Sweeping accusations that the Kremlin tried to sway the 2016 U.S. election haven’t chastened Russian trolls, hackers and spies — and might even have emboldened them.
U.S. officials and tech companies say Russians have continued online activity targeted at American voters during the campaign for Tuesday’s election, masquerading as U.S. institutions and creating faux-American social media posts to aggravate tensions around issues like migration and gun control.
Russia denies any interference. So far U.S. authorities haven’t announced any huge hacks or the kind of multipronged campaign suspected in the 2016 election, and it’s hard to judge whether the more recent Russian actions have any link to the Kremlin or will have any electoral impact.
READ MORE: How the U.S. midterm elections work and why they matter
But why do they appear to be at it again? Dozens of Russians suspected of meddling in 2016 have been hit with U.S. charges or sanctions, including well-placed magnates. Moscow’s ties with the West have deteriorated badly amid ever-more-shocking allegations of Russian interference abroad.
And some argue that Russian meddlers don’t need to mess with the U.S. midterms this year because they got what they wanted in 2016: Donald Trump in the White House and mass disillusionment with the democratic process.
The Kremlin likes Trump because he’s one of the rare Western leaders to embrace Russian President Vladimir Putin, but its hoped-for Russian-American rapprochement hasn’t really materialized. A Democratic House or Senate after Tuesday’s U.S. election would make that an even more distant prospect.
WATCH: Trump says Russia meddling didn’t impact vote, blames Clinton for Democrats’ loss in 2016
“Russians have a preference and they will do what they can to swing (the result) in their favor, especially if margins are tight,” said James Nixey, head of the Russia and Eurasia program at the London-based think tank Chatham House.
He cautions, however, that “Russia is not responsible for all of America’s problems. America has splits and fissures like all of us, and Russia puts in a lever and pries them open.”
Some Russians, meanwhile, wear the U.S. accusations as a badge of honor, a sign that their country is a fearsome world power again.
WATCH: John Bolton says Russia hurt itself by meddling in U.S. vote
The first person charged with foreign interference in the 2018 midterms, Elena Khusyaynova, said “my heart filled with pride” at the news. Speaking last week on Russian TV after being indicted in the United States for a covert social media campaign for both the 2016 and 2018 votes, she added, “It turns out that a simple Russian woman could help citizens of a superpower elect their president.”
Pavel Koshkin of Moscow’s USA and Canada Institute called accusations of meddling “a gift to Russian propaganda and Russian politicians,” who can use U.S. anti-Russian sentiment “as a tool in stirring anti-Americanism and increasing their approval ratings.”
The 2016 U.S. election thrust Russian foreign interference into the spotlight, but it wasn’t an isolated project. It fit into a yearslong effort by Putin’s Kremlin to take revenge over what’s seen as the U.S.-led humiliation of post-Soviet Russia, through crippling loan programs and NATO’s post-Cold War expansion.
WATCH: Bolton presses Russia about meddling in US election process
The Kremlin also resent s what it considers U.S. interference in the politics of countries once under Moscow’s sphere of influence, from Ukraine to the Caucasus. To many Russians, what’s happening now in the U.S. is just payback.
The resulting U.S. sanctions have damaged the Russian economy, but if the goal was changing Russian foreign policy, “this goal certainly hasn’t been achieved,” said analyst Masha Lipman. “In fact, the opposite is true. The more pressure (on Russia), the lower the desire or willingness to concede.”
As special counsel Robert Mueller has investigated possible Russian collusion with Trump’s 2016 campaign, Moscow has increased efforts to make its mark elsewhere — in Syria, Libya, and in political debates across Europe.
WATCH: Senators left shaken by extent of Russian meddling following security briefing
So far in 2018, Russian agents have been accused of a nerve agent attack in Britain, trying to hack the world’s chemical weapons watchdog in the Netherlands, and seeking to derail a referendum in Macedonia to stop the country from joining NATO and the European Union.
Even after Mueller’s team in February indicted a dozen Russians linked to the Internet Research Agency, the so-called troll farm in St. Petersburg, its sponsors openly continued to target U.S. audiences.
One of its projects, a news site called USAReally, covers tight U.S. congressional races and is closely following the migrant caravan heading north from Latin America.
“Yes, we are a Russian site. We talk to Americans about America. But is that forbidden?” its chief editor Alexander Malkevich, an avowed Trump fan, said in an interview with The Associated Press. “Influence readers? Every media wants to do that. … and so what?”
WATCH: Russia more active in 2016 election than in upcoming midterms
He acknowledged that Russian-American relations are unlikely to improve quickly no matter the outcome Tuesday — and expressed interest in the 2020 U.S. presidential race.
Malkevich also assails what he calls the myth of American democracy. That’s one more way that alleged Russian manipulation of U.S. social media serves the Kremlin’s interests: By discrediting Western democracy, that strengthens Putin’s argument to his own voters that his authoritarian model of governance is best.
“The growing confrontation with the West and a focus on it on national television channels probably helped consolidate this effect of a fortress under siege,” one of Putin’s metaphors for modern Russia, Lipman said. “And pledging allegiance to the leader is a matter not only of loyalty but even of national security and national identity. ”
READ MORE: Trump, Putin to meet in Paris on Nov. 11, unleashing wave of criticism
Many of the Russians accused of interference in the 2016 U.S. campaign have moved underground or moved on. Some shut down their social media presence. Some have changed jobs.
One of the indicted troll factory workers, Sergei Polozov, announced on the Russian social network VKontakte that he was “using his notoriety for a good cause” and had persuaded Russian censors to block four Ukrainian news sites. He vowed to continue fighting those who “try to drag Russia through the mud” and thanked “those who want to join me in the fight against informational enemies.”
The troll factory, meanwhile, has moved to bigger offices in St. Petersburg, just 2.5 kilometers (a mile and a half) across town.
Catholic Bishops react to military coup in Mali
Contrary to the expectations of the people, the leadership of the Episcopal Conference of Mali (CEM) has termed the Tuesday, August 18 military coup in the West African nation as “regrettable” and “a big failure for our democracy” and called for a change of mentality if the country has to put an end to coups.
In an interview with ACI Africa Wednesday, August 19, made available to RECOWACERAO NEWS AGENCY, RECONA, the President of CEM, Bishop Jonas Dembélé said that the governance challenges the country is facing can be managed through dialogue.
“The military coup that led to the ousting of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta is regrettable because we are in a state of law and democracy. This is the second time that Mali has had a military coup as a result of the way in which the country is governed. It is a big failure for our democracy even if there were reasons for it,” Bishop Dembélé told ACI Africa.
“It is true that our country has serious challenges including bad governance, the poor management of the economy, corruption, insecurity and so on,” Bishop Dembélé said and probed, “Why is it that we Malians have not managed to engage in dialogue to be able to discuss these problems and face up to these challenges responsibly?”
“Our leaders, our people lack transparency, they hate those who speak the truth and advocate for good governance. This mentality must change for our country to move on,” the Prelate told ACI Africa August 19.
Bishop Dembélé who is a frontline member of RECOWA-CERAO urged the military officials “to ensure a return to democracy as promised but most especially ensuring the new leadership of the country put the people first and tackle the security challenges facing the nation.”
Asked about the role of the Church in the current crisis, the 57-year-old Prelate noted, “For us the Catholic Church in Mali, our role is to preach peace; our role is to preach dialogue. We shall continue in this path of dialogue for peace just like Cardinal Jean Zerbo and some religious leaders initiated.”
“In a state of law, power is not in the hands of certain individuals but to the people. The anger of our people led to this crisis, but we must work for peace and reconciliation in Mali,” Bishop Dembélé said.
He continued in recollections, “The Bishops in Mali have always issued messages before every election in our country sounding the alert and inviting the government to organize transparent elections, ensure good governance and better management of resources.”
“But it seems our messages are never taken into consideration that is why we find ourselves in this situation today,” the Local Ordinary of Kayes Diocese told ACI Africa and added, “If the opinion of the Episcopal Conference of Mali is needed to mediate in bringing back stability and peace in the country, then we are ready.”
As a way forward, the Bishop urged the people of God in Mali to “seek the path to conversion” and to accept dialogue in the spirit of truth and honesty.
“We all want change in our
country, but this change can only be possible if individually we seek the path to conversion. It is for Malians be they Muslims or Christians or members of traditional religion, to do an examination of conscience and accept personal and community conversion in order to engage in sincere dialogue,” he said.
The Malian Prelate added, “Now there is this coup d’état to demand change we really wonder where change should come from. As long as we don’t change our behavior, our mentality, we will always have a repeat of the current situation.”
On Tuesday, August 18, President Keita announced his resignation and dissolved parliament hours after mutinying soldiers detained him at gunpoint, Aljazeera reported.
“For seven years, I have with great joy and happiness tried to put this country on its feet. If today some people from the armed forces have decided to end it by their intervention, do I have a choice? I should submit to it because I do not want any blood to be shed,” President Keita said August 18 during the televised address to the nation.
Rev. Fr. George Nwachukwu
RECOWACERAO NEWS AGENCY, RECONA
Harris accepts VP nomination
Senator Kamala Harris formally accepted the Democratic nomination for vice president on Wednesday following a scathing speech by former President Barack Obama, who said the fate of the nation” depends entirely on the outcome of this election.”
Both Mr. Obama and Harris stressed the importance of voting, with Harris saying “we’re all in this fight together.” Harris sounded an optimistic note by highlighting her personal history and the promise of America, saying she was “so inspired by a new generation.”
“Make no mistake, the road ahead will not be not easy,” she said. “We will stumble. We may fall short. But I pledge to you that we will act boldly and deal with our challenges honestly. We will speak truths. And we will act with the same faith in you that we ask you to place in us.” She called Mr. Trump a “predator” in a speech that came after Mr. Obama issued his most forceful rebuke of his successor to date, saying Mr. Trump “hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t.”
“This president and those in power — those who benefit from keeping things the way they are — they are counting on your cynicism,” Mr. Obama said. “They know they can’t win you over with their policies. So they’re hoping to make it as hard as possible for you to vote, and to convince you that your vote doesn’t matter.
That’s how they win. That’s how they get to keep making decisions that affect your life, and the lives of the people you love. That’s how the economy will keep getting skewed to the wealthy and well-connected, how our health systems will let more people fall through the cracks. That’s how a democracy withers, until it’s no democracy at all.”
Mr. Obama and Hillary Clinton, speaking earlier in the night, both said they had hoped Mr. Trump would rise to the occasion. But they both stressed what they called his failures while in office, with Mr. Obama saying Mr. Trump has shown “no interest in treating the presidency as anything but one more reality show that he can use to get the attention he craves.”
Mali coup leaders vow to hold elections as history repeats itself
The Malian soldiers who forced President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to resign in a coup promised early Wednesday to organize new elections after their takeover was swiftly condemned by the international community.
In a statement carried overnight on state broadcaster ORTM, the mutinous soldiers who staged Tuesday’s military coup identified themselves as the National Committee for the Salvation of the People led by Colonel Major Ismael Wagué.
“With you, standing as one, we can restore this country to its former greatness,” Wagué said, announcing that borders were closed and that a curfew was going into effect from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m
The news of Keita’s departure was met with jubilation by anti-government demonstrators in the capital, Bamako, and alarm by former colonial ruler France and other allies and foreign nations.
The U.N. Security Council scheduled a closed meeting Wednesday August 19, 2020 afternoon to discuss the unfolding situation in Mali, where the U.N. has a 15,600-strong peacekeeping mission. Keita, who was democratically elected in a 2013 landslide and re-elected five years later, still had three years left in his term.
But his popularity had plummeted, and demonstrators began taking to the streets calling for his ouster in June.
West African regional bloc ECOWAS had sent mediators to try and negotiate a unity government but those talks fell apart when it became clear that the protesters would not accept less than Keita’s resignation.
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