Leaked documents reportedly from the Kremlin suggest that Russian President Vladimir Putin approved a concerted effort to sow chaos in the US with a plan to “facilitate” Donald Trump winning the presidency in 2016.
The plan worked.
In the biggest upset in modern political history, Trump stunned America and the world to become the 45th president of the US. And it was just as divisive as Putin reportedly desired.
The documents, which The Guardian first reported on, serve as an eye-opener as to how Putin capitalized on the divisiveness of American politics leading up to the contentious presidential election, and sowed dissent to further those divides.
According to the papers, Russian officials believed a Trump win would cause internal turmoil in the US and weaken the nation on the world stage. Putin approved a bold plan to use “all possible force” to help move Trump toward victory, the documents say.
The resounding success of Russia’s reported plan shows that hostile nation-states no longer need to send in tanks or flex military muscle to disrupt democracies. Instead, they can just nudge citizens toward discord and then let the countries tear themselves apart from the inside.
Putin apparently understood a harsh truth – that America’s people could be used as a weapon against it.
Progressive Democrats are calling on President Joe Biden to take a more assertive approach toward Russia than his predecessor, but Russian President Vladimir Putin has a tradition of playing mind games with American presidents.
Biden is set to meet with Putin in Geneva on Wednesday and fifteen members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus are sending him a letter to tell him they support him talking to Putin on a range of issues, Axios reported.
“In these talks, we hope that you will prioritize ways that the United States and Russia can work together to reduce tensions in areas of dispute and cooperate on areas of global importance,” wrote Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the CPC chairperson, and 14 others.
The letter comes at a time when relations between Russia and the US have fallen, CNN reported. The two countries combined possess 90% of the world’s nuclear arsenal.
However, Putin has some traditional tactics to intimidate American presidents, Axios’ Glen Johnson also reported.
Putin, for example, often asserts authority by showing up late to meetings and speaking bluntly about Russia’s grievances, Johnson said.
Johnson recalled the last trip he went on with Kerry, where Putin called Kerry to meet him at the Kremlin at 10 p.m. after keeping him waiting for hours.
Jon Finer, Biden’s deputy national security adviser, who also previously served as Kerry’s chief of staff, told NPR that Kerry was coached on how not to take the bait. Johnson said the advice could also be applied to Biden.
“Absorb and then try to pivot and focus on your own agenda so you can actually try to get something out of these meetings,” Finer said.
Johnson said Biden’s trip is set up in a way that could help the US president take control, for example with Putin arriving before Biden and the two will also host separate press conferences. However, Johnson said if Biden wants to be assertive he has to be very careful.
“Biden could be left playing catch-up unless he can beat Putin at his own game,” Johnson said.
“He is going to make clear that no responsible state can be in the business of harboring criminal enterprises engaged in cyberattacks, including ransomware. That’s very much going to be part of the conversation,” Blinken said.
“There’s a lot going on where we can work together with Russia,” Biden said. “Russia has engaged in activities that we believe are contrary to international norms, but they’ve also bitten off real problems that they’re going to have trouble chewing on.”
Biden also said there is room for cooperation on topics like ransomware, but also on efforts to bring global aid to areas like Libya and Syria, where Russia has influence.
“Well even now, I believe that former US president Trump is an extraordinary individual, talented individual, otherwise, he would not have become US president,” Putin told NBC’s Keir Simmons.
He noted that Trump is a controversial figure, and added that he is more of a political outsider than President Joe Biden.
“He is a colorful individual. You may like him or not. But he didn’t come from the US establishment, he had not been part of big-time politics before, and some like it, some don’t like it, but that is a fact,” the Russian president added.
Putin called Biden a “career man” who “has spent virtually his entire adulthood” in politics. Biden, 78, was first elected to the US Senate in 1972, aged 30.
Former President Donald Trump again denied the fact that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 election to aid his campaign, saying he trusts Vladimir Putin more than the US intelligence community.
In a statement, the ex-president complained about the investigation into Russian election interference, which was confirmed by not just by US intelligence agencies, but by foreign allies and a Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee.
The Wall Street Journal later reported that Fazze – which contacted at least two other influencers – had ties with Russia. French counterintelligence authorities believe the campaign may have had Russian involvement, according to the report.
While claims of links to Moscow have not yet been proven, there is a distinctly Russian-style pattern in the attempt to use disinformation to sow division and doubt among people living in western democracies, which dates back decades.
Russia’s use of disinformation for such purposes dates back to the Soviet era. In the 1970s, the KGB ran a disinformation campaign to plant the idea that the United States had invented HIV/AIDS in a laboratory as a biological weapon.
Since the 1970s, it has continued to spread disinformation in the west, sowing division and doubt among its populations and undermining faith in democracy.
The major thing that has changed since the 1980s is the arrival of a new weapon in Russia’s disinformation arsenal: social media.
“The big difference is that in the last 10 to 15 years, [Russia’s disinformation efforts] have bled into mainstream life – political life, news, media, particularly social media,” said Christopher Steele – the author of the infamous Trump dossier – in a rare interview in November on the Infotagion podcast.
The sheer scale of Moscow’s disinformation efforts through social media is remarkable. A Facebook report published last week found that Russia remains the largest peddler of disinformation around the world. It was responsible not just for large-scale efforts during the 2016 election of Donald Trump and during the UK’s Brexit referendum campaign. Facebook said that Russia had run disinformation campaigns in more than 50 countries since 2017.
The report said that Russian military intelligence would create networks of increasingly sophisticated fake profiles which operated across multiple social media networks and blog platforms to try and avoid detection, peddling disinformation about topics including Russia’s proxy war with eastern Ukraine, Facebook said.
“It’s become a much more encompassing approach to trying to achieve your political and socio-economic objectives,” Steele said.
In one typical instance, Russian military intelligence created fake profiles that operated across blogs and multiple social media platforms to target Ukraine and neighboring countries. Some accounts posed as citizen journalists and tried to contact officials and other public figures, and others published blogs picked up by other journalists, Facebook said.
The objectives of these disinformation campaigns are not neatly defined. But they broadly represent attempts to undermine people’s faith in democracy and create partisanship and division, said Steele.
“What it does is undermine people’s faith in democracy and people’s faith in democracy which, as I’ve said before, should be the apogee of our democracy, not the weak point of it,” Steele said.
“The other thing I think it’s designed to do in its modern form is to create great polarity, great partisanship, and divisions.”
Disinformation is not the only decades-old Russian tactic gaining traction in the west in the social media era.
The rise of ‘Black PR’
So-called “Dark PR” or “Black PR” – is broadly defined as the practice of ruining reputations through dishonest public relations tactics, court battles, and other highly shady tactics. It first emerged in post-Soviet 1990s Russia as a means for political operators acting on behalf of state actors to destroy their opponents’ reputations.
They sought refuge in Guatemala, but there was an intense and vitriolic social media campaign in Spanish against the family. “They were accused of all sorts of crimes – in that sense, it was a more typical disinformation campaign,” said McGlynn.
Whether the social media element to Russia’s disinformation efforts is actually effective is another question. In terms of Russia’s Black PR efforts, the accompanying efforts to prosecute individuals through the court systems appear to have been most effective.
In the case of Russia’s more general disinformation campaigns, the effectiveness of its social media efforts has also been called into question, along with similar disinformation attempts backed by Iran’s government.
“Despite their relatively sophisticated nature, both of these operations reveal one of the fundamental challenges of “retail” [targeted] IO [information operations] – without a lucky break, they go nowhere,” Facebook’s report last week said. Russia’s disinformation effort in Ukraine, the company said, gained no “significant traction or attention.”
Lukashenko gave an “unequivocal order” to have the passenger plane ground in Minsk.
In a call between the two leaders, Putin said the criticism of Minsk was “an outburst of emotions,” according to a record of the call released by the Kremlin.
“We have things to discuss even without these events. I mean to say that in the first quarter of this year, our trade grew by a considerable 18.4 percent, and Russia remains a key trade and economic partner of Belarus. This is a good trend, and it is important to keep it going along with the Government’s active work,” Putin said.
The US government is set to impose sanctions on around a dozen Russian government and intelligence officials, as well as 20 entities linked to Russian security services – some of which the US government believes are tied to the Solarwinds cyberattack.
The sanctions, which could be announced this week, are meant to punish these individuals and entities for their alleged role in tampering with the 2020 elections and the SolarWinds hack.
According to a Bloomberg report, an anonymous source said the sanctions could result in around 10 Russian diplomats being expelled from the US.
This appears to have been a long time coming, as Biden highlighted last year’s SolarWinds hack and suspected Russian interference in the 2020 election on his first day in office as priority items to be reviewed.
The sanctions come just days after Biden and Putin spoke on Tuesday, where Biden made clear that the US would act firmly to defend its national interests in response to Russia’s actions, particularly where cyber intrusions and election interference are concerned.
The SolarWinds hack took place in early 2020, when Russia-linked hackers allegedly broke into the Texas-based tech firm’s systems and plugged malicious code into the company’s system, “Orion,” – a crime which went undetected for months.
This malicious code allowed hackers to gain backdoor access to the IT systems of SolarWinds clients – which included Fortune 500 companies like Microsoft, Cisco, Intel, and Deloitte. Sectors of the US government, including parts of the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department, the Department of Energy, the National Nuclear Security Administration, and the Treasury, were also affected by the cyberattack.
Bloomberg also reported that these sanctions are also an effort to take the Russians to task for interfering in the 2020 election. According to Bloomberg, US intelligence has confirmed that the Russians are responsible for seeding nuggets of fake information during Biden’s 2020 campaign, particularly through outlets under the control of Russian intelligence officials.
The Russians, however, have pledged to retaliate if the US were to impose new sanctions, as top Russian diplomat Sergey Lavrov called the US’s foreign policy on Russia “deadlocked,” “dumb,” and ineffective.
Russian opposition leader and vocal Putin critic, Alexey Navalny, lost his court appeal and faces a transfer to a prison camp within days, Reuters reported.
The former lawyer was arrested after landing back in Russia, following his Berlin-based hospitalization. He was being treated for a near-fatal nerve agent attack, that he has blamed on Russian president, Vladimir Putin, The BBC reported.
His arrest, for charges he claims are fabricated, has sparked mass protests across Russia and escalated tensions with Western governments, seeing condemnation from the EU and US, The Guardian reported.
The Kremlin, Russia’s government, denies any involvement in his poisoning.
Navalny called the charges “absurd” as he was unable to report to police during recovery.
“The whole world knew where I was,” he said. “Once I’d recovered, I bought a plane ticket and came home,” The BBC reported. “The main thing I want to say is don’t be afraid,” he said, in a speech that cited the Bible, the Harry Potter series and sci-fi cartoon series Rick and Morty.
On February 16, the European court of human rights (ECHR) ruled that Russia risked breaching the European Convention on Human Rights if it did not release Navalny immediately, according to Bloomberg. This court decision was rejected by officials in Moscow.
Despite dismissing the appeal, the judge did reduce Navalny’s three-year sentence in a penal colony by six weeks, per The BBC.
Navalny is also unlikely to get an early release as he has been labeled an escape threat, the state-run Tass news service reported Friday, citing a member of Russia’s Public Oversight Committee.
His defense team said it would appeal Saturday’s ruling, Bloomberg reported.
The opposition activist faces a fine of 950,000 rubles ($13,000) in a separate case later on Saturday. He stands accused of slandering a second world war veteran who praised President Putin, per The Guardian.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has finally congratulated Joe Biden on winning the US presidential election more than a month after the final votes were cast and several weeks after most world leaders.
The Kremlin had previously said that Putin would wait until the Electoral College confirmed the results of the election on Monday before formally recognizing Biden as the President-elect, despite Russia having been one of the first world leaders to congratulate Donald Trump on his victory.
A Kremlin spokesperson said in a statement cited by Reuters that “Putin wished the president-elect every success and expressed confidence that Russia and the United States, which have a special responsibility for global security and stability, could, despite their differences, really help to solve the many problems and challenges facing the world.”
“For my part, I am ready for interaction and contact with you,” Putin told the President-elect, per the statement.
Putin was one of the last major world leaders to congratulate Biden on winning the election, with most countries having congratulated Biden shortly after the final polling day on November 3.
“We believe the correct thing to do would be to wait for the official election result,” said a Kremlin spokesman on November 9, per NBC News, citing the fact that President Trump was seeking lodging multiple legal challenges to challenge, none of which have since been successful.
Trump’s initial refusal to concede the election formally to Biden allowed Putin to amplify the president’s conspiracy theories about the US election, a move which analysts say could aid Russia’s strategic goal of undermining faith in the US democratic system.
“It’s totally obvious, it’s clear for everyone in the world, it seems to me, that for Americans it’s clear that there are problems in the US electoral system,” Putin told Russian state television, according to a Wall Street Journal report.
Biden began receiving congratulatory from world leaders in the days after major networks called the election for the Democratic candidate. The president-elect held calls with the leaders of France, Germany, Ireland, and the UK on November 10 while even China recognised Biden’s election win by November 13.