Fri, Nov 09, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Russian agents can still benefit from interfering in US politics

By Angela Charlton  /  AP, PARIS

Sweeping accusations that the Kremlin tried to sway the US presidential election in 2016 have not chastened Russian trolls, hackers and spies — and might even have emboldened them.

US officials and tech companies say that Russians have continued online activity targeted at US voters during the campaign for Tuesday’s midterm elections, masquerading as US institutions and creating faux-US social media posts to aggravate tensions around issues like migration and gun control.

Russia denies any interference.

So far, US authorities had not announced any huge hacks or the kind of multipronged campaign suspected in the 2016 election, and it is hard to judge whether the more recent Russian actions have any link to the Kremlin or had any electoral impact.

However, the question is: Why do they appear to be at it again?

Dozens of Russians suspected of meddling in 2016 have been hit with US charges or sanctions, including well-placed magnates. Moscow’s ties with the West have deteriorated badly amid allegations of Russian interference abroad.

Some argue that Russian meddlers did not need to mess with this year’s elections because they got what they wanted in 2016: US President Donald Trump in the White House and mass disillusionment with the democratic process.

The Kremlin likes Trump because he is one of the rare Western leaders to embrace Russian President Vladimir Putin, but its hoped-for Russian-US rapprochement has not really materialized. The Democratic-run US House of Representatives after Tuesday’s elections makes that an even more distant prospect.

“Russians have a preference and they will do what they can to swing [the result] in their favor, especially if margins are tight,” said James Nixey, head of the Russia and Eurasia program at the London-based think tank Chatham House.

However, “Russia is not responsible for all of America’s problems. America has splits and fissures like all of us, and Russia puts in a lever and pries them open,” Nixey said.

Meanwhile, some Russians wear the US accusations as a badge of honor, a sign that their country is a fearsome world power again.

The first person charged with foreign interference in Tuesday’s midterms, Elena Khusyaynova, said “my heart filled with pride” at the news.

Speaking last week on Russian TV after being indicted in the US for a covert social media campaign for the 2016 and this year’s votes, she said: “It turns out that a simple Russian woman could help citizens of a superpower elect their president.”

Pavel Koshkin of Moscow’s USA and Canada Institute called accusations of meddling “a gift to Russian propaganda and Russian politicians,” who can use US anti-Russian sentiment “as a tool in stirring anti-Americanism and increasing their approval ratings.”

The 2016 US election thrust Russian foreign interference into the spotlight, but it was not an isolated project. It fit into a years-long effort by Putin’s Kremlin to take revenge over what is seen as the US-led humiliation of post-Soviet Russia through crippling loan programs and NATO’s post-Cold War expansion.

The Kremlin also resents what it considers US interference in the politics of countries once under Moscow’s sphere of influence, from Ukraine to the Caucasus. To many Russians, what is happening now in the US is just payback.

Resulting US sanctions have damaged the Russian economy, but if the goal was changing Russian foreign policy, “this goal certainly hasn’t been achieved,” analyst Masha Lipman said. “In fact, the opposite is true. The more pressure [on Russia], the lower the desire or willingness to concede.”

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