In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
VOTE sign
What impact will this week’s midterm elections have on the U.S. policies most relevant to U.S.-Russian relations? Russia Matters has scanned publications by some of the West’s leading media and think-tanks for initial insights. Most commentators seem to agree that a Democratic-led House of Representatives is likely to revive or intensify some of the investigations into Moscow’s alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential elections and to expand sanctions against Russia, but that President Donald Trump’s executive powers are deep and broad enough to let him continue pursuing a Russia policy of his own choice. (Though it’s worth noting that even with a Republican-led Congress, the Trump administration has hardly been dovish on Moscow.)

The center of decision making on Russia sanctions and policy, according to former Obama administration official Peter Harrell, will likely shift from the Republican-majority Senate to the House. In fact, new sanctions on Russia were likely regardless of the election’s winners, according to Foreign Policy’s Amy Mackinnon and Robbie Gramer. They note that under a Democratic House, the Kremlin...
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2018 midterm election interference
This week’s midterms offer a good opportunity for a status update on the latest evidence of Russian meddling in U.S. elections.

Over the past six months, there has been no shortage of alarming warnings. In August, five of the country’s top national security officials spoke to reporters at the White House about the threat posed by Moscow and efforts to combat it. “Russia attempted to interfere with the last election and continues to engage in malign influence operations to this day,” FBI director Christopher Wray said then. Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, added that “the Russians are looking for every opportunity, regardless of party, regardless of whether or not it applies to the election, to continue their pervasive efforts to undermine our fundamental values.” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said that “our democracy itself is in the crosshairs.”

At the same time, the officials noted that Russian interference efforts seem far less intense than during the 2016 presidential race. “It is not the kind of robust campaign that we assessed in the 2016 election,” Coats said of alleged Russian efforts to meddle in the midterms. “We know that, through decades, Russia has tried to use its propaganda and methods to sow discord in America. However, they stepped up their game big-time in 2016. We have not seen that kind of robust effort from them so far.” Wray likewise said that, “in the context of 2018, we are not yet seeing the same kind of efforts to specifically target election infrastructure—voter registration databases, in particular.” In July, Nielsen delivered a similar message, as reported by CNN, saying there are "no indications that Russia is targeting the 2018 U.S. midterms at a scale or scope to match their activities in 2016."

Senior Russian officials have denied accusations of election interference, calling them “baseless.” Concord Management and Consulting, a Russian company indicted in February for allegedly funding a “troll farm” that meddled in the 2016 election, pleaded not guilty in May and has tried to fight the charges in a U.S. court since then, arguing that Special Counsel Robert Mueller was unlawfully appointed and lacks the legal authority to push the case forward.

Some U.S. commentators have been skeptical about “the supposed Russian threat to the midterms,” with an analysis in The Nation arguing recently that “given what we actually know about Russian disinformation [so far], its most significant impact appears to be as fodder for ongoing efforts intent on convincing Americans that unsophisticated social-media trolling could somehow divide and weaken their society.”

Nonetheless, U.S. officials, political operatives and tech executives have made a concerted effort to remain vigilant about meddling efforts. The Washington Post reported this month that “DHS has created round-the-clock communications channels with election officials in all 50 states, run national tabletop exercises with state and local officials to game out how to respond to possible crises and, at the states’ request, is monitoring election system network traffic for cyberthreats. Social media companies and political organizations have also strengthened their defenses.” In May, according to the New York Times, “eight of the tech industry’s most influential companies … met with United States intelligence officials … to discuss preparations for this year’s midterm elections.” A number of think-tanks have been contributing expertise as well. Harvard’s Belfer Center has been training state election officials through its Defending Digital Democracy initiative, for instance, while the Atlantic Council has tried to track Russian disinformation efforts through two projects, the Disinfo Portal and DFR Lab.

For some security analysts, the seeming lull in Russian activity is cold comfort. “The Russians are too smart to run the same play a second time,” Dmitri Alperovich, a founder of the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike, told the New York Times. “If they were going to do anything in today’s environment, they certainly wouldn’t want to act until the very last moment.” As two examples of last-minute efforts that could be used “to convince voters that their ballots might not be counted, or [not be] counted correctly,” the paper mentioned an “attack on county or state voter-registration systems, just to knock them off-line, [which] would create an uproar from voters who might show up at the polls and find they could not vote,” and a “strike at power grids, turning out the lights at polling places, or just disrupting transportation systems [that] could suppress turnout and lead to charges of manipulation.” (Unnamed intelligence officials and technology company executives reportedly told the Times in July that they have seen “surprisingly far more effort [by Russian hackers] directed at implanting malware in the electrical grid” than interfering with elections.)

Moreover, as with the 2016 polls, new specifics about attempts at interference are likely to become public well after the voting is over and done—and Russia’s role is unclear thus far. In August, the Times cited unnamed officials as saying that “vital Kremlin informants have largely gone silent, leaving the C.I.A. and other spy agencies in the dark about precisely what Mr. Putin’s intentions are for November’s midterm elections.” The Times also reported that last weekend “cybersecurity firms and some election officials reported seeing an increase in cyberattacks on websites and infrastructure surrounding the vote,” but “it is unclear where the attacks are coming from; … the sources appear to be a mix, everything from other countries to lone hackers looking to make a name for themselves, investigators say.” Cloudflare’s chief executive, Matthew Prince, told the paper that “the incursions were not an effort to disrupt the vote, but merely to bolster rumors of election fraud and interference. ‘They are going after anything that can undermine the process itself,’ he said. ‘Their aim is to put the outcome in doubt.’” This, the paper noted, could give losing candidates and their supporters a chance to claim elections were rigged. Earlier, too, the Times had reported that disinformation campaigns used to influence public opinion “are increasingly a domestic phenomenon fomented by Americans on the left and the right.”

On Nov. 5, the Boston Globe reported that government documents reviewed by the newspaper show that “federal agencies have logged more than 160 reports of suspected meddling in U.S. elections since Aug. 1” and the “pace of suspicious activity has picked up in recent weeks—up to 10 incidents each day,” with officials “on high alert.” The previously unreported incidents, mostly documented in DHS election-threat reports reviewed by the Globe, range from “injections of malicious computer code to a massive number of bogus requests for voter registration forms.” The reports “make no conclusions about who is behind the attacks,” but “describe most of the recent incidents as ‘foreign-based.’” A DHS cybersecurity official, speaking anonymously, told the paper: “‘We’re seeing the same thing [as in 2016]; the only difference is now we aren’t saying Russia… It’s nuanced. We haven’t attributed the attacks to anyone yet.’”

Earlier this year, Russia Matters tried to lay out the publicly available evidence related to Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. (That was published before July’s indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence officers, charged with “large-scale cyber operations to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.”) Here we have tried to do the same thing for evidence related to the 2018 midterms, divided into two categories: the cyber domain and the information domain. Like our earlier attempt, this is not an investigation, merely a stock-taking of evidence about meddling in the U.S. midterm elections. In compiling this evidence we have limited ourselves to using information that is publicly available at the time of writing, such as media reports and public statements or documents from government officials and company representatives. The list is not exhaustive and we welcome suggestions for ways to improve it (please use the comments section below).
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Putin at Valdai 2018
In contrast to some recent Valdai meetings, Russian President Vladimir Putin evinced no visible anger toward the United States or the West at this year’s gathering of academics and analysts. Instead, he exuded a quiet confidence in the foreign- and security-policy choices Russia has made in recent years, and pointed out, over and over, how the U.S. could be hurt by problems of its own making.
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U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev
As Donald Trump announces plans to pull out of a landmark 1987 arms-control treaty, one of its original signers, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, has said the decision is not the work of “a great mind.” We will never know the opinion of the other signer of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, then U.S. President Ronald Reagan, because he died in 2004. But 32 years ago this month the two leaders met in Reykjavik, Iceland, for a summit that helped pave the way to the INF Treaty. And the discussions weren’t limited to serious matters of global security and “trust but verify.”

Here we share three moments of levity and camaraderie from Oct. 12, 1986, recorded in two U.S. memoranda on the day’s meetings, which have been made available through the efforts of the National Security Archive at George Washington University...
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Ukrainian troops in eastern Ukraine
The festering conflict in eastern Ukraine has been a central cause of tensions between Russia and the West for over four years. In July 2017 diplomat Kurt Volker was appointed as the U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations. This month, Volker—a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, who now wears different hats in academe and the private sector in addition to his government service—spoke at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs about the crisis in the transatlantic relationship.

While Russia and Ukraine were not the event’s main focus, Volker made the following points about the standoff between the two and its ripple effect in the West...
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Red square Moscow Russia
Russians’ views of Donald Trump and his country have soured since 2017, though they still see the U.S. in a better light than they did during the penultimate full year of Barack Obama’s presidency, according to Pew’s 25-country Global Attitudes and Trends survey for 2018. This downturn in favorable opinion, we believe, is in part due to Russians’ unrealized hopes for better U.S.-Russian relations following the election of U.S. President Donald Trump. The polls also show that while Russians view the West as declining, they see China as a rising power. They also see their own country as a rising power; however, poll data shows that among the 25 countries surveyed, that view is not widely held.

Overall, Russians polled by Pew had a more negative view of the U.S. than in 2017, and often a more negative view than the median among all 25 countries surveyed. According to Pew, only 26 percent of Russians said they had a favorable view of the U.S., a significant drop from 41 percent in 2017, but still higher than the 15 percent who said so in 2015 (data for Russians’ views of the U.S. in 2016 is not available). Additionally, 55 percent of Russians believe that relations with the U.S. have worsened in the last year. This number is significantly higher than the median of 21 percent among the 25 countries Pew surveyed, including Russia, who believe that their country’s relations with the U.S. have worsened since 2017. While just over half of Russian respondents felt confident that U.S. President Donald Trump would do the right thing regarding global affairs in 2017, that number fell to just 19 percent in 2018. However, Trump is still enjoying greater trust amongst Russians than his predecessor.  In 2015, only 11 percent of Russians said they had confidence in Barack Obama.  The majority of Russians also believe that Trump’s America is ignoring their country’s interests when making international policy decisions: as many as 65 percent of Russians hold that view.
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Russian President Vladimir Putin
Where does Russia fit in today’s international order and what are its strategies for navigating it? In a nutshell, according to a recent discussion among scholars and policy analysts in Washington: Russia’s diminished status relative to the Cold War period has it seeking ways to offset its weaknesses on the world stage, including  a “trickster’s” arsenal of dissembling and deception, which has deep cultural roots; meanwhile, Russian leaders believe at times that other countries, particularly in the West, are using the same tricks to gain an unfair advantage. The overall lack of trust between Russia and the West, and particularly the lack of clarity that Moscow and Washington each see in the other's intentions, undermine the chances for badly needed progress on arms control—a key element of global security.
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Stanislav Petrov receives the Dresden Prize, February 2013.
Next week marks 35 years since America and Russia narrowly avoided fighting a nuclear war—the kind that “cannot be won and must never be fought,” in the words of Ronald Reagan. It wasn’t the first time the two nations lived through such a close call, and stories like this can only remind us how much our continued existence may depend on individual humans’ handling of mistakes, accidents, misunderstandings and miscalculations—in other words, they remind us that a nuclear war is as likely to start through inadvertence as by design.

The “stand-off” in 1983 lasted minutes, not days like the Cuban Missile Crisis some 20 years earlier, but could have likewise led to full-blown nuclear war between the U.S. and USSR: Soviet early-warning systems detected a nuclear attack coming from the United States. The natural response would have been a counter-strike by Moscow. The result, as one Stanford professor wrote later, could have been “roughly a hundred million people blown apart, burned up and poisoned on the first day of the war.” (Within months, he estimated, the death toll could have reached a billion.)

The decision that prevented that from happening was made by a Soviet officer working the night shift at a secret military facility outside Moscow who determined, in the 10 minutes he had to make the call, that the alarm was false. His name was Stanislav Petrov.
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Poster for the Museum of Communism in Prague.
Ordinary Americans care more about children’s upbringing than about Russia, claims Seth Ackerman, executive editor of Jacobin. In a July 19 post on the magazine’s blog, Ackerman writes: “[O]utside the self-enclosed vivarium that is the Twitter-cable-news-late-night-show axis, nobody actually cares about the Russia issue. In last month’s Gallup poll, less than 0.5 percent of Americans mentioned ‘the situation with Russia’ as the most important problem facing the country—coming in just behind ‘Children’s behavior/Way they are raised’ and far behind ‘Poverty/Hunger/Homelessness.’”

Ackerman’s interpretation of the Gallup poll is attention-grabbing, but somewhat misleading. In surveys, after all, much depends on the way questions are framed and the answer options available. While the open-ended poll cited by Ackerman asks respondents to name the “most important problem” facing the U.S., other surveys ask them to rank “threats” from an array of choices. A look at several polls from recent years suggests that Americans see Russia as more of a threat than Ackerman acknowledges, though not as a significant domestic concern.
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Protest against pension reform in Moscow, July 2018.
This summer’s polls have not been kind to Vladimir Putin and for good reason. The Russian authorities’ drive to raise the country’s pension age has sparked a public backlash. Some analysts have warned of “internal rupture,” while one headline even called the protests a “crisis that could take down Putin’s presidency.” I doubt the latter; Putin has survived worse. But if opposition to the measures grows more intense, the Russian leader could be expected to offer concessions (if only temporary) rather than double-down and risk a further surge in protest against his rule.
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