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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Trudy Rubin: Russia taking aim at democracy

By Trudy Rubin Philadelphia Inquirer

Dear President-elect Trump,

Why on earth would you side with an anti-American, former KGB colonel over your own intelligence community? I know you say you have “tremendous respect for the work and service” done by this community, but much damage has been done.

Even many GOP senators were disturbed when you rejected the firm conclusion of top U.S. intel officials that Vladimir Putin’s team used leaks and hacking to interfere with the U.S. election. Testifying before a Senate committee Thursday, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said “our assessment now is even more resolute” that the Russians were behind the hacks. Even stranger has been your embrace of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange – who released hacked emails from Democratic Party officials and whose past document dumps endangered U.S. interests. That was why you once said he deserved the death penalty, remember?

What would Ronald Reagan say? No doubt he’d say this controversy is about much bigger issues than partisan politics (anyway, no one seriously claims the hacks determined the election outcome). Surely you recognize by now that Putin wants to weaken Western democracies and the institutions that bind them together.

That’s the purpose of Russian irregular warfare – through hacks, leaks, the spread of fake information, and efforts to influence elections, here and in Europe. Yet you insist the focus on Russian hacking is a “political witch hunt.” On the contrary, you need only pay a minimum of attention to what is going on in Europe – and talk to a few Balts, Germans, Ukrainians. Then you would realize the hacking is part of a plan.

“Russia is back with 19th-century goals and 21st-century means,” I was told by the then Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves when he visited Philadelphia last year. “Putin is doing his best to dismantle the concept of the liberal democratic West.”

Russian military doctrine includes “active measure operations” that are meant to sow confusion by spreading disinformation. “In Soviet times there were such measures directed at the public opinion of foreign countries,” I was told by phone from Moscow by Yevgenia Albats, editor of New Times, one of the last independent news outlets in Moscow. “The same ‘active measures’ are in full force now.”

I saw such measures in action in 2014, right after Russian troops and special forces invaded Crimea, when I visited the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine where Russia organized a “revolt.” Putin denied there had been any invasion of Ukraine, although journalists met Russian soldiers and proxies. Russia broadcast fake news claiming that Ukrainian defense forces were neo-fascists and were coming to rape ethnic Russian Ukrainians and persecute Jews.

This disinformation created support for the invaders in the Donbass and also found wide acceptance in Europe. “How easily West Europeans adopted the Russian trope that Ukrainians were a bunch of Nazis,” said Ilves. In other words, the propaganda worked.

Now Putin hopes “active measures” can influence upcoming European elections. With Russia’s economy doing poorly, he’s looking for cheaper ways to pursue his goal of re-establishing a Russian sphere of influence in Eurasia reminiscent of Soviet glory days. He wants to help right-wing populist candidates and parties in Britain, France, Holland, and Germany that oppose NATO and want to end the European Union.

In France, the Kremlin lent the far-right National Front party of Marine Le Pen $11.7 million to help finance its campaigns. Le Pen is now expected to be a finalist in this year’s presidential ballot and wants to leave the EU. No doubt she will be looking for more Russian cash. As European political campaigns heat up, Russian propaganda and misinformation are spread through fake news stories on social media and via widely watched and Kremlin-financed English-language news outlets such as RT television and the Sputnik news service.

The head of Germany’s foreign intelligence service told German media late last year that the general election in 2018 could be targeted by Russian hackers. “The perpetrators are interested in delegitimizing the democratic process as such, regardless of who that ends up helping,” he said.

The aim is to undermine Putin archenemy Angela Merkel, who is under pressure because of her liberal immigration record.

An example of how the campaign works: Last year, RT spread a fake story about the rape of a 13-year-old ethnic Russian girl by a group of immigrants in Germany that brought thousands of protesters into the streets. Even after the story was proven false, the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, accused Berlin of a cover-up.

So Russian efforts to interfere with democratic systems are wholly visible if you want to see them. Perhaps you don’t. Your adviser, Steve Bannon, has expressed his support for extreme alt-right parties across Europe that admire Putin and his autocratic behavior. You’ve indicated your willingness to lift sanctions on Moscow imposed for the invasion of Ukraine.

But things will change when you enter the White House. At that point, you must consider whether your chief priority will be the pursuit of partisan politics or the security needs of the entire country. Your disdain for America’s intelligence services undercuts U.S. security and strengthens Putin, who only wants to play you.

My contacts in Moscow say that, with Trump’s victory, the Kremlin thinks it has already “won” its propaganda war to discredit the liberal democracies of the West.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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