Cover: Understanding Russian Subversion

Understanding Russian Subversion

Patterns, Threats, and Responses

Published Feb 18, 2020

by Andrew Radin, Alyssa Demus, Krystyna Marcinek

Download eBook for Free

FormatFile SizeNotes
PDF file 0.3 MB

Use Adobe Acrobat Reader version 10 or higher for the best experience.

Research Questions

  1. How and why does Russia undertake subversive activities and campaigns to further its interests?
  2. What are the characteristics of Russian subversive efforts, and how do they change based on the intended target audience?
  3. How have states responded to and punished Russian subversion and have these measures been effective?
  4. What policies should be adopted to address Russian subversion?

Since 2014, Russia has undertaken a wide range of subversive activities intended to influence the domestic politics of the United States, its partners, and its allies. This Perspective synthesizes previous work, discussing what subversion is and the capabilities used to undertake it today. The authors explain the interconnected Russian interests that inspire use of subversion—defense of the country and regime, being recognized as one of the world's great powers, maintaining a sphere of interest, stopping European Union and NATO enlargement, and encouraging economic prosperity. They trace the origins of Russian subversion in Soviet and post-Soviet history and examine how Russia engages in military, economic, information, cyber, and political subversion, drawing on recent events, such as attempts to influence elections in other countries, including the United States. To address Russian subversion, the authors propose focusing defensive activities on the greatest vulnerabilities, ensuring that any punishments of Russian actions are closely and clearly linked with particular acts of subversion, conducting additional research on when Russian subversion is effective, and improving rapid attribution of subversion.

Key Findings

Russian subversion lacks a single organizing principle

  • Instead, Russian foreign policy interests motivate different forms of subversion; Russian subversive capabilities vary greatly across countries and activities; Russian subversion often lacks strong centralized command and control; and the effectiveness of Russian subversive efforts remains largely unknown.

Investing in defensive activities probably cannot eliminate all vulnerabilities to Russian subversion

  • It may be cheaper and easier for Russia to find new avenues of subversion than for the West to address vulnerabilities. Existing punishments fall into two categories: They either affect Russia too little to change its decisionmaking or are not linked closely enough to Russian subversive activities. These issues underscore the need to develop punishments that are more explicitly linked to Russian behavior.

There is significant uncertainty about when and to what extent Russian subversion is effective

  • Without understanding the actual effects of subversion, it is difficult to fully articulate a proportionate response or to understand how this response should be prioritized among other U.S. efforts. Such an evaluation may be difficult but is possible through further study.

Attribution limits the effectiveness of Russian subversion

  • A delay in attribution can therefore be almost as harmful as a lack of attribution.


  • U.S. programs to build resilience should focus on the most vulnerable countries and institutions.
  • Punishments should be more clearly linked to specific subversive activities, and statements identifying the behavior required to lift the punishment should be explicitly stated.
  • Undertake efforts to better understand the effectiveness of Russian subversion. Responses to subversion have costs, and evaluating the effectiveness of Russian subversion is essential to determine whether to accept such costs.
  • Rapid attribution is critically important—it makes covert activities overt and makes it harder for Russia to deny its actions.
  • Evaluate existing U.S. and ally vulnerabilities, trace past U.S. efforts, and consider where U.S. assistance may be the most effective.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was sponsored by the United States Army and conducted by the Strategy, Doctrine, and Resources Program within the RAND Arroyo Center.

This commentary is part of the RAND expert insight series. RAND Expert Insights present perspectives on timely policy issues. All RAND Expert Insights undergo peer review to ensure high standards for quality and objectivity.

This document and trademark(s) contained herein are protected by law. This representation of RAND intellectual property is provided for noncommercial use only. Unauthorized posting of this publication online is prohibited; linking directly to this product page is encouraged. Permission is required from RAND to reproduce, or reuse in another form, any of its research documents for commercial purposes. For information on reprint and reuse permissions, please visit

RAND is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.