September 16, 2019 | 65° F

ABDELFATAH: Russian interference is attack on democracy

Opinions Column: Global Perspectives


It has long been a widely accepted fact that the Russian government purposely interfered in the 2016 elections as well as democratic elections in other countries, such as France. This Friday the Department of Justice officially charged 13 Russians and three companies of attempting to subvert the 2016 elections in favor of President Donald J. Trump's presidential campaign. Interfering in democratic elections is one of the more dangerous soft-power tools that the Kremlin has, and is an issue that America and its allies must not fail to address. 

Prosecutors are accusing Russian agents of having stolen "the identities of American citizens, posed as political activists and used the flash points of immigration, religion and race to manipulate a campaign in which those issues were already particularly divisive.” Although the Russians were in contact with “unwitting individuals associated with the Trump campaign,” the special counsel has not as of yet charged anyone on the campaign of having been part of the conspiracy. The formal charge also serves as a strong rebuke to Trump, who has contradicted the consensus of his intelligence agencies and has described reports of Russian meddling as “fake news.” Even the president’s National Security Advisor, H.R. McMaster, acknowledged that proof of Russian interference was “incontrovertible.” 

While the charges do not satisfy the questions surrounding the conduct of the Trump campaign, they do shed light on just how thorough and persistent Russian efforts were. Notable is the fact that the Russian operation to delegitimize the election began in 2014, before Trump even announced his candidacy. But, the charges go on to say that by 2016 they were “supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump.” In order to achieve their aims, individuals under the employ of the Russian government traveled across the United States, worked with and were advised by unidentified U.S. citizens and posed as Americans to coordinate with Trump campaign staff. Russian computer specialists created hundreds of social media accounts in order to stoke the political polarization already present in the election cycle. The operation was well funded, with a budget of at least $1.25 million a month, and there are additional actions that are believed to have been taken by the Russian government, the attack on the DNC’s email server, for example, that are not covered by the charges. 

Russian attempts at undermining elections and democratic norms in the West do not begin or end with the United States — they have also attempted to interfere with elections in other Western countries, such as Germany and France. There is significant evidence that Russia attempted a similar cyber operation against Emmanuel Macron in last year’s French election. But a conscious effort on the part of the French government to prevent and limit the scope of Russian interference seems to have mitigated its effects. In Germany, the rise of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (the AfD) has been largely thanks to the support of the Russian backed media outlets who give them coverage. Russian-sponsored news outlets have used social media, radio and television broadcasts to offer a view of Germany that depicted life under Chancellor Angela Merkel as “dangerous, depraved and undemocratic” while giving far-right groups, such as the AfD, positive coverage. 

The fact that Russia was able to run influence campaigns in several different countries, with each campaign uniquely tailored to the specific country, suggests that Moscow is investing a significant amount of resources into this endeavor and that Russian interference is likely to continue into the foreseeable future. More than just elections, part of the Russian operation is to affect the political consciousness of its target countries. One notorious example of this is what has become known in Germany as “the Lisa affair.” In January of 2016, Russian state TV began to air a report about an ethnic Russian girl named Lisa who had allegedly been kidnapped and raped by a group of Muslim refugees in Berlin. The reports were quickly dismissed by the authorities after they were able to verify that “Lisa” had invented the story. Senior Russian diplomats used the story to stoke already existing tensions around the refugee crisis and accused Berlin of taking part in a cover up. The conspiracy theory began to gain traction, eventually leading to dozens of protests around the country.   

It is true that it is impossible to calculate just how much Russian efforts impacted the election. But, the very fact that they were able to mount such a pervasive influence campaign is disturbing enough in and of itself. There is also no reason to think that Russian efforts have or will stop at just attempts at influence. They could easily attempt to hack into and manipulate polling data or launch a cyber attack against American financial institutions. The United States and its allies must take action to defend themselves from this attack on democratic norms and institutions by shoring up our cyber defenses here at home, fighting against the rise of “fake news” and by punitively sanctioning Russia for its actions. 

Yousuf Abdelfatah is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in political science and economics. His column, "Global Perspectives," runs on alternate Tuesdays.


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Yousuf Abdelfatah

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