When it comes to accusations that Russia hacked or otherwise interfered in last year’s U.S. presidential election, the Kremlin has consistently denied any involvement.
Now, some Russian officials are pointing the finger at Washington, saying it’s America that is meddling in Moscow’s domestic affairs. In fact, Kremlin officials say, the U.S. has been doing it for years.
Hacking? The Kremlin’s website receives daily attacks initiated “from within U.S. territories,” Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, told reporters earlier this month.
Information warfare and fake news? Washington-funded media outlets like Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America have long run what the Kremlin sees as an anti-Putin propaganda campaign aimed at supporting the Russian opposition.
This week, the Russian parliament’s upper chamber scheduled a hearing to examine the impact of alleged foreign meddling in Russia’s domestic affairs. A new commission was set to focus on “protecting state sovereignty and preventing interference in Russia’s domestic affairs.”
A special report prepared by a parliament committee said American media outlets engaged in biased and “anti-Russia” coverage of Russian parliamentary elections in 2016. Radio Free Europe, Voice of America and CNN in particular were criticized for their stories, which the report claimed unfairly “questioned the democratic nature of the electoral system in Russia.”
“It is difficult to deny that during last year’s parliamentary election campaign, these radio stations that are being financed from the United States were using journalism as a cover to spread one-sided propaganda and disinformation on the Russian electoral process,” said Leonid Levin, a parliamentary deputy who presented the report to the parliament, known as the Duma, in May.
Russian officials say what is at stake now are Russia’s 2018 presidential and national elections. They said the government must act swiftly to counter any attempts by the United States and its allies to interfere.
“There is no doubt that in the time that is left before the Russian presidential elections due next March, we will face very active and consistent attempts by the USA and its NATO allies to influence the course of this election campaign,” Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the Federation Council’s Committee for International Relations, told reporters.
Russia has long contended that the U.S. and its allies have improperly sought to influence the politics in those former Soviet and East Bloc nations that Moscow regards as properly within its own perceived sphere of influence, including Ukraine, Georgia, Poland and the Baltic countries.
In particular, Kremlin officials have pointed to the activities of U.S.-funded organizations such as the National Democratic Institute, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the International Republican Institute.
The U.S. and other Western nations have spent billions of dollars over the last 25 years, since the breakup of the Soviet Union, supporting democracy-building programs to support civil society, strengthen election processes, build political parties and promote independent media. While the West sees this as fostering democracy, Moscow has watched as these programs have indirectly given birth to anti-Kremlin movements in Russia’s traditional sphere of influence.
The Kremlin, and in particular, an increasingly authoritarian Putin, viewed the pro-Western, “color revolutions” in the former Soviet republics of Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004 as U.S.-funded and organized street protests. Many of the groups which took to the streets during those revolutions were born out of Western-funded civil society, pro-democracy programs.
In 2014, when hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian protestors in Kiev’s central streets led to the ouster of a Moscow-friendly government, the Kremlin saw its closest neighbor and former ally sever its ties with Russia and turn toward Europe. Washington and European capitals threw their support behind the Ukrainian revolt against President Viktor Yanukovych, a strong Russia ally who was accused of bilking billions of dollars from the country’s coffers.
The Kremlin labeled Ukraine’s 2014 Maidan revolution a Western-backed coup. It retaliated by annexing Crimea and backing an armed separatist movement in eastern Ukraine.
One of Putin’s current fears, analysts say, is that the West, and particular the U.S., now intends to quietly promote the same kind of street protests to overthrow the Kremlin in favor of a Washington-friendly Russian leader.
“Now there is one clear aggressor in Russia and it is the U.S., and the one clear defender is Russia,” said Sergei Markov, a political analyst who is seen as sympathetic to the Kremlin. “Russia is not interested to propose its own puppet in the United Sates government, but the U.S. wants to repeat exactly what they did in Ukraine.”
The Kremlin has accused the U.S. of supporting opposition politicians such as Alexei Navalny, whose Anti-corruption Foundation has organized two mass street protests this year. The protests were the largest social unrest Russia has seen since 2012, when hundreds of thousands, claiming ballot rigging and other election improprieties, demonstrated against Putin’s reelection to an unprecedented third term.
Putin has directly blamed the U.S. for its support of the 2012 anti-government protests, and in particular aimed his ire at former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose election as president Russia was said to be attempting to thwart in hacking efforts last year that targeted the Democratic National Committee and other entities.
The Kremlin has reacted by cracking down on Western-funded non-governmental organizations in Russia. The U.S. Agency for International Development was asked to leave in 2012 after spending nearly $3 billion on aid and democracy programs during two decades. Groups receiving funding from outside Russia must now register as “foreign agents,” a title that garners instant distrust in today’s Russia.
Independent media has been systematically shuttered, often through government pressure on landlords, or advertisers who risk losing their businesses if they continue to advertise with unsanctioned media.
In the latest move, Roskomnadzor, Russia’s telecom and information technology watchdog agency, announced on Friday that it would block the messaging social media app Telegram if the company did not comply with a Russian law requiring IT companies that collect data on Russian citizens to register within the country.
Russia passed a law last year requiring social networks to store six months of user data on Russian servers, allowing the government access to any information contained there. Russia claims the law is a counterterrorism tactic. Human rights groups assailed the law, calling it draconian.
Telegram’s developer, Pavel Durov, has so far refused the demands, prompting the Kremlin to accuse him of being “indifferent to terrorists and criminals.” Durov is also the creator of VKontakte, Russia’s version of Facebook. He fled the country in 2014 after clashing with the Kremlin over control of his internet company.
“There might a small element of tit-for-tat” in the Duma’s decision to create a commission to hold hearings on foreign meddling in Russian affairs, said Maxim V. Bratersky, a professor of international relations at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics.
Russians, for the most part, are not paying much attention to the ongoing U.S. hearing and investigations. Opinion polls have shown that few Russians believe the Kremlin was behind the alleged interference, either because they don’t believe their government is capable of exerting such influence in the U.S., or because there is a sense that all countries try to influence their rivals’ politics, so why should Russia not be involved?