US says Russia has sent out over $400m to meddle in elections

Russian President Vladimir Putin (centre) attends his country's World War II Victory Day military parade in Moscow in 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON – Russia has covertly given at least US$300 million (S$422 million) to political parties, officials and politicians in more than two dozen countries since 2014, and plans to transfer hundreds of millions more, with the goal of exerting political influence and swaying elections, according to a State Department summary of a recent US intelligence review.

Russia has probably given even more that has gone undetected, the document said.

“The Kremlin and its proxies have transferred these funds in an effort to shape foreign political environments in Moscow’s favor,” the document said. It added: “The United States will use official liaison channels with targeted countries to share still-classified information about Russian activities targeting their political environments.”

The State Department document was sent to US embassies around the world on Monday to summarise talking points for US diplomats in conversations with foreign officials.

Mr Ned Price, the State Department spokesman, confirmed at a news conference on Tuesday that the findings on Russia were the result of work by US intelligence agencies. He added that Russian election meddling was “an assault on sovereignty”, similar to Russia’s war on Ukraine. “In order to fight this, in many ways we have to put a spotlight on it,” he said.

The document appears to be an initial effort by the Biden administration to use intelligence material to expose the scope of Russian interference in political processes and elections, and to rally other nations to help combat it.

US intelligence agencies have determined that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election in favour of Mr Donald Trump, who defeated Ms Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic nominee. Its methods included the use of cyberoperations to spread online disinformation.

The new document says that a range of Russian agencies and individuals carry out the global operations, including the Federal Security Service and other security agencies, as well as business figures.

The document named Yevgeny Prigozhin and Aleksandr Babakov, both close associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin, as involved in the influence or interference campaigns.

In April, the Justice Department charged Babakov, who is also a Russian lawmaker, and two other Russian citizens with conspiring to violate US sanctions and conspiring to commit visa fraud while running an “international foreign influence and disinformation network to advance the interests of Russia”.

The Russians pay in cash, cryptocurrency, electronic funds transfers and lavish gifts, the document said. They move the money through a wide range of institutions to shield the origins of the financing, a practice called using cutouts. Those institutions include foundations, think tanks, organised crime groups, political consultancies, shell companies and Russian state-owned enterprises.

The money is also given secretly through Russian Embassy accounts and resources, the document said.

In one Asian country, the Russian ambassador gave millions of dollars in cash to a presidential candidate, the document said.US agencies have also found that Russia has used false contracts and shell companies in several European countries in recent years to give money to political parties.

“Some of Russia’s covert political financing methods are especially prevalent in certain parts of the world,” the document said. It added: "Russia has relied on state-owned enterprises and large firms to move funds covertly across a number of regions including Central America, Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and on think tanks and foundations that are especially active across Europe.”

As of last year, the document said, a Russian business figure was trying to use pro-Russian think tanks in Europe to support far-right nationalist parties.

The document warned that in the coming months, Russia might use its “covert influence tool kit”, including secret political financing, across broad swaths of the globe to try to undermine the US-led sanctions on Russia and to “maintain its influence in these regions amid its ongoing war in Ukraine".

Although US intelligence agencies have been studying Russian global election interference and influence for years, the intelligence review was ordered by senior administration officials this summer, US officials said. Some of the findings were recently declassified so they could be shared widely.

Mitigating the influences

Officials say one aim of the US campaign to reveal details about Russian political interference and influence is to strengthen democratic resilience around the world, a pillar of President Joe Biden’s foreign policy.

Administration officials are focused on ensuring that nations that took part in last year’s Summit for Democracy, which Mr Biden held in Washington, can buttress their democratic systems. The administration plans to convene a second summit soon.

The State Department summary listed measures that the US and partner nations could take to mitigate Russia’s political interference campaigns, including imposing economic sanctions and travel bans on known “financial enablers” and “influence actors”.

The State Department also recommended that countries coordinate intelligence sharing; improve foreign investment screening; strengthen investigative capabilities into foreign financing of political parties and campaigns; and enforce and expand foreign agent registration rules.

It said governments should also expel Russian intelligence officers found to be taking part in related covert financing operations.

The State Department said in the summary that it was urging governments to guard against covert political financing “not just by Russia, but also by China and other countries imitating this behaviour". NYTIMES

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