How Russia and China Pursue a Soft Regime Change in America

Both Russia and China are manipulating our democratic election process to benefit their foreign policies.

Russia has been attempting a soft regime change in America by ushering out the liberal Democratic administrations and replacing them with conservative Republican ones. It is a soft approach because they are not using physical force like in Ukraine. 

However, both Russia and America have physically instigated regime changes in other countries through brute force for over a hundred years, most often on nations in their immediate sphere of interest. 

Russia, whether as a monarchy, communist state, or autocracy, has repeatedly intervened in Eastern Europe and the Caucuses. Likewise, America has done the same in Central and South America. Their efforts are well documented in the context of U.S. and Russian actions.

Since WWII, America’s military presence and financial investments have been more global than any other nation. Consequently, our government has pursued replacing the leadership of countries that obstruct our military and economic interests. That effort often conflicts with China’s and Russia’s ambitions. 

Despite Russia’s more extensive nuclear arsenal, Russia is far weaker economically and militarily than us to have a global impact. While China has a larger army and an economy growing faster than ours, it is also disadvantaged in seeking regime change in other countries. 

Compared to America, they lack our military and financial clout. We have around 750 U.S. military bases in at least 80 countries, and the dollar is the world’s reserve currency, which allows the U.S. to impose unilateral, effective sanctions against other countries.

Although Russia and China eye each other suspiciously over their shared border, they have a common interest: clip the American eagle’s wings. Ideally, they would love to see it in a birdcage rather than soaring above them.

Their shared goal of having America retreat from the world stage dovetails with the Republican party’s support of an America First isolationist foreign policy. 

This is most obvious as Russia opposes the Democrats’ support for military aid to Ukraine and questions America’s participation in NATO. China has not been so partisan in recent years, but it has leaned more toward criticizing Biden than Trump in weighing who would be less obstructive to their foreign policies. 

Thanks to the internet, Russia and China are penetrating our democracy’s open portal of social media to support electing politicians who don’t obstruct their goals.  America cannot reciprocate similarly since these countries tightly control access to their domestic internet and do not hold democratic elections.

Russian electoral interference first came to light in the 2016 presidential election.

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In 2020, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a bi-partisan report that they had worked for over three years. They reviewed over a million documents from U.S. spy agencies and interviews of Republican and Democratic government officials.

The bi-partisan committee concluded that Russia conducted a sophisticated and aggressive campaign to influence the U.S. election to help Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton. They also identified folks on Team Trump as willing to accept help from the Russians. 

Afterward, former FBI director Robert Mueller led a special counsel investigation and released his Mueller Report. It concluded that Russian interference was “sweeping and systematic” and “violated U.S. criminal law.” 

Mueller then indicted three Russian organizations, which also led to the indictments and convictions of Trump campaign officials. 

President Donald Trump had appointed Mueller as deputy attorney general, and the U.S. Senate confirmed him with only 6 Democrats voting against him. After the report was released, Trump called Mueller a “true never-Trumper” and said his report was “horrible.”

Mueller showed that the Russian-controlled Internet Research Agency (IRA) sought to “provoke and amplify political and social discord in the United States” to Trump’s advantage. In the 2016 election, sham Facebook groups were created by IRA supporting Trump or attacking Clinton on over 3,500 advertisements. 

The director of Columbia University‘s Tow Center for Digital Journalism found that 470 phony Facebook accounts tied to Russia were active during the 2016 campaign. Six of them were shared at least 340 million times, according to Jonathan Albright, research director for Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism

However, China’s effort to influence the 2016 presidential election, according to the Brookings Institute’s October 2018 report,  found that “there is no public evidence that China has sought to leak private information or access electoral systems to manipulate U.S. elections.” However, they warned that as relations with China deteriorated, they may become as aggressive as Russia.

While Former President Donald Trump accused China of manipulating the 2020 election, the Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, concluded that China did not interfere; however, they “considered but did not deploy influence efforts intended to change the outcome of the U.S. Presidential election.”

Instead, they found that the Russian government meddled in the 2020 election with an influence campaign “denigrating” President Joe Biden and “supporting” Trump.

However, China and Russia are working to influence the 2024 presidential race. They appear to be taking different approaches. China is more focused on weakening the democratic process than Russia, which is more actively pushing for a Biden loss in November. 

China employs one of the oldest and most effective strategies for winning a dominance war: creating chaos in the opposition’s domain. This disrupts domestic social cohesion and, hence, causes government functions to fail. 

For instance, this month, an Institute for Strategic Dialogue report identified a Chinese influence campaign known as SpamouflageIt uses AI and a network of social media accounts to amplify American discontent and division ahead of the U.S. presidential election. 

Meta announced in August it had removed nearly 8,000 accounts attributed to Spamouflage in the second quarter of 2023, while Google, owning YouTube, shut down more than 100,000 associated accounts in recent years, 

By describing the U.S. as rife with urban decay, homelessness, fentanyl abuse, and gun violence, China pushes the idea that the November vote could damage and potentially destroy our democracy. Coincidentally, it’s the same message the Republican party’s candidates use against the Democrats.

 Speaking of these problems, Trump claimed in a March 2024 speech to Ohio supporters, “If we don’t win this election, I don’t think you’re going to have another election in this country.” 

China’s efforts amplify a traditional distrust of big government’s failure to address widespread concerns. According to a 2023 survey from the Pew Research Center, 55 percent of Americans say they are angry with the U.S. political system. 

More disturbing, a recent PRC survey showed that American support for democratic institutions has slipped over the last decade. Thirty-two percent would support an authoritarian government in which a strong leader can make decisions without interference from parliament or the courts. 

These folks might not object if Trump became a dictator for a lot longer than a day. 

While China and Russia use social media to undermine the tedium of holding democratic elections, they also highlight the benefits of a single strong leader who can make quick and decisive decisions to reflect some popular sentiments.   

Meanwhile, the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights report on the November election’s digital risks said the leading cause of authoritarian leadership’s growth was the distribution of false, hateful, and violent material. The report noted that this inflammatory content was more prevalent because “major social media platforms have retreated from some of their past commitments to promote election integrity.”

Russia is more creative than China in pushing false information seamlessly into our tapestry of open media sources. 

New York Times reported that researchers and government officials uncovered a string of Russian-controlled “local” sounding newspapers: D.C. Weekly, the New York News Daily, the Chicago Chronicle, and the Miami Chronicle. 

Reviewing the researcher’s findings, Myers wrote that these entities mimic actual news organizations, interspersing false stories about crime, politics, and culture. The goal is to lend an aura of credibility to social media posts that spread disinformation that undermines support for policies like providing Ukraine military assistance. 

According to Professors Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren, co-directors of Clemson University’s Media Forensics Hub, Russia has also crafted the art of narrative laundering. These narratives spread false or misleading information by concealing their source. 

Consequently, public perception of an issue or a candidate is swayed by planting fake news stories on domestic and foreign news websites to magnify fake social media accounts and fake news websites using artificial intelligence. For instance, Russians fabricated a story to weaken American support for Ukraine. The news website The Nation picked up their fake posting of Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s wife spending $1,000,000 on Cartier jewelry. 

The most brazen example of Russian manipulation of our democratic process was their use of an FBI informant, Alexander Smirnov, to link President Biden to alleged criminal actions involving the Ukrainian business dealings of his son Hunter. 

Smirnov admitted that “officials associated with Russian intelligence” were involved in passing an unsupported story about Hunter Biden. He told the FBI that the Russian Intelligence Service intercepted several cellphone calls placed at a hotel “by prominent U.S. persons the Russian government may use as ‘kompromat’ in the 2024 election.” No tape recording was provided.

Government prosecutors believe that Smirnov had peddled the Russian lies without question, which could have impacted U.S. elections. Smirnov has been charged with felony false statements and obstruction crimes for providing allegedly false information about President Biden and Hunter Biden. 

Republicans had counted on his upcoming testimony to Congress to provide evidence that Biden must be impeached because of taking a bribe from a corrupt Ukrainian official. Republicans subsequently had to drop Smirnov from being a witness. The Russians lost a lethal effort to defeat Biden’s reelection.

At the end of March, blogger Heather Cox Richardson identified an essay from the Study of War explaining how Russia’s disinformation operation is the key to winning the war against Ukraine: the objective is to get Americans to believe in a false reality.  

November voters will be deluged with an onslaught of disinformation. Such as the fake stories about President Zelenskyy’s wife and Biden’s son, to discredit those in power that obstruct authoritarian aggression.

As Linvill and Warren concluded, it is becoming more difficult for people to discern which news stories are fake because advancing technology distorts the face of reality.

If you like this piece, become a Patreon patron or make a one-time donation help me reach others.  – thank you, Nick 

As previously noted, Russia and China cannot win a global economic or military contest with America. However, they can create social conditions within America that convert legitimate policy concerns into a movement that rejects a democratic process for governing. It is easier for them to sow domestic confusion about the legitimacy of America’s elected leadership than to overpower America’s resources. 

Describing their strategy as promoting a soft regime change may seem exaggerated. Pushing for a particular party to win presidential elections undermines our democratic process, but there has always been another election to adjust our political course. 

America has continuously had a peaceful transfer of executive power, allowing policy changes to occur. However, an authoritarian regime could emerge when a nation’s executive refuses to leave office. 

In March, during a CNN town hall, Trump refused to commit to accepting the results of the 2024 presidential election.He says that the last election was rigged despite no evidence provided. Unfortunately, more than 40 percent of Republicans believe there is evidence that Biden didn’t legitimately win enough votes to be elected.

Trump has again set the stage to claim the presidency was stolen from him if he loses the November election. How would his supporters react? 

Russia and China would love if Trump were right about a possible bloodbath should he lose again and his supporters take the advice he gave at the end of his January 6 speech asking them to march to the Capitol and “fight like hell.” And so, the American eagle would no longer be soaring. 

Nick Licata is the author of Becoming A Citizen Activist and Student Power, Democracy and Revolution in the Sixties.He is the founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of over 1,300 progressive municipal officials.

Subscribe to Licata’s newsletterCitizenship Politics.

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