How Russia Looks To Gain Through Political Interference
Reports about Russian meddling in the U.S. election had been building for months, with leaks from U.S. intelligence officials and ominous warnings from Democratic lawmakers. Though the Trump campaign and some in Congress have voiced doubts, U.S. intelligence agencies now agree that Russia was behind the hacks that targeted Democratic figures during the 2016 presidential campaign.
The CIA concluded that the motive behind Russia’s interference was to try and get Donald Trump elected, as The Washington Post first reported earlier this month. After what initially appeared to be disagreement over Russia’s motives, the FBI backed the CIA’s assessment.
The findings suggest that for the first time, a foreign power used hacking and information warfare in an attempt to disrupt American elections. While Trump has called the CIA’s assessment “ridiculous,” and Russian President Vladimir Putin denied involvement, President Barack Obama has ordered intelligence agencies to deliver a report on the cyberattacks on the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the private email of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman before he leaves office.
A Familiar Effort
Russia experts say that Moscow’s apparent attempts to interfere in the internal politics of the United States are a familiar sight. In Europe, Russia has been cultivating relationships with several far-right and far-left populist groups that are currently enjoying a surge in popularity. Closer to home, in post-Soviet countries, Russia has made bolder attempts to influence domestic politics, most clearly in Ukraine and Georgia.
“This is the kind of thing that Russia has been doing for a long time, you could argue going back to the 1940s,” said Jeffrey Mankoff, deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
In 2004, he noted, Russia sought to get its favored candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, elected president in neighboring Ukraine. Putin visited Ukraine twice in support of Yanukovych, whose opponent was vilified on Russian state television. When irregularities were detected in the voting, Putin dismissed calls for a repeat of the second round of elections. Ultimately, Yanukovych would lose in 2004, but go on to win in 2010.
In 2008, Russia’s war with Georgia was preceded by cyberattacks that targeted the Georgian president’s website and those of communications and transportation companies. The Georgian government blamed Russia for the attacks, though Moscow denied involvement.
“It’s not new,” Mankoff said. “It’s that there’s a wider scope for its activity given the political and economic crisis that’s roiling much of the West, and the fact that Russia’s overall relationship with the West has also gotten substantially worse.”
An Uptick Since 2012
Russia’s attempts at influencing politics in Europe have increased since Putin’s re-election in 2012, according a report published by The Atlantic Council in November. The report says, “the Kremlin has accelerated its efforts to resurrect the arsenal of ‘active measures’ — tools of political warfare once used by the Soviet Union that aimed to influence world events through the manipulation of media, society, and politics.”
Those tools include disinformation campaigns, political and business alliances, and the use of coercion or corruption to sway policies in Russia’s favor. Indeed, the chief of staff of the Russian Armed Forces wrote in 2013 that, “The role of nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness.”
Some of those methods of information manipulation were on display in Ukraine starting in 2013, experts say, when then President Yanukovych’s decision to reject a trade deal with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia led to mass anti-government protests, violence and ultimately a Russia-backed separatist war in Ukraine’s eastern half. Throughout the conflict, Russian state-backed media outlets such as RT and Sputnik raised doubts about Russia’s involvement in the crisis and its support of separatist rebels. Russia denied the presence of its troops in Crimea until after it annexed that region of Ukraine in March 2014.
More recently, European nationalist, populist parties on the far-right and far-left in Austria, France, Great Britain, Germany, Greece and Hungary have shown pro-Russian inclinations.
This week, for example, The New York Times reported that the leader of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party signed a cooperation agreement with Putin’s ruling party, United Russia. The agreement put forward a plan for meetings and, when appropriate, collaboration on economic, political and business projects. Founded in part by former Nazis in the 1950s, the Freedom Party came close to winning the presidency earlier this year — a largely ceremonial role in Austria.
In France, Marine Le Pen, the head of the far-right National Front party, has emerged as a leading contender for the presidency. During the Crimea crisis, she called Putin “a patriot,” saying in February 2014 that the Russian president “is aware that we defend common values.” That same year, Le Pen’s party received a loan of 9 million Euros from the Moscow-based First Czech Russian Bank. In 2016, Le Pen asked Russia for a 27 million Euro loan, but denied that the funds would influence the party’s policy.
While Russia did not create the conditions for the rise of these parties, experts say it has moved to capitalize on their growing popularity and policies in order to benefit Russia and potentially destabilize the EU. As the Atlantic Council noted, “The Kremlin uses these Trojan horses to destabilize European politics so efficiently, that even Russia’s limited might could become a decisive factor in matters of European and international security.”
Russia is “taking advantage of a situation in which these political forces are already on the march,” said Mankoff, “and leveraging the tools they have to help the political fortunes of those groups, and at the same time increase their dependence on Russia, which in turn gives Russia leverage over them if and when they come to power.”
“Russia has embraced the phenomenon and sees these parties as allies and sympathetic friends,” said Fredrik Wesslau, director of the Wider Europe Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Within Russia, they can point to these parties as alternative voices in Europe to foster the narrative that Europe is divided on Russia and there are political forces within Europe that are sympathetic.”
These parties share an ideological affinity with Russia, according to Wesslau. For those on the far-right, Russia’s appeal lies in its strong defense of the state, its upholding of socially conservative values, and its rejection of internationalism, the West and America. Those on the left view Russia as an insurgent on the world stage that is anti-globalization, anti-Western and anti-capitalist to a certain extent.
What Putin Wants
Europe’s Russia-friendly parties also tend to be anti-EU, experts said. The rising profiles of Euroskeptic parties such as the National Front and Great Britain’s United Kingdom Independence Party (which led the charge for an exit from the EU) could potentially weaken the EU’s consensus on sanctions against Russia — imposed in response to its annexation of Crimea.
A weaker EU is one of Putin’s larger aims, said William Pomeranz, deputy director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center. “From Putin’s perspective, the big advantage is to deal with each country on a one-on-one basis, as oppose to a unified bloc, because as a unified bloc, Russia is much smaller and from an economic standpoint much weaker. When they become one-on-one, Russia has more advantages.”
Pomeranz noted that Putin’s other aims include recognition of Russia’s Crimea annexation, and opposition to any attempt to revitalize the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which was established as a check on the Soviet Union. Russia’s intervention in European politics, Pomeranz said, may not always be geared toward electing individual candidates, but rather toward undermining the democratic process, and European consensus around these issues.
“I certainly think Russia’s grand strategy exists,” Mankoff said, “and it’s based on rolling back the spread of Western values and institutions since the end of the Cold War, and establishing a sort of Russian world, at least in the areas around Russian borders.”
In cases where Russia has directly intervened in electoral politics, Mankoff said, the objective might be to get a pro-Kremlin candidate elected. But even if a candidate supported by the Kremlin doesn’t win, he noted, “questions about the legitimacy and efficacy of the electoral process serve to undermine confidence in democratic systems and promote the narrative that Russia has been pushing — that the West is hypocritical, that it’s just as corrupt as Russia, that there’s not really any difference at the end of the day between how politics is practiced in democratic countries and how it’s practiced in a place like Russia.”
The West on Alert
With upcoming elections in France, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy, European and U.S. officials have been increasingly alert to signs of Russian meddling in their politics. In 2015, Congress asked the Director of National Intelligence for an assessment of the funding of political parties and NGOs by Russia, including the intended effect of such funding.
National security agencies in the post-Soviet countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania regularly reference the Kremlin’s involvement with pro-Russian groups in their countries. In June, the Czech Republic’s foreign minister accused Putin of trying to “divide and conquer” the EU through his alleged support of Euroskeptic parties, telling the Financial Times, “We have no doubt Russia is finding ways to finance this.”
In Brussels, leaders of the EU were scheduled to discuss covert Russian funding of Europe’s far-right and far-left parties in October. The Financial Times reported at the time that intelligence agencies in several countries had increased scrutiny of potential links to the Kremlin. U.S. intelligence officials told BuzzFeed News earlier this month that their warnings to European allies about Russia-backed hacking had come too late.
Germany’s domestic intelligence agency issued a warning on Dec. 8, saying there was “growing evidence of attempts to influence the federal election next year,” citing “increasingly aggressive cyberespionage” against German political targets.
“I think, with each election Mr. Putin gets a little bolder. And I think with each election, Mr. Putin thinks he can get away with a little bit more,” Pomeranz said. “That’s why it’s so important to have an impartial investigation of what just occurred in the U.S. election so we can firmly identify what he did, and hopefully identify some consequences for that.”
“The assumption has always been that our institutions are strong enough to survive these types of challenges, and I think that’s still a working assumption,” Pomeranz said. “But Mr. Putin has decided to test that assumption and will continue to do so as long as he can.”