Is Any Democracy Safe from Russian Sabotage?
Robert Mueller’s clear-cut warning to everyone who cares about democracy.
April 24, 2019
U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report details in almost 200 pages the scale and scope of the Russian interference in the U.S. elections. The report’s findings must be a warning to people everywhere who care about democracy.
The report details a multi-year set of operations run by the Kremlin that ultimately enabled Trump to defeat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Trump won by a close margin, aided by Vladimir Putin.
Trump has said Putin told him there was no Russian interference. Trump said he believed Putin. Trump continues to say the Mueller investigation and its findings are “a hoax.”
Democracy endangered everywhere
But the United States is far from the only country where such interference has played out. The Russians have been engaged in assorted ways in supporting far-right politicians in Western Europe, as well as the pro-Brexit campaign. However, the Russian involvement in the United States dwarfs such European interventions.
But that past may be prologue elsewhere. What the Russians did to subvert American democracy could be repeated in Germany, France, Canada and all other Western democracies. I believe this is the most important lesson to be drawn from the Mueller report.
The meticulous account of the Russian engagement is chilling. And we only have a partial account, as some sections of the report, notably concerned with Russian intelligence services, have been redacted by the U.S. Justice Department in the version that has been made public.
First, the Internet Research Agency (IRA), based in St. Petersburg, launched a U.S. program directed by Russian oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin, who Mueller stated has ties to Putin. It sent employees to the United States in 2014 to pursue “information warfare.”
As Trump launched his candidacy, the Russians decided to back him and the IRA mounted a national campaign. It reached around 126 million Americans through its Facebook accounts, and around 1.4 million people through Twitter.
It created companies and organizations to buy anti-Hillary advertisements and to organize pro-Trump rallies.
Second, in early 2016, the Russian government deployed an interference strategy run by the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Army (GRU).
Its operations were vast: It used malware to damage computers, and it hacked into others to steal e-mails; it released damaging e-mails at key times in the election campaign through Wikileaks that it stole from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the Democratic National Committee (DNC).
The Mueller report noted:
GRU officers also targeted individuals and entities involved in the administration of the elections. Victims included U.S. state and local entities, such as state boards of elections (SBOEs), secretaries of state, and county governments, as well as individuals who worked for those entities. It targeted private technology firms responsible for manufacturing and administering election-related software and hardware, such as voter registration software and electronic polling stations.
Russians make official contacts
Third, Russian government officials never stopped seeking to forge contacts with people associated with the Trump campaign and they were highly successful. Several of those people have been prosecuted by the Mueller team including former campaign manager Paul Manafort, his deputy Rick Gates, foreign policy advisers Michael Flynn and George Papadopoulos.
There is evidence in the report – although key parts are redacted – that the Russians were in contact with Trump’s long-time friend Roger Stone, who now awaits trial. The Trump campaign was well aware that the Russians were doing many things in the United States to smear Hilary and help Donald.
Russian businessmen engage
Fourth, Russian businessmen were deployed to strengthen contacts with the Trump team. During the campaign and then in the December 2016 transition, the head of the Russian state bank met with Kushner in New York.
The chief of a large Russian hedge fund met with Eric Prince (brother of current Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a campaign supporter, and former head of Blackwater – the company that ran mercenaries in Iraq) in the Seychelles, who was seen as having close ties to Manafort’s successor as campaign manager, Steve Bannon.
For example, after Trump’s victory, Putin called in Petr Avin, the head of Russia’s largest commercial bank, Alfa-Bank, and told him to forge a line of communications with the Trump team and be sure to protect the bank from U.S. sanctions.
Avin told Mueller that he is one of approximately 50 wealthy Russian businessmen who regularly meet with Putin in the Kremlin and it was very clear that Putin expected him to follow through on the suggestions that were made. Other oligarchs were given similar orders.
From PM Blair to Ambassador Burt
There were numerous Americans not directly involved in the Trump campaign who sought to assist the Russian businessmen. Some were involved with Trump lawyer Michael Cohen in the failed Trump Tower Moscow project.
Others were financiers with multiple foreign clients, such as one who not only introduced a Russian banker to Jared Kushner, but at the same time, on behalf of his clients in the United Arab Emirates, sought to introduce former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to the Trump team.
Alfa-Bank’s Avin contacted Richard Burt who had previously done some work for the Bank. During his time in government service, Burt had served as U.S. Ambassador to Germany and Assistant Secretary of State for European and Canadian Affairs.
Burt was on the board of a U.S. think tank run by a Russian intellectual, Dmitri Simes, who had a range of contacts in Trump’s circle. Simes did not make the contact for Avin, partly because he felt it might complicate his efforts at that time to lobby the Trump transition team to appoint Burt as U.S. ambassador to Moscow – a position Burt did not get.
Failure and success
Despite major orchestrated efforts, Russian officials and businessmen were unsuccessful in forging relationships with the Trump team that could eventually result in their two top priorities: Reducing U.S. support for Ukraine to enable Russian advances there and lifting U.S. sanctions on Russians and Russian firms.
The Mueller report leaves the distinct impression that the Trump team during the campaign and in the transition was so chaotic when it came to foreign policy matters that the Russians often ended up meeting people who were to have no influence on Trump as the administration got underway in 2017.
Or, meeting people like Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Junior who, perhaps, never really understood the issues.
However, the Russians were enormously successful in their direct IRA and GRU efforts to influence American voters and interfere with the election process. No wonder, the Mueller report concluded: “The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion.”
They did it here in the United States – which Western democracy is next?
The Mueller report is a clear-cut warning to everyone who cares about democracy.
Mueller’s meticulous account of the Russian engagement is chilling. And we only have a partial account, as some sections of the report have been redacted.
Russian government officials never stopped seeking to forge contacts with people associated with the Trump campaign -- and they were highly successful.
The US is not the only country where Russian interference in elections has played out.
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