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Russia’s long history of election interference around the world

Russia’s intervention in the US was not their first time nor their last.

The 2016 US elections was not the first time that Russia interfered with another country’s election and it wasn’t their last either. This relationship between Russia and the West is has existed since long before the Internet. Since the start of the Cold War, it’s clear that every time there is an opportunity, the Russians try to spread their influence into other countries. An example of Soviet intervention during the Cold War is the Vietnam War, in which the USSR and the US fought indirectly about who would have influence over the country and which political and economic system would prevail. After the end of the Cold War, the USSR fell but Russia’s global ambitions never changed.

In the last 15 years, under the leadership of Vladimir Putin–a former KGB agent and later director of the KGB’s successor, the FSB–Russia has been meddling in the politics of more than 27 countries including the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, and the United States. There were two big waves of Russian meddling in foreign countries. The first one that started before the end of the Soviet Union lasted until 2014 and was focused on ex-Soviet countries. The second wave expanded the strategy to Western democracies like the US. The Russian strategy to interfere in other countries’ elections, sowing division, embarrassing certain parties and helping the other parties to win, makes it easier for them to try to control or influence the country’s economy, politics and society. Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University described the Russian strategy: “If you can’t beat your enemy on the battlefield, go into your adversary, win over their populations and help elect officials that are sympathetic to the Russian viewpoint, and tie up your enemy, essentially, with politics and infighting.”

That was exactly what happened in the 2016 US election. Hackers, later confirmed to be Russian, publicly released thousands of emails that were stolen from the Democratic Party. Many of these emails included damaging revelations former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who Putin hoped to tarnish. They knew that if Donald Trump was elected, the results would not be fully accepted by the citizens, causing disorder in the country and affecting the US relations with the other countries. If the Democrats won the presidential race, there wouldn’t be any major changes in the country’s relations and the Russians wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. That is why they helped Trump in the elections.

Another example of Russian intervention in foreign countries is the Denmark case. In 2017, the Minister of Defense, Claus Hjort Frederiksen, said that the cyber-attacks are probably connected to the intelligence agencies of the Russian government. Russia interferes in campaigns so they can have the ability to influence the citizens’ opinions in Western countries to favor their strategic interest. Therefore, Russia will continue to be a big security challenge to the west.

Even after the end of the first wave in 2014, the intervention in ex-Soviet countries is not over. This year, Russia is active in the Ukrainian election. It was mostly indirect, focusing on the support of pro-Russian political forces in Ukraine. It is clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn’t like Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president, and his pro-European Union policies. The idea that the Russian President wants to take Poroshenko out of his position and put an accommodating president in Ukraine was expressed in the US intelligence report in January 2019.

The Ukraine case is not the only one that will possibly happen this year. According to a Canadian Intelligence agency, the chances of foreign intervention, possibly Russian, in the next Canadian elections are high. “We judge it very likely that Canadian voters will encounter some form of foreign cyber interference related to the 2019 federal election,” a report of the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) stated. However it will probably be on a smaller scale than Russia’s US campaign. The interference, according to the CSE, would likely aim to polarize the discourse in the country and sow doubt about the legitimacy of its democratic processes.

Keeping in mind Russia’s history, and the success of their 2016 campaign, we can certainly expect that these attacks will continue. Even after almost 3 decades from the Soviet Union’s collapse, Russia’s strategy remains to interfere in other countries politics to try to shape geopolitics to a form more friendly to Russian interests. These Cold-War style spy campaigns remind us that the leaders of Russia, especially Vladimir Putin himself, are eager to bring back the era of peak Soviet power.

Image Credit: pxhere

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