Rus­sia says it’s U.S. that’s med­dling

Moscow ac­cuses Wash­ing­ton of in­ter­fer­ing in its do­mes­tic af­fairs.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Sabra Ayres sabra.ayres@la­times.com

MOSCOW — 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 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 au­thor­i­ta­tive 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 Western­funded 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.

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 An­ticor­rup­tion 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. 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?

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