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Russia, shifting tactics, fans doubt in election integrity, U.S. says

Russia’s long-running efforts to weaken the world’s democracies have expanded in recent years to sow public doubt in election integrity, according to a declassified State Department cable disclosed Friday, which says the U.S. intelligence community found evidence that Russian actors made a concerted effort to undermine faith in the voting process in at least nine countries, including the United States, between 2020 and 2022.

During that period, the intelligence community also found that, in 17 additional countries, there was “a less pronounced level” of Russian social media activity and other “messaging” aimed at amplifying preexisting domestic narratives questioning election integrity.

The U.S. intelligence community has routinely highlighted what it portrays as Moscow’s ongoing scheme to subvert elections and destabilize democratic countries, but the State Department cable said that such tactics appear to be evolving with a specific goal of eroding trust in the basic administration of elections.

Notably, the document says there is little evidence that the Chinese government is similarly focused.

The cable, dated Wednesday, is intended to be shared with the governments of more than 100 democracies, a senior State Department official said on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive internal effort. U.S. diplomats and intelligence officials plan to meet with partner nations to detail the threats to their election systems posed by Russia, potentially with an eye to encouraging other countries to expel Russian diplomats or take other measures to try to combat the efforts.

“Our insights suggest that Russia is focused on carrying out operations to break public confidence in election integrity, and that they are doing this on a global scale,” a senior U.S. intelligence official said, also speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Our information indicates that senior Russian government officials, including in the Kremlin, see value in this type of influence operation and perceive it to be effective in undermining confidence in the outcomes and legitimacy of the elected government.”

Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, said that “we are not surprised by such insinuations.”

In a statement posted Saturday on Telegram, he said that “by casting our country as an adversary, the White House demonstrates disinterest in pragmatic cooperation to address the common challenges facing whole humankind. Washington, with its reckless policies, has driven Russian-American relations into a dead end.”

The cable cited an example of one 2020 election in an unidentified European country in which the Russian Federal Service Security Service, also known as the FSB, covertly attempted through proxies to deploy agitators to intimidate campaign workers, organized protests on the election day, and sabotaged overseas voting.

During a 2022 election in an unidentified South American country, the cable said, Russia used the messaging app Telegram to seed false coverage of alleged fraud, and Russian “trolls” used multiple social media platforms to “amplify concerns about post-election instability.”

The cable did not cite specific countries, and the officials would not provide further specifics, citing their desire to work directly with governments to address the issues.

The Russian government has denied that it seeks to subvert other countries’ elections, although the former head of the Wagner Group, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, did say last year that he had worked to interfere in U.S. elections. A 2018 federal indictment charged Prigozhin with running a “troll factory” in which his workers tried to seed conflict on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms ahead of the 2016 presidential election. Prigozhin was killed in August when his plane exploded, after leading an uprising against the Russian military’s handling of the war in Ukraine earlier this year.

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