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This Week in Info War

Kremlin tries to discredit Mueller indictment

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Russian officials and government-controlled media outlets have vigorously denounced the 16 February indictment in a U.S. federal court by Special Counsel Robert Mueller of 13 Russian citizens and three organizations for conducting a campaign—through social media posts, online ads and rallies—to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The indictment includes oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has links to the Vagner paramilitary group and whose catering businesses hosted dinners which Russian President Vladimir Putin attended with foreign dignitaries. Also among those charged was the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, a trolling organization that allegedly interfered with elections and political processes. The intent of the Russian activity, according to the indictment, was to create chaos, to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio,  and to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump. Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein said nothing in the indictment concludes that Russia’s campaign altered the election. Putin has said little, but reaction by officials in Moscow spans a wide range of disinformation techniques.

  • At the Munich Security Conference, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denied the facts, saying he had “no reaction at all because one can publish anything he wants. We see how accusations, statements, statements are multiplying.” Lavrov insisted that “until we see facts, everything else will be just blather.”
  • On Facebook, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova ridiculed the allegations, especially the low number of individuals charged. “Thirteen against billions [in the] budgets of special agencies?” she wrote. “Against intelligence and counterespionage, against the newest technologies? Absurd? Yes.”
  • Andrey Krutskikh, Putin’s special representative for international cooperation on cybersecurity, also mocked the indictment. He called it “childish” and “a new trend in bad American diplomacy. Instead of discussing the pressing issues of stabilization and security in the information space, they come up with some sort of accusations against individuals, organizations. This is typical of the U.S. It’s surprising that they still don’t understand that this method is completely ineffective.”

Kremlin-backed media outlets were a significant front in Russia’s response to the Mueller indictment. Sputnik tried “whataboutism.” The investigation “reeks of hypocrisy,” screamed a Sputnik headline. “If judged by the standards set by the Mueller investigation,” columnist Ivan Danilov said, “U.S. deep state officials should be jailed for collusion with foreign powers and interference in elections across the world. A sane person would not believe for one second that U.S. officials really care about foreign meddling in the U.S. elections.”

Pravda sought to drown facts with emotion. It repeated the common accusation by Russian officials that the United States, “obsessed” with “Russiagate,” is risking a new Cold War or even World War III. According to Pravda, the Mueller indictment’s accusation of information warfare is a dangerous exaggeration. “After the publication of the report from Democratic senators about ‘Russia's attacks on democracy,’ and after the indictment of the 13 Russian citizens, who had allegedly created an army of bots to interfere in U.S. elections, American officials say that Russia’s actions against the USA appear to be an act of war, the aggression of which is comparable to Pearl Harbor and 9/11 attacks.”

The Russian press also brought populist U.S. commentators into the debate. RT suggested that Mueller had released the indictments on a Friday in order to bury the story. Dave Perkins, a radio host in the Tampa Bay area, told RT: “What has happened is Mueller is setting himself up, having tossed red meat to the base on the left: here is your Russians, here is your conspiracy, see, they have tried to affect the outcome of the election. And then he can fade back into the hedge.”

Richard Black, a Virginia state senator with a sizable following on Twitter, claimed in an RT article that Mueller is “dragging out the proceedings, throwing some indictments on some silly things—not registering as a foreign agent—that typically is not prosecuted, but they are prosecuting it in this case because they are running out of ideas.”

More importantly, RT used the Black interview to reiterate the standard Kremlin theme that Trump wants better relations with Moscow but is hemmed in by Washington hardliners. It framed the Mueller investigation as a front for anti-Russia interests: “Back [sic] believes that what is really on the agenda is to rein in Trump so he will not oppose the hawks in their pursuit of hostile foreign policy towards Russia.” In Black’s own words: “One of the things they wanted to do is to undermine Donald Trump and to keep him constantly on the defensive against Russia so he cannot do the rational thing, which is to reduce the tensions with Russia, to draw back from the Russian borders.” 

More broadly, Russian officials, as usual, tended to blame the Kremlin’s own misdeeds on the United States, or frame their arguments in such a way that make them seem to counter U.S. actions. At a 20 February cybersecurity meeting in Rostov, National Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev predicted cyber attacks on Russia “by the intelligence services of other countries” before next month’s presidential election. He did not mention, of course, that the outcome of that event—unlike that of the 2016 U.S. presidential race—is already predetermined.