This Week in Info War

Kremlin reacts to Cardin report on Russian activities

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Moscow strongly criticized the 10 January report released by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) and prepared by Democratic staffers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The document—titled “U.S. Remains Vulnerable to Russian Interference without Unequivocal Presidential Leadership, Learning Lessons from European Democracies”—details two decades of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attacks on democracy in the West and calls for policy changes to counter Kremlin influence operations ahead of the 2018 and 2020 U.S. national elections. The committee’s Republican chairman, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, did not sign off on the report, but many in the GOP agree with some of its key findings. In recent months, Republicans in Congress have been actively working on measures to counter Russian aggression and its interference in U.S. politics, including expanding sanctions.

Margarita Simonyan, chief editor of RT, dismissed the Cardin report as “a dull student report about how we assaulted democracy in all countries at once. Boring, my friends. Wake me up in five years when they find nothing and reluctantly acknowledge that there was no Russian interference.” RT’s headline labeled the Cardin report “conspiracy-laden.” In RT’s interpretation, the United States believes “Russians are everywhere, and everything they do is an existential threat to democracy and the American way of life. So says the 200-page report published by Senate Democrats on behalf of one of the most outspoken Russia hawks.” The RT article quotes a tweet from reporter Max Blumenthal of the Alternet’s Grayzone Project: “The report recommends a major defense buildup, expansion of NATO, ‘preemptive sanctions’ on new countries, and reinforcement of the war on terror apparatus to wage a new Cold War. Thanks to Russiagate, liberals will blindly support this neocon wish list.” Sputnik similarly claimed the report had lied about the outlet, as well as Russian disinformation more broadly.”

Official Moscow, through Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, rejected the Cardin report’s findings. Peskov said its conclusions “harm both bilateral Russian-U.S. relations and they harm the United States itself as when this becomes a fixed idea, this does not create comfortable conditions for normal social development and life … We can only voice regret over the continuing campaign [against Russia] and once again recall that so far all these concerns, all the accusations against our country of meddling, have had no grounds and are absolutely unfounded.”

Putin did not mention the Cardin report by name during a televised meeting with Russian newspaper editors, but criticized what he described as “U.S. meddling” in other countries’ affairs. “If they poke their nose everywhere they must be able to respond to certain challenges they provoke themselves,” he said. “But please don’t interpret it like a recognition of our meddling. We haven’t meddled. I want to underline again: it’s sheer nonsense. There has been no collusion, no interference on our part. No one likes interference in their internal political issues and affairs. Our American friends especially do not like it. We see their reaction to unreliable information about our intervention, how sharp it is, I would even say how aggressive it is.” Putin claimed Russia was willing to improve U.S. ties, but said that partisan infighting made that difficult. “The domestic political situation in the U.S. isn’t calming down. They are playing the Russian card in U.S. politics, and they are threatening the incumbent president with impeachment, using the alleged Russian interference as an argument.”

Two days after the report’s release, cybersecurity firm Trend Micro reported that the Kremlin-aligned hacking group Fancy Bear—famous for
hacking the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 U.S. presidential election—has been “making preparations” to penetrate the Senate’s e-mails in order “to influence public opinion again” by leaking information they find useful for their purposes. (Trend Micro is the same Tokyo-based firm which discovered that the group known as “Pawn Storm” was harvesting e-mails from French President Emmanuel Macron’s campaign in April 2017, primarily by setting up decoy websites to trick campaign officials into entering their information). Now, similar sites masquerading as the Senate’s internal e-mail system have been found, according to Trend Micro. “We are 100 percent sure that it can attributed to the Pawn Storm group,” said Trend Micro’s Rik Ferguson. It is highly unlikely such a hacking campaign is related in any way to the Cardin report—Pawn Storm’s activity almost certainly began months ago. But so far, there’s little public evidence that comprehensive accounts of Russian interference in the activities of Western democracies has been much of a deterrent.