The U.S. State Department’s warning about Russia’s undue influence aimed at “subverting democratic processes” around the world seems to have all the hallmarks of a coordinated operation that had the desired outcome by making headlines all over the world media, starting with the outlets of reference, the New York Times and the Washington Post. But the claims contained in the “confidential and not intended for foreign audiences” cable sent by Secretary of State Blinken to “provide talking points” to all major U.S. embassies, which was leaked to the press and discussed at a briefing in Washington, are distinguished not so much by any explosive revelations as by the absence of specific details.
The document mentions “$300 million” allegedly spent “to shape foreign political environments in Moscow’s favor,” and denounces payments “in cash, cryptocurrency, electronic funds transfers and lavish gifts” to political parties and figures in Central America, Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, as well as “think tanks and foundations that are especially active across Europe.”
Strikingly absent are concrete examples or specific instances, replaced by generalities such as, “Some of Russia’s covert political financing methods are especially prevalent in certain parts of the world.” The vagueness of the accusations is in notable contrast to the previous, far more incisive reports on dezinformatsiya operations specifically aimed at influencing foreign elections, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In particular, Special Prosecutor Mueller’s 2019 report documenting Operation Laktha, also known as Russiagate, to destabilize Hilary Clinton’s campaign and favor Donald Trump.
That investigation held 13 Russian nationals and three organizations primarily responsible for an operation that was allegedly directly authorized by Vladimir Putin. While noting numerous contacts between the Russians and the Trump campaign, the report found insufficient evidence of direct collusion. Other investigations by the FBI and at least two parliamentary committees of inquiry have revealed the activities of Agentstvo internet-issledovaniy (Glavset), the St. Petersburg-based agency responsible for numerous instances of disinformation dumps via the internet and social media to generate discord and confusion through fake accounts in the U.S. and the U.K. prior to the Brexit vote.
In light of all this, allegations of Russian support for far-right groups at this point amount to the discovery that the sky is blue, and the fact that Putin allegedly spent huge sums in an attempt to “manipulate democracies from within,” as reporters heard from a State Department spokesman, isn’t really news at all. Moreover, the claim that “Russia has used false contracts and shell companies in several European countries in recent years to give money to political parties” is a description that could also fit the alleged activities of U.S. intelligence.
On the topic of the influence by major powers on third-country elections, a Carnegie Mellon University study found that “from 1946 to 2000, the U.S. and USSR/Russia intervened in about one in nine national elections” across the geopolitical stage. And the largest number of influence attempts were concentrated on one country: Italy (8 U.S. and 4 Russian “interventions”). It is the only country in Europe (a “unique exception,” the study calls it) to have experienced both American and Russian interference.
This historical fact legitimately raises questions about the timing and circumstances of the official State Department leak, which seems to fit into the Biden strategy of intelligence “declassification,” already used before the Russian invasion of Ukraine to strengthen the Atlantic alliance. It’s hard not to notice that the latest “revelations” (which end with a call for a united front against Russian destabilization) have taken place on the eve of crucial elections in the same country, Italy, which holds the record for the most attempts at interference: the European ally considered among those most at risk of “defection,” and the one in which the expected new governing coalition will include the party with the closest and most public ties to Moscow and Putin’s party.
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