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Russia's Efforts At Information Warfare Against The West Continue

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Russia - it's in the headlines a little less than we have gotten used to these last several years, which is not to say it has turned down its campaign of information warfare against the U.S. and against the West more broadly. We are watching this play out with an aggressive propaganda campaign to promote its Sputnik V vaccine in many Western countries. And meanwhile, the United States is still coming to grips with what is known as SolarWinds, this incredibly sophisticated hack targeting American computer networks, both government and private.

So what are Russia's ambitions in 2021 and what might the new Biden administration do to counter them? We're going to spend the next few minutes on this, and we are going to bring in NPR correspondents tracking Russia from two continents. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre is based in Washington. And NPR's Lucian Kim reports from Moscow.

Welcome, you two.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Thank you.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: I want to start with the Sputnik V vaccine. So I guess, Lucian, that means we'll start with you. Why is Russia so aggressively promoting it?

KIM: That's right. There's really been a massive propaganda effort to promote Sputnik V, which, of course, is named after the world's first satellite, which was launched by the Soviet Union and, when it happened, really shocked the rest of the world. I don't think a day goes by that I don't get a press release about another country that's approved the Russian vaccine.

Sputnik V also has an English-language Twitter account directed solely at a foreign audience. Russia wants to be seen bailing out countries around the world that are having trouble getting enough vaccine, including the European Union. So if the EU approves Sputnik V, it would be a huge propaganda victory for the Kremlin. And I think there's certainly an understanding inside the EU that Sputnik V is not just a vaccine, but a political instrument. The head of the EU recently said she's wondering why Russia is offering millions of doses to Europe when the vaccine's rollout in Russia has actually been quite modest. The most recent official numbers we have are less than 3% of the Russian population vaccinated. And there are also very serious questions about Russia's production capacity for supplying so many countries.

KELLY: I remember interviewing you the day you got it. So you have the Sputnik V in your arm. But you were telling me that a lot of Russians are really reluctant, very wary. That means the propaganda is - what? - not working at home.

KIM: Well, you know, as far as ordinary Russians are concerned, it's really quite ironic because after decades of getting lies and disinformation from the government, they just don't believe what the authorities tell them. You know, at one moment, you have state TV spreading vaccine skepticism. And then the next moment, you have President Vladimir Putin announcing that Russia has registered the world's first COVID vaccine and everybody should go out and get vaccinated. And what's even more confusing to people is that Putin, who is promoting Sputnik V, hasn't gotten the vaccine himself. So that raises a lot of questions in people's minds.

Yes, I actually decided to get vaccinated with Sputnik V in February. And as soon as NPR reported that news, I had various Russian state news channels reaching out for interviews with me. The Kremlin thinks it's in an information war with the West. Just last week, there were reports by Russian media that, actually, the U.S. is planning what they call an information attack against Sputnik V.

KELLY: Well, that seems like a moment to bring you in, Greg, on this topic of information war, information attacks. The U.S. intelligence community just yesterday put out the most comprehensive look yet at what Putin did to interfere in last year's elections, the 2020 presidential election. What's the headline there?

MYRE: The main takeaway is that Putin authorized the campaign to help Trump and undermine Biden. Now, the U.S. intelligence community began saying this publicly last August, and this really angered Trump, and he pushed back against his own intelligence community. But this report provides quite a bit of detail on exactly how this operation worked. And the key element was that Russia was working through proxies, through individuals who had close ties to people in the Trump orbit. Now, we should note that this report found no indication that Russia or any other country altered actual votes. But just today, President Biden said in an interview on ABC that Putin will pay a price for his interference. President Biden didn't give details, but he said it's coming soon.

KELLY: OK. An important point to stress there that there is no indication that whatever Russia may have wanted in terms of outcomes - that they actually altered any votes. Meanwhile, this SolarWinds hack that was uncovered last year and then seemed to get bigger and bigger, more and more networks affected - where does the investigation stand?

MYRE: So the White House says it's going to wrap up the investigation this month. It believes that the attackers have been expelled from nine U.S. government agencies that were hacked, although we're not likely to ever get to the full extent of the damage that was caused. The White House is also saying that Biden will respond on this front and that it will be within weeks, not months.

But the bigger question, Mary Louise, is how can the U.S. stop these major breaches being carried out by Russia? And right now, there's no clear answers. SolarWinds was described as unprecedented in its sophistication, in its scale. Microsoft has been part of the investigation. It's estimated that Russia had perhaps a thousand or so very good software engineers working on this. There were no clear trail of breadcrumbs leading back to Russia.

So I spoke about this with Glenn Gerstell. He was a senior NSA official until he stepped down a year ago. He says the U.S. really needs to combine foreign and domestic monitoring with the government and the private sector working together.

GLENN GERSTELL: So what we can do is create some kind of fusion centers whereby the FBI, together with the NSA and CISA from the Homeland Security, can all pool together their resources, their computers and work together in real time with the private sector.

MYRE: Gerstell says both the national security community and the private sector have reluctance to share right now. And we've got to get past this so that information can be shared in real time.

KELLY: OK. Before I let you go, a big-picture question to you both in terms of how each country views the other - Lucian, how is the Kremlin sizing up the Biden administration so far? Do we know?

KIM: Well, after the election of Joe Biden in November, Putin said he'd give U.S.-Russian relations a barely passing grade and said you can't spoil relations that are already spoiled. The Kremlin largely took a wait-and-see position since then. But now, after Biden said in that ABC interview that he thinks Putin is a killer, the Kremlin is summoning the Russian ambassador in Washington back to Moscow for urgent consultations. The Russian foreign ministry stresses that it wants to prevent what it's calling the irreversible deterioration of relations.

KELLY: Greg, jump in with the view from Washington and this - Biden's statement that he's going to make Russia pay a price. But we don't know what that looks like yet. What's the plan?

MYRE: That's right. A lot of sanctions are already in place against Russia. It's not clear exactly what additional steps could be taken to impose real punishment. But Biden does seem to go out of his way to attack Putin personally whenever he gets the chance. He does seem to be placing greater emphasis on cooperation with European allies, trying to limit Putin's ability to be a disruptive force in multiple places around the world. But there will be places they have to work together. The best example is on the New START nuclear treaty, which limits nuclear weapons. They've already agreed to a five-year extension.

KELLY: NPR's Greg Myre in Washington and Lucian Kim in Moscow.

Thanks to you both.

MYRE: My pleasure.

KIM: Thanks, Mary Louise.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.