WASHINGTON – Russian President Vladimir Putin could use the Biden administration’s support for Ukraine as a pretext to order a new campaign to interfere in American politics, US intelligence officials have estimated.
Intelligence agencies have so far found no evidence that Putin authorized actions like those Russia is said to have taken in support of former President Donald Trump in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, according to several people familiar with the matter, who spoke on conditions of anonymity to discuss sensitive findings.
But given Putin’s antipathy towards the West and his repeated denunciation of Ukraine, officials believe he may view US support of the Ukrainian resistance as a direct affront to him, giving him further incentive to target another US election, they said the people. It is not yet clear which candidates Russia is trying to promote or what methods it might use.
The assessment is already coming under pressure with the US electoral system. The American public remains sharply divided over the last presidential election and the ensuing riot in the US Capitol, as Trump supporters sought to block certification of his loss to President Joe Biden. Trump has repeatedly attacked intelligence officials and labeled investigations into Russian influence on his campaigns as a political vendetta.
Tensions between Washington and Moscow have reached levels not seen since the end of the Cold War. The White House has ramped up military support for Ukraine, which is putting up a robust stand against Russian forces accused of war crimes, and helped impose global sanctions that have crippled Russia’s economy.
There are no signs that the war will end anytime soon, which some experts say could prevent Moscow from retaliating while its resources are stuck in Ukraine. But “it is almost certain that after Ukraine, an exhausted Russian military will once again use hybrid tactics to wreak havoc against us and other allied countries,” said David Salvo, deputy director of the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy.
In Ukraine and in previous campaigns against opponents, Russia has been accused of trying to spread disinformation, amplifying pro-Kremlin voices in the West and using cyberattacks to disrupt governments.
Senior US intelligence officials are still working on plans for a new center, authorized by Congress, that will focus on foreign influence campaigns by Russia, China and other adversaries. Avril Haines, the US director of national intelligence, also recently appointed career CIA officer Jeffrey Wichman to the position of executive officer for election threats, a few months after the departure of the previous executive director, Shelby Pierson.
“Our Election Threats Executive continues to lead the intelligence community’s efforts against foreign threats to U.S. elections,” Nicole de Haay, a spokeswoman for Haines, said in a statement. “We also continue to work to meet the legal requirements of a foreign malicious influence information integration center.”
De Haay declined to comment on what intelligence officials think of Putin’s intentions. The Russian embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
Foreign opponents have long sought to interfere in American politics, according to investigations into past elections and indictments of suspected foreign agents. The US has accused Putin of ordering lobbying to help Trump in the 2020 election. And a bipartisan Senate probe into the 2016 election confirmed intelligence findings that Russia used cyberespionage and intelligence efforts to bolster Trump and belittle his opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s nearly two-year investigation found no conclusive evidence that the Trump campaign conspired with Russia, but Mueller declined to rule on whether Trump obstructed justice.
Trump continues to falsely insist that the election he lost to Biden was stolen, with Republicans in many states following his lead in opposing election security measures.
Law enforcement and intelligence agencies continuously investigate foreign interference. The Justice Department last month charged five men with acting on behalf of China to harass Chinese dissidents in the US and derail a little-known congressional candidate.
Experts say the proposed Foreign Malignant Influence Center would bring much-needed direction to government efforts investigating opponents. Congress provided partial funding for the center in the budget passed last month because the budget will fund the government through September rather than a full year.
The center was previously delayed over questions in the intelligence director’s office and on Capitol Hill about its structure and size, and whether it would unnecessarily duplicate efforts already in place in government. In a sign that some of these issues remain unresolved, Congress last month also asked the director’s office to complete a report on the center’s “future structure, responsibilities and organizational placement” within six months.
Ohio Rep. Mike Turner, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement that the committee is “closely monitoring the malicious activities of our adversaries” and the proposed center could be a way to help.
“As Russia continues to deploy disinformation campaigns in Ukraine, we are reminded to be strategic in countering their tactics,” Turner said. “It’s no secret that our adversaries are using disinformation to undermine US national security interests, so we must consider all viable options to protect our democracy.”
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