With the U.S. presidential election only several weeks away, the specter of Russian election interference has again become a mainstay media topic. Four years removed from the 2016 election, researchers and politicians are still trying to make sense of what happened: what exactly did the Russians do, and what lessons are we to draw from it? Filmmaker Alex Gibney—who is enjoying a rising profile with his hotly anticipated COVID-19 documentary Totally Under Control—has applied himself to these questions with a freshly released deepdive into Russian election meddling.
Agents of Chaos is an epic-length documentary, spanning four hours across two episodes, released last month on HBO. The first episode opens with a prelude of sorts. To explain the roots of Russian information warfare, Gibney walks us through the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution in Ukraine, Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea, and the outbreak of the ongoing Donbass War. The Ukrainian conflict, claims Gibney, was the stomping ground for a nascent industry of Russian internet trolls looking to smear the new government in Kiev as ‘fascists’ and ‘neo-nazis.’
The Ukraine tie-in is thought-provoking, but altogether unsatisfying in its execution. For one, the strategic circumstances are not at all the same. The film is anchored around the idea that Russia wants to sow chaos, but the Kremlin’s approach to Ukraine was guided by concrete policy goals that involved supporting specific politicians and parties. It is also comically shortsighted to claim that Russian internet trolls sought to “drive a wedge” between eastern and western Ukraine, when the country’s two halves are already separated by centuries of Imperial history and the bitter legacy of two world wars. To the extent that Russian trolls were “targeting” eastern Ukrainians, they were already speaking to an overwhelmingly pro-Russian and anti-Maidan audience. None of this bears any resemblance to the trolls’ activities in America. Without so much as an attempt to square these circles, the Ukraine analogy feels contrived.
Drawing on the help of cybersecurity researcher Camille François and several Russians with first-hand knowledge, Gibney proceeds to outline the Russian internet trolling operation. Almost all of the work was done from the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a chaste office on the outskirts of St. Petersburg. The film tells us little that we don’t already know from the Mueller investigation and Senate intelligence committee report: there was a concerted effort by certain Russian nationals to impersonate American activists, political groups, and media outlets for the purpose of undermining “Americans’ trust in democratic institutions.” The goal was not necessarily to elect Donald Trump, but to strain the American political system by facilitating conflict between polarized factions.
But how much did the Kremlin know of, and to what extent did they endorse, the IRA’s activities? Agents of Chaos provides no substantive answers. The film’s only evidence of a link between the IRA and the Kremlin is that the former received funding from Yevgeny Prigozhin, a major Russian businessman with ties to Vladimir Putin. Not only is there no proof that the IRA coordinated directly with any Russian government agency, but it’s not even clear to what extent Prigozhin himself oversaw the IRA’s agenda. Gibney admits as much, but claims it’s all part of a plausible deniability ploy: Putin shields himself by delegating unsavory, extra-legal tasks to private cronies who technically don’t work for him. This is probably true in a general sense, but it doesn’t get us any closer to understanding the level on which specific decisions to interfere in U.S. politics were made.
A similar problem emerges in Gibney’s discussion of Fancy Bear, a Russian cyber espionage group. Gibney proceeds on the assumption that Fancy Bear is the hacking arm of Russian military intelligence (GRU), which itself has not been conclusively established with publicly verifiable information. Gibney posits that Fancy Bear’s American activities were conducted with blessing from the Kremlin, an even more flimsy assumption. A responsible analysis of Russian election interference has to grapple with countless nuances: were the actual hacks conducted by GRU personnel, or contractors? Was there an order to target the DNC, or did an overeager operator make a unilateral decision? If the former, on what level was the order given? Who set Fancy Bear’s agenda, and how closely did they stick to said agenda? Was the Kremlin truly interested in destroying American institutions, or was it perhaps driven by the more pragmatic goal of signaling its cyber capabilities to Washington as a deterrent against future American meddling in Russian politics?
To truly understand what the Russians did, we have to understand how and by whom the orders were given, how they trickled down the chain of command, and how closely they were followed by field operators. You have to understand institutional forces, like the longstanding rivalry between the GRU and SVR that could lead the former to take unsanctioned risks. You also have to consider that, as with any Caesarist system, Putin’s many subordinates sometimes take the initiative in doing things to please him that he himself would never have approved of.
Gibney jettisons all these complexities, instead resigning himself to a convenient abstraction: the “Russians” did it. And who are the “Russians?” Well, it all boils down to the guy in charge. This conceit of an omnipresent leader is simply not a realistic view of how any political system, let alone Putin’s Russia, operates, but it is all too often used by journalists and politicians as a substitute for serious Russia analysis.
The rest of the film is a fairly linear exploration of the major milestones in the Russian meddling saga: the Assange-DNC imbroglio, the FBI counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign, and a précis of Trump’s questionable contacts with Russians. It is here that the film’s editorial stance is fully laid bare: the Obama administration and U.S. intelligence community are portrayed as patriots doing their best to foil a foreign plot on American soil—their only mistake is not going far enough in prosecuting the Trump campaign (and, in Comey’s case, having the gall to announce an investigation into Hillary’s use of private email servers).
Trump and the Trump campaign, meanwhile, are de facto—if not de de jure—traitors who colluded with a foreign government to win the election. Former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe was given a sympathetic platform to dismiss serious objections to the FBI’s behavior, especially concerning the FISA warrant to surveil Trump campaign associate Carter Page. McCabe was not asked to comment on FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith, who pleaded guilty to submitting falsified documents to renew a surveillance warrant against Page. Page, meanwhile, was maligned as an eccentric stooge too “unsophisticated” to realize that he was being used by his “Russian spy handlers” to establish a backchannel with the Trump campaign.
The film offers an uncritical platform to some of the more outrageous Trump-Russia conspiracies that even the mainstream news networks were reluctant to publish, including the notion that the Kremlin wanted to use Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort as an intermediary to secure a deal with a potential Trump administration for the partition of Ukraine.
Gibney proceeds to recount all the stations of the cross of the Russiagate narrative; these include the Trump Tower meeting, Trump’s infamous request for Russians to hack Hillary Clinton, alleged Russian efforts to suppress the black vote, and alleged coordination between wikileaks and the Trump campaign. That part of the film feels less like a critical-minded documentary and more like a heartfelt homage to the old ‘stab in the back’ theory of the 2016 election—namely, the idea that Clinton never really lost, but was instead betrayed by fellow Americans who conspired against her with a hostile foreign power.
Agents of Chaos was branded as a fresh look at Russian election interference, cutting past the fog surrounding intelligence work to uncover the truth of what really happened in 2016. What we got instead was a summa of Russiagate’s greatest hits, packaged and presented with all the slick polish that can be expected from an award-winning filmmaker.
“National security,” concludes Gibney in his closing narration, “isn’t just about our enemies. It’s also about us. National security starts at home, with our own resilience, our own politics, and the honor of our leaders.” I commend these words without reserve. Nevertheless, there is room for a nuanced discussion about Russian interference in 2016 and what can be done to deter foreign meddling in the future. Whether or not Agents of Chaos adds anything of value to that discussion is a rather different matter.
If the film offers any unique strain of thinking, it lies in Gibney’s poignant observation that Russian interference only worked to the extent that it did because we are needlessly vulnerable to such incursions. Any foreign agent working to destabilize American society would find no shortage of socio-political faultlines to exploit, of bitter resentments to manipulate. The Russians didn’t do that—we did that to ourselves. Mending our torn social fabric is, in this sense, one of the foremost national security challenges of our time.
Mark Episkopos writes on defense and international relations issues. He is also a PhD student in History at American University.
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