UNITED STATES, WASHINGTON (OBSERVATORY) — Russians are close. This is precisely the essence of the warnings about the 2020 elections coming from the FBI Director Chris Ray – this summer he announced that Moscow intends to intervene in the next US presidential election – and former US intelligence director Dan Coates, who warned that the regime of Vladimir Putin and other foreign actors will come up with new methods of intervention in American politics in 2020.
However, Donald Trump and his administration made no attempt to poison the clear signal that the prevention of yet another Russian attack – or interference in the election by any other foreign entity – is one of its priorities.
A few months before Kirsten Nielsen was fired from the post of Minister of Homeland Security, she was instructed that talking with Trump should not raise the topic of preventing Russian interference in the 2020 elections. Any talk of Russia’s attempts to influence the US election is obviously annoying Trump – and this is understandable because his election victory was overshadowed by Moscow’s intervention.
In addition, Trump, who still has not fully acknowledged Putin’s interference in the 2016 elections, has recently hinted that, as part of his re-election campaign, he is ready to accept secret assistance from foreign governments – in the form of incriminating evidence against his political rival. This statement, his calls to expand the G-7 and the Eight format, as well as his position “Russia did nothing”, are a clear signal for Putin: you are free to do it again. Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is blocking the vote on a range of bills that protect elections.
All this is extremely unfortunate, because the US government can take a number of measures to prevent a recurrence of the 2016 election situation or something worse. The new report, prepared by the liberal Center for American Progress, documented the steps that governments in other Western countries have taken to counter Moscow, as well as the steps the United States can take to counter the attack in the next presidential election.
The American Progress Center was founded by John Podesta, who was directly affected by Russia’s attacks: when he was chairman of the campaign headquarters of Hillary Clinton, Russian hackers stole his emails and published them on the WikiLeaks website a few weeks before the 2016 elections.
This report, prepared by James Lamond and Talia Dessel, states that “Russia is systematically changing and improving its tactics of intervention, thereby complicating the task of protecting elections in the future.” This report also discusses several examples of Russia’s interference in the elections after 2016. In 2017, Moscow tried to influence the presidential election in France by providing support to the National Front candidate Marin Le Pen, who rivaled Emmanuel Macron, preaching anti-immigrant, anti-European, anti-NATO and pro-Russian views.
During the pre-election race, Russia launched a disinformation campaign that included the spread of rumors and fake documents, cyber attacks and the publication of stolen data. In the same year, trolls and bots connected with Russia spread the ideas of the Alternative for Germany party during the election campaign in that country.
The Kremlin also supported the ideas of anti-fascists of the left wing, and this is a sign that Moscow as a whole sought to sow discord. In 2018, Russian state propaganda publications consistently poured mud on Sweden while a populist anti-immigrant party struggled for power in the country’s elections. In 2019, during the European Parliament election, agents associated with Russia disseminated misinformation in order to reduce turnout.
In the above cases, the information war in Moscow led to mixed results. Despite “perhaps the largest ambitious campaign of influence launched by Russia after the 2016 US election,” Macron won a landslide victory over Le Pen. Earlier, her party managed to avoid financial problems thanks to a loan of $ 12.2 million received from a little-known Russian bank. And the fact that Le Pen entered the second round of elections in which she lost to Macron could well be called Moscow’s success.
In Germany, Angela Merkel became the Chancellor for the fourth time, but “The alternative for Germany, however, won its own victory, becoming the third largest party in the Bundestag. As a result of the elections in Sweden, the center-left and center-right parties lost some of the seats in parliament, and the anti-immigrant party, on the contrary, increased its number of seats. The result of the elections to the European Parliament was the modest successes of the anti-European parties, which Moscow may have favored, but the anti-European wave was less widespread than many expected.
In each of these cases, experts at the Center for American Progress write in their report, the ruling forces took measures to prevent Russia from undermining the foundations of democracy. The French government has conducted cybersecurity workshops for various political parties. For some reason, the National Front Le Pen did not accept this help.
The French National Electoral Commission and its national cybersecurity agency regularly warned the public, the press, and parties about the risks of cyber attacks and misinformation. The outgoing president, Francois Hollande, in a private conversation, demanded that Putin not intervene.
Various media and Google have taken a number of measures to combat disinformation. And the traditional restriction on the distribution of information, which takes effect several days before the elections in France, has prevented the distribution of materials stolen by hackers published in order to harm Macron. Throughout the campaign, the government and the Macron campaign headquarters constantly informed the public about the threat of foreign interference.
The German government has taken several steps to strengthen the cybersecurity system in order to protect its electoral system. It developed a strategy that included conducting cyber attacks against the hackers themselves. The Merkel government sent a clear signal to the Kremlin: it will not tolerate Russian intervention. It provided assistance to political parties that wanted to strengthen their defense systems in cyberspace. Merkel’s government often reminded the public of the threat of Russian intervention.
The report also said that “with the assistance of the German government, all political parties – with the exception of the Russian-related” Alternatives for Germany “- promised not to use bots on social networks and information obtained as a result of leaks.” In Germany, paper ballots are also used – the work of such a system.
The Swedish government regularly published information on its election protection plans and conducted outreach to voters about the threat of interference. The Swedish media conducted a joint operation to verify the accuracy of the information in order to expose the misinformation spread by foreigners.
“The government’s incredibly energetic and proactive approach is perhaps the most important lesson to learn from Sweden’s experience,” the report says. “Unlike many Western governments, which the Russian intervention took by surprise, the Swedish government was ready for it and took measures in a variety of directions to reduce the effectiveness of the Russian campaign of influence.”
In anticipation of the 2019 European Parliament elections, the European Union created the Rapid Alert System, which allowed the member countries to share information on disinformation dissemination schemes. It is worth noting that the effectiveness of this scheme was dubious.
The European Union also created a working group, which was supposed to identify Russian misinformation and draw up reports on the actions of Moscow. Experts from the Center for American Progress also note that the 2017 elections in the Netherlands were held in the absence of any serious interference from Russia – it is possible because the Dutch government carried out thorough preparations that prevented Russia from launching its campaign of influence there and hacking Dutch officials’ email.
So, what lessons can the USA learn from the experience of other Western countries? The American Progress Center makes a number of recommendations. First lesson: “The energetic reaction of the government is the most important deterrent and mitigating factor.” For this, it is necessary to send Moscow a “clear signal supported by both parties” that she has no right to intervene and that otherwise she will face harsh punishment, including the imposition of painful sanctions.
Second lesson: Raise voters’ awareness of the current situation. According to the authors of the report, “public awareness of foreign influence campaigns is perhaps the most effective means of protection against such interference and a necessary tool for the formation of a strong democracy.”
The authors of the report recommend that the US Congress hold special meetings to discuss how Russia supports marginalized political groups around the world, as well as forcing the government to notify the public of all facts of interference in American politics.
The Center for American Progress also calls on the media to “stop quoting stolen materials that were released as part of a foreign operation of influence, as this serves as an incentive for Russia to continue to steal and publish stolen data.” Center experts also call for a return to paper ballots and more stringent laws governing campaign funding in the United States.
This is a wonderful wish list. However, there are several obvious obstacles to their implementation: Trump, Trump and, again, Trump. And more republicans. Trump and his aides will never work on an energetic, comprehensive strategy to counter Putin. McConnell even managed to paralyze the work of the Federal Election Commission, which could more actively study the flow of foreign money flowing into American politics.
In 2016, McConnell personally prevented the Obama administration from issuing a warning addressed to the public by refusing to take part in any attempts to criticize Moscow – perhaps he was afraid to quarrel with the then-candidate Trump, who insisted that Russia did not interfere in American elections. And it will be extremely difficult to persuade American reporters not to use publicly-stolen materials stolen by hackers. Moreover, the US electoral system is a tangled ball of local systems, many of which are not sufficiently funded, so it’s quite difficult to carry out reforms that would cover them all.
However, this report shows that the American system does not have to be vulnerable to the manipulations and attacks of Russia or other countries. Despite the fact that Trump and his comrades refuse to fulfill their obligations and protect the country, other actors can also take decisive measures.
Political parties, individual members of Congress, government officials, the media, and local election officials can independently take a number of measures that will complicate the task of foreign opponents who decide to undermine the foundations of American democracy. Most important is desire. Government officials, political professionals, the media, and even voters should care. If they want, there are many ideas that can be implemented – even if Trump is not interested in confronting Putin.
This article is written and prepared by our foreign editors writing for OBSERVATORY NEWS from different countries around the world – material edited and published by OBSERVATORY staff in our newsroom.
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