For Putin and company, election season in America is open season for meddling.
EVELYN N. FARKASJAMES M. LUDES
Earlier this month, Facebook announced it had detected and shut down more than 30 Russia-linked fake pages created as part of a campaign to influence the U.S. midterm elections. In case there was any doubt, Russia’s effort to influence American politics continues.
The Russian government has one overriding objective with regard to the United States: to weaken America so that it loses its will and ability to counter Russian objectives, including establishing a sphere of influence in eastern Europe. To that end, the Kremlin actively exploits and deepens political, cultural, economic, racial, and other societal rifts in America. If Americans are fighting one another, they are less likely to notice, much less press, the government to block Russian action in places like Ukraine, Georgia, or Syria.
Today, the Kremlin is likely employing a three-pronged strategy to achieve its aims: supporting U.S. political candidates friendly to Russian President Vladimir Putin, buying favor by injecting money into U.S. politics and lobbying, and conducting cyberattacks on election systems. Americans also cannot dismiss the possibility that the Russian government will attack critical U.S. infrastructure, or that it may have unpredictable tricks up its sleeve.
First, Moscow will continue to assist Putin-friendly U.S. candidates and seek to hurt his critics through methods such as messaging tailored to suppress voter participation. Russia pulled this off in 2016, targeting African Americans with negative claims about Hillary Clinton. Already in 2018, Russians have continued to support efforts to undermine the Democratic Party. The #WalkAway campaign, purportedly an organic campaign of lifelong Democrats leaving the party, has been amplified by Russian social-media accounts and featured on the Russian propaganda outlet RT. Between now and the election, the Kremlin may set up websites through third parties and post misleading or incorrect information about voting locations and times, or derogatory information about candidates. It could continue to organize demonstrations through Russian agents or unwitting citizens.
Second, political players close to the Kremlin will continue attempting to make financial contributions to U.S. politicians. Moscow could try to use Russian Americans such as Andrew Intrater, who contributed to Donald Trump’s inaugural fund and is a cousin of the Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, or Leo Blavatnik, a U.S.–UK dual-citizen partner of Vekselberg (with his own close ties to the Kremlin) who suddenly became a top GOP donor in 2015–16with total giving at more than $6 million. This helped Trump and garnered these men invitations to inaugural events where they interacted with incoming policy makers. The FBI is also reportedly investigating whether money from or directed by Russian sources was donated to the National Rifle Association specifically to help Trump.