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US must act now to ward off more Russian election meddling, report says

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The US will not be prepared to defend against possible Russian meddling in the 2018 midterm elections or the 2020 presidential contest unless it takes action now, according to a new report detailing the extent to which Moscow has tried to shape elections across Europe.

The report details Russia’s arsenal of military invasions, disinformation campaigns and corruption, and its weaponization of energy resources, among other tools, and it demonstrates how Moscow’s attacks have intensified in scale and complexity, hitting Britain, Germany and France, as well as Ukraine and smaller countries.

The report, released Wednesday by Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, draws from European experience to outline ways in which Russia’s “malign influence operations” can be deterred.

It was researched and written by Cardin staff members who interviewed European ambassadors in the US and traveled to Europe to talk to government officials, NGOs and media groups about Russian interference in their countries.

The report warns that unless the US acts to counter the threat soon, Moscow will grow only more aggressive. And it adds a crucial caveat, given President Donald Trump’s repeated refusal to acknowledge US intelligence assessments that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.

‘Trump has been negligent,’ report says

“Without leadership from the President, any attempt to marshal such a response will be inherently weakened at the outset,” it says. “President Trump has been negligent in acknowledging and responding to the threat to US national security posed by [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s meddling.”

The report concludes that the US has no “coherent, comprehensive and coordinated approach to the Kremlin’s malign influence operations, either abroad or at home.”

The report calls for Trump to establish a high-level inter-agency group to coordinate US policy in response to the Russian government’s operations. It also calls on the President to present Congress with a comprehensive strategy that deals with all aspects of Russia’s disruptive tactics.

It calls on social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter to be held more accountable for acting as a “key conduit of disinformation campaigns that undermine democracies.” It urges a new sanctions designation for “state hybrid threat actors” — countries that use traditional and nontraditional means, like cyberwarfare, to destabilize other nations.

The report demands a more personal targeting of Putin’s “personal corruption and wealth stored abroad,” recommending that the US “take steps with our European allies to cut off Mr. Putin and his inner circle from the international financial system.”

It also stresses the need to help European allies reduce their dependence on Russian energy supplies.

Cardin is releasing the report as FBI and congressional probes into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia continue and relations between Washington and Moscow have entered a deep chill, despite Trump’s oft-stated desire for a closer relationship with Russia and Putin.

Democratic aides said the report is not meant as a dive into Russia’s meddling into the 2016 US election, given the multiple investigations on the issue. As the first government report to outline the scale and scope of Putin’s efforts, it’s meant to lay down a marker and warn that 2016 wasn’t unique, they said.

Trouble ahead

It comes a few weeks before a deadline for the administration to announce secondary sanctions against companies and individuals who do business with Russian intelligence and military entities. The State Department missed its first deadline on those sanctions, and lawmakers are watching closely to see whether the administration complies promptly.

At more than 200 pages with over 1,000 footnotes, the report takes an unsparing look at Putin’s approach to rivals and perceived threats going back decades and ends in December 2017. It predicts potential trouble ahead.

“If the United States fails to work with urgency to address this complex and growing threat, the regime in Moscow will become further emboldened,” the report says. “It will continue to develop and refine its arsenal to use on democracies around the world, including against US elections in 2018 and 2020.”

While the US has what the report calls “a patchwork” of offices and programs working on efforts that could help counter Russia’s election interference, it doesn’t have the coordinated approach that the report calls for: a “fusion” center that brings different elements of government together to address the threat, much like the National Counterterrorism Center.

The report points to Europe to provide a road map for the US going forward. “We can learn from Europe,” a Democratic aide said.

The UK has made a point of publicly chastising the Russian government for its meddling in democracies, and it has moved to strengthen cybersecurity and electoral processes, the report notes.

Germany “pre-empted Kremlin interference in its national election with a strong warning of consequences, an agreement among political parties not to use bots or paid trolls, and close cyber cooperation between the government and political campaigns.”

Spain has cracked down on Russia-based organized crime groups, while France has created a coordinated effort among government, political and media groups to dilute the impact of Russian hacking and smear campaigns.

Smaller countries such as the Nordic states have emphasized critical thinking and media literacy among their populations. Baltic nations have informed their publics of Russia’s activities, toughened their defenses against cyberattacks and moved to reduce their energy dependence on Moscow.