Russia’s US intervention: yesterday, today and tomorrow

5 March 2018 – San Fransisco, US

by Kseniya Kirillova

On 16 February, special prosecutor Robert Mueller charged 13 Russian citizens with interfering in the 2016 US presidential election. The indictment reads almost like a crime novel and describes in detail how the “troll factory” tried to influence public opinion in America.  It lists the use of fake accounts created with the stolen identities of the US citizens, information about specific actions, including the amounts allocated to them, etc. Most importantly, the text of the indictment plainly states that since February 2016 Kremlin operatives had focused on supporting two presidential candidates: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, and then, once the primaries were over, only Donald Trump.

In fact, there is nothing surprising in this document. Of course, before the publication of the indictment, we did not know the exact sums or names of the defendants, and not all of the fake accounts used by Russian special services were known. However, for anyone who closely followed the course of the election campaign, it was obvious that the Kremlin was doing all in its power to advance its candidate. Let’s try to list some of the most obvious signs that we had previously brought to public attention and which fully corroborate the investigation findings.

Before and during elections

  1. All Russian media outlets, both inside and outside the country, were working to discredit the democrats. Almost all news broadcasts in Russia were devoted to denigrating them. Russian-controlled hackers and WikiLeaks, which published the hacked information, worked against the democrats. As it turned out later, even the document on the basis of which the FBI reopened its case against Hillary Clinton before the election was forged.
  2. Moreover, Moscow resorted to open nuclear blackmail, plainly stating that a nuclear war in the event of Clinton’s victory is all but certain. So, in October 2016, Russian television showed one TV special after another dedicated not only to the superior quality of Russian bomb shelters, but also to the technologies of anti-missile defense. The official channel of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation showed a twenty-minute report under the screaming headline “Obama is threatening Russia!”, in which the US was called “an enemy of humanity”. Then the famous Russian journalist Alexander Sotnik published on his page a post from a woman who claimed that the adults in one of Moscow schools were scaring children with the prospect of a nuclear war with the US and death in case of Hillary Clinton’s victory in the presidential election.
  3. It is no longer a secret that a group of enthusiastic American volunteers led by the CIA veteran Charles Leven created an informal movement to combat Russian misinformation on social networks. Subsequently, major American media outlets wrote about the group’s work. Since 2015, I was part of this team and repeatedly described the tactics of Russian trolls in 2015 and 2016. In 2016, massive armies of trolls that had been active in the American media space for several years, including in the professional community of LinkedIn, suddenly changed their position from pro-Putin to pro-Trump, and I, participating in the work of the team identifying these trolls, personally tracked this transformation. We certainly did not know the scale of the work of the “specialists from Olgino”, but some things were indisputable:
  • “established” and subsequently exposed trolls pretending to be American, French and other foreign citizens published materials that supported Donald Trump and slandered his rivals;
  • numerous materials, including memes, pictures, slogans, slanderous passages, etc. were developed in Russia, which I proved by locating their primary sources in Russian in Russian media before their English-language versions showed up a few months later. In particular, these memes dealt with conspiracy theories about “Soros’s collaboration with the Nazis”, photoshopped fakes of Hillary Clinton and Obama, unconfirmed allegations that Obama is allegedly in cahoots with the Muslim terrorists, etc. Since I had spent several years studying contemporary Russian propaganda, the style of this work, its wording, the “arguments” and quotes being used left no doubt as to where and by whom these materials were created. Specific examples of such work are now abundantly presented in the materials of the criminal case.
  • my friend, a graduate American linguist, who has lived in the US since she was five years old and who has a great feel for the English language, easily identified foreigners who were writing under the guise of Americans, and she personally also uncovered a number of trolls. Of course, we repeatedly pointed out our observations in our articles.
  1. In addition to working with Americans “under a foreign flag,” the overwhelming majority of the Russian-language media in the US also took a stridently pro-Trump position. This even applied to the media outlets that positioned themselves as “opposition” and “anti-Putin”. Moreover, these trolls were actively promoting Trump even in the Russian-speaking communities hostile to Moscow, for example, among the Ukrainians in the United States. In short, spreading Moscow propaganda among immigrants became an important part of the Russia’s information war with America.
  2. At the same time, as it later became known, almost all the members of the Trump’s team had very close ties to Moscow before the election and that included financial ties. Over the past year, the US media has written so much about the connections and contacts of Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Carter Page, Jared Kushner, etc. and about the first charges brought against some of them that there is no point in reiterating it here.
  3. In addition to their ties to Russia “at the very top,” the American right-wingers maintain close contacts with Moscow at various levels. After the incident in Charlottesville in August 2017, American press published detailed information on the connections of the local extreme right with the Russian right-wing ideologist Alexander Dugin and other agents of the Kremlin’s influence. Of course, this does not negate the fact that Moscow tried to influence the extreme left flank of the US political spectrum as well, using the “foreign flag” to contact both groups of radicals.

However, the US extreme right clearly represents a greater priority for the Kremlin, primarily because of its nature. Unlike the left-wing radicals who adhere to anarchist views and therefore are not represented in power and do not participate in politics, remaining instead a rather marginal “street” movement, the ultra-right try to actively influence our political system. They use patriotic slogans which can attract more followers, participate in government, and prefer not the utopian communist anarchy, but the nationalist dictatorship – the very one that Trump and his admirers are trying to build in the US.

On top of that, Russia does not have a ready-made “ideology for export” aimed at the left because, as part of its international image, it tries to adhere to the concept of the “guardian of traditional values” focused exclusively on conservatives. Therefore, Moscow’s interactions with the left radicals are carried out mainly through fake accounts – with the goal of creating chaos and creating a “picture” needed for greater radicalization of those on the right. But when it comes to the right-wing extremists, Moscow maintains direct contacts in addition to the online presence, which gives it enough leverage to influence those on the right of the political spectrum (given that the structures of the far right are better organized than those on the left).

  1. In addition, Moscow maintains contacts with the Republicans not only on “top” and “bottom”, but also on many levels in between. This includes Russian lobbyists’ links with the NRA and contacts with some think tanks (the most memorable of them were described in detail last year by Russian publicist Andrei Piontkovsky). It is no accident that the American press published entire articles on how the Republican Party in recent years has become a “party of Putin.”

Donald Trump’s behavior during the election campaign clearly indicated that he fully and completely accepted Moscow’s help. Trump often cited Russian propaganda and all the conspiracy theories used by Moscow: from describing Ukraine as in “chaos from the war unleashed by Obama” to blatant slander against the United States. In particular, he claimed that “America is in a catastrophic state and it lacks democracy” and that his country is no better than Russia, where dissidents are routinely murdered.  It used to be that such statements were only heard from the radical left anarchists, but under Trump they quite organically blended into the Republican agenda.

President Putin and President Trump meeting at the G20 summit in Hamburg, 2017

Trump took every opportunity to loudly admire Putin, actively defend him even when he had to go against the facts and interests of his own country, call on Russian hackers to continue their hacking in order to search for “missing emails” and he never condemned Putin even when his crimes against the United States became apparent. Moreover, not being confident that he will win, Trump threatened to ignore the results of the election and preemptively declared them “falsified”, calling on his supporters to engage in mass protests. American experts rightly assumed that such an idea could only be suggested to Trump by Putin, who perceived the protests of 2011-12 in Russia strictly as a product of the outside influence.

By the way, Trump reacted predictably to the information published in April of last year that the CIA had provided a detailed report to President Obama in August 2016, which noted that Vladimir Putin personally gave an order to intervene in the American election with a specific goal to damage the candidate from the Democratic Party Hillary Clinton and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump.

Trump went on a Twitter rampage in which, contrary to all facts, he repeatedly hinted that since Obama had not taken action against Russian interference in the elections, it can only mean that the intervention was carried out in favor of the Democrats. Thus, he revealed his own logic and how he himself would act in this case. In fact, he clearly showed that from his point of view, a hostile state can only be punished if it harms your own interests. On the other hand, if the enemies’ actions bring you personal gain, no measures should be taken against them. And, as we can see, Trump’s behavior was guided by this logic. The Kremlin, for its part, did not hide its glee over the Trump election victory, and the State Duma deputies celebrated this event with champagne.

After the election

After the election, Trump’s Russian policy not only continued on the same course but was ramped up.  What followed was Trump’s open support of Vladimir Putin, quoting him uncritically, defending and praising him, combined with the outright mockery of the conclusions of his own intelligence.  A comparison of the intelligence community with the German Nazi SS a year ago was regarded by many American experts as a direct threat to national security.  Trump publicly and repeatedly insisted that Russia did not interfere in the American elections (in light of this, it is especially amusing to observe how actively he denies his own words today).

Robert Mueller c. 2012

In addition to his angry rhetoric, Trump took a number of steps that put pressure on the US law enforcement agencies. On May 9th of last year, he fired the FBI director, James Comey, after a prior meeting in which he demanded Comey’s personal loyalty and requested that he drop any investigation of Michael Flynn, which Comey refused. As the American media subsequently found out, last summer he also considered the possibility of the dismissal of the special prosecutor Mueller. Finally, the publication of the “Nunes Memorandum,” which, according to the veterans of intelligence and counterintelligence, inflicted enormous damage on the American security became the culmination of Trump’s war with the American intelligence community.

In addition, the US president intensified attacks on other American institutions, in particular, the independent press (which he called an “enemy of the people”), independent courts (recall his attacks on American judges) and the opposition, which he labeled as “traitors” for refusing to applaud him. Thus, Trump is deliberately trying to destroy key American institutions that ensure the preservation of democracy and the principle of separation of powers. At the same time, by strange coincidence, those attacks escalated exactly when the investigation of “Russiagate” revealed new facts, and as it was getting closer to Trump and his entourage.

Meanwhile, Trump continued to support Putin as part of his foreign policy. In particular, the American president constantly insisted on cooperation with Moscow in the “fight against terrorism”, repeated that he believed Putin, and stubbornly refused to criticize him. He did not want to sign the law on sanctions until the very last day, calling it “anti-constitutional,” and even now, according to the experts, he personally or through his assistants managed to classify parts of the “Kremlin report”, which blocks the possibility of immediate application of the US law designed to combat money laundering by criminal means. At the same time, Trump managed to ruin relations with the main foreign allies of the United States – also to Moscow’s great pleasure.

This “bromance” between the two leaders became so obvious that even the well-known Russian-American historian, security specialist and the late Alexander Litvinenko’s collaborator, Yuri Felshtinsky, noted that “all the details of the agreement between Putin and Trump are out in the open because both sides are so candid about them.  It’s as though they’re trying to make it perfectly clear that they are in alliance“.

The apex of this policy was the recent combination of three events: classifying of the most important parts of the “Kremlin report”, as mentioned above, inviting sanctioned Russian spy chiefs to visit the US, and the notorious “Nunes memorandum”. After that, even Russian military analysts could not restrain their joy and admitted that Trump acts in their interests.

“The publication of Devin Nunes’s report and the investigation of the materials presented in it portend a large-scale purge of the FBI, other US special services and the DOJ, and a political earthquake in Congress. The intelligence services are the main institutions of American democracy, and if Trump managed to co-opt them, then the days of the fake globalist press and the Congress that has fallen into imbecility are numbered,” predicted the authors of the Military Review, rejoicing that Trump “went on the offensive”, wasn’t afraid to openly communicate with the Russian intelligence and will soon achieve the complete destruction of the mechanism of separation of powers, free press and independent, law-abiding judiciary.

At the same time, all the leaders of the US intelligence agencies are unanimous in their opinion: Moscow will try to intervene in the forthcoming midterm elections in November 2018. Even Trump-appointed Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said that the threat is quite real, and the American public must be informed in order “to not allow some Russians to tell us how we should vote.” However, Trump still hasn’t declared what steps he’ll take to counter the threat.

“Indictments from Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and the president’s response to them, point to a more troubling and increasingly likely motivation: President Trump does not want to stop Kremlin interference intended to sway our elections in his favor. Rather, he welcomes it… Rather than echo this cry from our intelligence community, the president is actively obstructing efforts to stop the attacks… Trump still promotes divisive anti-American propaganda messaging from the Kremlin, and continues to cover for Putin by misleading Americans about Russian interference,” – writes in his article the former CIA officer, the head of the new conservative movement “Stand Up Republic” Evan McMullin.  Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), Ranking Member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence expressed the same fears in his speech.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin continues to support Trump using the same methods that were used during the election campaign:

  1. The use of trolls and propaganda materials created “under a foreign flag”. In July 2017, I put out a report on the similarity between the propaganda strategies of “Putinism” and “Trumpism.” However, in addition to the apparent similarity of techniques and tactics, I often found identical language, pictures and slogans, not to mention rhetoric. A vivid example of the “flow” of Russian slander into American mass media is a smear against James Comey published in an English-language source, but using the Russian word pravda (truth), written in Latin letters.

In general, discrediting the investigation and slandering investigators has now become the main theme of both the Republican propaganda and the Russian one supporting it. Let’s recall the rhetoric from the aforementioned Military Review article “Trump Is Ours Again”, where the investigation by the special prosecutor, the FBI and the Department of Justice is called a “conspiracy against Trump and fabricating false accusations against him,” organized by the “informal party of neocons-globalists.

It’s worth mentioning that the Russian trolls increased their activity right before the release of the “Nunes Memorandum”. The Twitter hashtag #ReleaseTheMemo was originally published by several Republican senators on January 18th of this year, and on the same day it was picked up by Wikileaks. At the same time, as indicated on the website of the American Alliance for Securing Democracy from January 14 to January 31, members of the Alliance studied 159 major articles distributed from the URLs of Kremlin-linked accounts on Twitter. As a result, it turned out that 31% of the trending links were devoted to the legends of the “Deep State” and attacks on the FBI, the Department of Justice and the Mueller probe. Half of these articles were devoted to the release of the “Nunes Memo”. Other targets of Russian trolls were Hillary Clinton, Andrew McCabe and Lindsey Graham. An anti-immigration theme was also trending. Based on this data, congressmen Dianne Feinstein and Adam Schiff sent a letter to the Twitter and Facebook management asking them to investigate the bot activity.

During this period, I monitored activities of various pro-Trump groups on social media, such as Trump 2020 groups on Facebook. The bulk of their posts in late January-early February had a #ReleaseTheMemo hashtag and demanded to release the memorandum. Moreover, pro-Trump activists did not hide the true purpose of their demand – the captions on a number of memes that were published directly claimed: “Release the memorandum – finish the investigation.”

  1. Meanwhile, the Russian press continues to strongly support Trump. In particular, the business newspaper Vzglyad regularly quotes Trump’s passages regarding CNN as a source of “fake news”, translates his Twitter messages about “fake media out of control”, and also publishes their own “analytics” about how “CNN is on the verge of collapse”, being “trapped in anti-Trump propaganda and negative personnel selection.”
  2. Kremlin continues its attempts to influence the Russian-speaking community. In early March of last year, “Ekho Moskvy” began to print one article after another that, while avoiding making excuses for Putin and his policies, nevertheless, in many respects, repeated the Kremlin’s rhetoric about “McCarthyism”, “Russophobia” and “innocent meetings with the Russian ambassador “. Journalist Mikhail Taratuta even called on Trump “to go on the attack”, gave detailed advice on attacking Democrats and rejoiced that Trump “landed a blow on his opponent.” And the author was not at all embarrassed that the “blow” he had in mind was the unconfirmed and subsequently discredited Trump’s statement that Obama allegedly listened to his telephone conversations.

American fans of Trump, especially in the Russian-speaking community, are also concerned about the progress of the investigation, and periodically put forward arguments against its continuation, which are strikingly reminiscent of Putin’s rhetoric during the protests of 2011-12. In particular, they tried to scare the Republicans with the “wrathful reaction of Trump voters” if the impeachment is allowed to go forward, and then pointed out that the continuation of the investigation could lead to violence and bloodshed in the streets, and therefore, “everything must be done to prevent it.”

Simply put, what we had here was ordinary blackmail, and Russian supporters of Trump explicitly warned that even if he was really guilty of unlawful ties with the Kremlin, law enforcement agencies and Congress shouldn’t bring the impeachment charges in order to avoid a “civil war”, and therefore one should turn a blind eye to his crimes, even if those are confirmed.

Trump is supported by the majority of the Russian-language media in the US and any insulting posts about Trump and Putin, along with the “Ukrainian propaganda”, are forbidden in the closed social media groups for Russian Americans.  Simultaneously, new social media groups for Russian-American Republicans voters are being formed. Of course, in itself, such actions are absolutely legal, but their zealotry and wide reach into the Russian-speaking population are alarming.

Another phenomenon worth mentioning are American followers of Trump who continue to actively disseminate defamatory material even after it’s been refuted by legal documents, investigations and sometimes even by Trump himself. Such blatant disdain for facts in a country with a free press and easy access to any alternative source of information is, to put it mildly, a very strange situation that cannot be attributed to a mere “delusion”.

Of course, in most cases, there is no direct collusion between these propagandists and Russia, but rather there is a clear lack of principles, which leads to putting the interests of the party or hatred of the political enemies above the interests of the country. The belief that “the end justifies the means” has already been repeatedly acted upon by the American radical right. However, let’s not forget the wording from the Mueller indictment, where it says that the accused acted “together with other persons known and unknown to the Grand Jury.” Thus, we should expect to be presented with the new charges.

From all this, we can draw the main conclusion: Russia’s interference in the internal affairs of the United States and its support for actions that benefit Russia but are destructive for America do not apply only to past or future elections. It continues today, not stopping for a single day. A year ago, I wrote that the Cold War moved inside the United States borders. Now, the future of not only American democracy, but also the vector of development of the entire Western civilization depends on its outcome.

 

Feature photo / “President Trump and President Putin at the APEC Summit in Vietnam, Nov 2017” – Wikimedia Commons, 2018

Inset Photo / “President Putin and President Trump meeting at the G20 summit in Hamburg, 2017

Inset Photo / “Robert Mueller, c. 2012” – Wikimedia Commons, 2018

Inset Photo / “Backlit Keyboard” – Wikimedia Commons, 2018

 

Kseniya Kirillova is a Russian journalist that focuses on analyzing Russian society, political processes in modern Russia and the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. She writes for Radio Liberty and other outlets and is an expert of the Ukrainian Center for Army, conversion, and disarmament studies and the Free Russia foundation.