTok unaccompanied by other policy will have limited effects. It will not prevent China from carrying out influence operations in the United States, nor would it stop China from gathering information on American citizens. To hinder Russian (and Chinese, and other) operations, all platforms would have to be regulated.

In the contest between authoritarian and democratic regimes, it will ultimately be not just self-defense but creative initiative that defines and saves the democracies. The era of hostile disinformation is also the era of the decline of reporting, and the two phenomena are linked. An American who has access to reporting will be less vulnerable to disinformation, and better able to make navigate the demands of democratic citizenship. A victory over disinformation will be won in a climate in which Americans have access to reliable information and reasons to trust it.