Electoral Influence: 40yrs Of Kremlin Interference

The most surprising thing about Russian attempts to influence the outcome of November’s US presidential election is that they should have caused surprise. Attempts to rig elections are traditional.

Every country in the post-war Soviet bloc established in eastern Europe became communist as the result of fraudulent elections which, throughout the Cold War, continued to deliver bogus majorities of more than 99%.

Walter Ulbricht, leader of the East German communist party, told his senior party officials after the Second World War: “It’s got to look democratic but we must have everything under our control.”

The KGB also made somewhat less ambitious post-war plans to influence the outcome of elections in the West, especially those of its “main adversary”, the US. Its strategy was the same as that of the recent attempts to undermine Hillary Clinton’s election campaign, to collect and covertly distribute compromising material (some of it fabricated) against candidates it wished to lose.

The recent report by the US intelligence community on “Assessing Russian activities and intentions in recent US elections” cites documents in the Mitrokhin Archive, top secret files smuggled out of Russia in the 1990s by a former senior KGB archivist, who was exfiltrated by MI6 to Britain.

He and I worked together on these extraordinary papers while I was writing a history of KGB foreign operations. They show that, more than 40 years ago, the KGB recruited a Democratic Party activist to report on future president Jimmy Carter’s “campaign and foreign policy plans”.

Probably no American policy-maker at any time during the Cold War inspired as much fear and loathing in Moscow as Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s. The first priority of KGB influence operations (officially known as “active measures”) was to prevent his re-election in 1984.

The main obstacle to the KGB’s covert campaign was Reagan’s almost blameless private life and visible devotion to his wife, Nancy. So the “Centre” (KGB HQ) decided to portray him instead as an out-of-control militarist who threatened to provoke a third world war. “Residencies” (KGB stations) around the world were ordered to popularise the slogan “Reagan means war!”

To assist them, the KGB forged a series of bellicose documents, including a letter to the King of Spain bearing Reagan’s signature, calling on the king to deal promptly and decisively with those obstructing Spanish membership of Nato.

Another of the KGB’s favourite deceptions was bogus documents purporting to reveal secret dealings between the Reagan administration and the apartheid regime in South Africa. 

One such document was planted on the unsuspecting Washington correspondent of the New Statesman, which featured it prominently in its issue of November 5, 1982.

The recent US intelligence report concludes that: “President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.

“We further assess Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference for president-elect Trump.”

Computer hacking and the advent of cyber-warfare made it much easier in 2016 for Russian intelligence to collect private information on presidential candidates than during the Reagan era. 

But Russian attempts to influence the outcome of the election were scarcely more successful in 2016 than in 1984. There is no convincing evidence that their efforts made a significant contribution to Clinton’s defeat.

Though largely ineffective, however, Russian interference in US elections remains deeply sinister. Under President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, interference declined. Under Putin it is sharply on the rise.

As the US intelligence report also concludes: “Russian efforts to influence the 2016 US presidential election represent the most recent expression of Moscow’s long-standing desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order, but these activities demonstrated a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations.”

Though the report does not mention it, there is also reason to suspect the compromising material (kompromat) collected by Russian intelligence on both Trump and Clinton before the election included, as in the Soviet era, fabricated evidence. The whole wretched story provides further, worrying evidence of a return to the Cold War.

Professor Christopher Andrew, former MI5 official historian, is a convenor of the Cambridge Intelligence Seminar

Times:             How Russian Cyber Power Attacked The US:

 

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