Russians mock election meddling charge as unsupported

Spies are usually thought of as bystanders who quietly steal secrets in the shadows.
Intelligence officials testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Jan. 5, 2017.
Intelligence officials testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Jan. 5, 2017.

MOSCOW — Spies are usually thought of as bystanders who quietly steal secrets in the shadows. But the Russian version, schooled in techniques used during the Cold War against the United States, has a more ambitious goal — shaping, not just snooping on, the politics of a nation that the Soviet-era KGB targeted as the “Main Adversary.”

That at least is the conclusion of a declassified report released Friday that outlines what top U.S. intelligence agencies view as an elaborate “influence campaign” ordered by President Vladimir Putin of Russia aimed at skewing the outcome of the 2016 presidential race.

But the absence of any concrete evidence in the report of meddling by the Kremlin was met with a storm of mockery Saturday by Russian politicians and commentators, who took to social media to ridicule the report as a potpourri of baseless conjecture.

In a message posted on Twitter, Alexey Pushkov, a member of the defense and security committee of the Russian parliament’s upper house, ridiculed the U.S. report as akin to CIA assertions that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction: “Mountain gave birth to a mouse: all accusations against Russia are based on ‘confidence’ and assumptions. US was sure about Hussein possessing WMD in the same way.”

Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of RT, a state-funded television network that broadcasts in English, who is cited repeatedly in the report, posted her own message on Twitter scoffing at the U.S. intelligence community’s accusations.

“Aaa, the CIA report is out! Laughter of the year! Intro to my show from 6 years ago is the main evidence of Russia’s influence at US elections. This is not a joke!” she wrote.

Even Russians who have been critical of their government voiced dismay at the U.S. intelligence agencies’ account of an elaborate Russian conspiracy unsupported by solid evidence.

Alexey Kovalyov, a Russian journalist who has followed and frequently criticized RT, said he was aghast that the report had given so much attention to the television station.

“I do have a beef with RT and their chief,” Kovalyov wrote in a social media post, “But they are not your nemesis, America. Please chill.”

The Kremlin, which has in the past repeatedly denied any role in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee computer system, had no immediate response to the declassified report. Putin instead made a show of business as usual, attending a church service to mark the start of Orthodox Christmas.

The report provides no new evidence to support assertions that Moscow meddled covertly through hacking and other actions to boost the electoral chances of Donald Trump and undermine his rival, Hillary Clinton, but rests instead on what it describes as Moscow’s long record of trying to influence the U.S. political system.

“Russia, like its Soviet predecessor, has a history of conducting covert influence campaigns focused on U.S. presidential elections that have used intelligence officers and agents and press placements to disparage candidates perceived as hostile to the Kremlin,” the report said. This campaign, it said, blended covert activities like hacking with public action by “Russian government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries and paid social media users or ‘trolls.’”

The public report did not include evidence on the sources and methods used to collect the information about Putin and his associates that intelligence officials said was in a classified version.

Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian intelligence agencies at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, said he was skeptical of the accusation that Putin had ordered the hacking. All the same, he added, Russian spies, like their Soviet predecessors, “don’t just collect information but try to assert influence.”

U.S. intelligence operatives, he said, have often done the same thing but the Russians, convinced that the United States orchestrated protests in Ukraine in 2014 that toppled the pro-Moscow president, Viktor F. Yanukovych, and other popular uprisings in former Soviet lands, “have a more aggressive approach to meddling in other people’s politics.”

Particularly since Yanukovych lost power after protests in Kiev’s Maidan square, Putin and his circle, Galeotti said, “have a different sense of how the game is played. They genuinely believe that Maidan was engineered by the West” and because of this “all bets are off” in their view, a shift that has legitimized “the principle of regime change or at least regime disturbance” through mischief-making in the U.S. election.

That Russia considers it possible to influence U.S. elections has been evident since at least 1968 when, according to Moscow’s former longtime ambassador in Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin, the Kremlin decided that Richard M. Nixon was “profoundly anti-Soviet” and must be prevented if possible from winning the presidency. Dobrynin, in his 1995 memoirs “In Confidence,” said he was ordered by Moscow to offer Nixon’s Democratic rival, Hubert H. Humphrey, “any conceivable help in his election campaign — including financial aid.”

Dobrynin related in his memoirs how he thought this was a bad idea but nonetheless made an oblique offer of help to Humphrey during a breakfast at the Democratic candidate’s home. “He knew at once what was going on,” Dobrynin recalled, and made it clear he had no interest in receiving any Soviet assistance.

To try to bring about change that suited Moscow’s interests, the KGB set up a special department dedicated to “active measures.” This unit went beyond collecting intelligence and embraced measures aimed at changing the course of events around the world. These included disinformation and subversion, often involving various front organizations and Moscow-funded fringe parties that worked to shape the politics of foreign countries.

While propaganda and disinformation have long been key elements in efforts by Moscow and Washington to shape events, Moscow, at least during the Cold War, went to extraordinary lengths to try and undermine foreign political figures it viewed as hostile to Soviet interests.

The KGB fabricated a bogus FBI report that Henry Jackson, a strong critic of the Soviet Union who tried unsuccessfully in the 1970s to secure the Democratic presidential nomination, was a homosexual and attended gay sex clubs with Richard N. Perle, another anti-communist hawk who was loathed by Moscow. Another target was President Jimmy Carter’s Polish-born national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski.

This tradition of maligning Moscow’s foes on the U.S. political stage continued in the prelude to the November election with state-funded Russian media outlets, particularly the television network RT, which broadcasts in English, giving extensive coverage to negative news and allegations about Clinton.

“What we see now is a modernized version of the old tool kit of the USSR,” said Laurant Gyori, an analyst with Political Capital, a research group in Budapest that has studied Russian efforts to shape political events in Europe. He added that Russia’s intelligence services, after a long lull following the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, had in recent years again switched from “just getting information to also getting influence.”

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