by Maia Otarashvili*
With an array of new indictments, the US Department of Justice’s ongoing Russia investigation continues to intensify. All evidence points to heavy Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections, and inspires significant speculation over Russia’s possible future plans to interfere in the upcoming US mid-term elections. On the other hand, the Trump administration’s foreign policy stance, particularly in regards to Russia, is growing more chaotic and disjointed. With the firing of the Secretary of the State, Rex Tillerson among other high level officials, and an array of mixed messages coming from the top Trump administration members regarding Russia, the US seems weak and disengaged from the world.
The US Department of Justice investigation is led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. A former FBI director, Mueller was appointed in May 2017 by the deputy attorney general Rod J. Rosenstein in order to investigate any potential ties between President Trump’s campaign and Russian officials. This decision to launch the investigation was made in order to address the vast allegations of covert Russian intervention in the 2016 US presidential election. On Friday, February 16, Mueller indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities who are accused of helping orchestrate a sophisticated secret operation which aimed to help elect Donald Trump as president of the United States.
The list of charges is long and alarming. They include conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud, and aggravated identity theft. A Russian organization named Internet Research Agency LLC and 13 individuals affiliated with it, as well as two additional organizations financially linked to the organization, Concord and Prigozhin, are being charged for engaging in operations to interfere with US elections and political processes since 2014. According to the indictment document the 13 individuals posed as Americans on social media and stole identities of real Americans to control their social media accounts in order to “support the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump and disparage Hillary Clinton.” These persons also travelled to the United States to gather intelligence and even staged political rallies in the US posing as Americans. According to the charge sheet, “some defendants, posing as US persons and without revealing their Russian association, communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump Campaign and with other political activists to seek to coordinate political activities.” It also states that “in order to carry out their activities to interfere in US political and electoral processes without detection of their Russian affiliation, defendants conspired to obstruct the lawful functions of the United States government through fraud and deceit.”
The administration’s lukewarm attitude towards the scandalous revelations of the still-ongoing Russia investigation has left many foreign policy observers frustrated
The Internet Research Agency’s sophisticated social media techniques are particularly striking. Since 2014, they tracked and studied groups on US social media sites dedicated to US politics and key social issues. They devised a strategy through which they were able to infiltrate and manipulate these groups, while also creating additional social media accounts and groups in order to address a range of issues and spread messages on immigration, the Black Lives Matter movement, and religion. They also purchased advertisements on social media sites to promote their social media groups. This social media strategy included maintenance of regular metrics reports in order to measure the impact of their efforts. The group also took extra measures to hide its Russian identity by purchasing space on computer servers in the US, where they set up their virtual private networks.
The details of this indictment document have further outraged the politicians and Washington pundits alike. The US Intelligence Chief Dan Coates told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the United States is under attack, adding that Putin sees the 2016 election meddling as a successful effort and that the US is still not equipped to deal with further Russian intervention in the 2018 midterm elections. Coates also added that Russia aims to “degrade our democratic values and weaken our alliances.”
Most observers now believe that Tillerson was fired over his strongly-worded warning to Russia after the former British spy and his daughter were poisoned.
The administration’s lukewarm attitude towards the scandalous revelations of the still-ongoing Russia investigation has left many foreign policy observers frustrated. Indeed, in a recent interview, then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke of Russia’s intentions to keep illegally intervening in the US elections, this time in the 2018 midterm elections, as an unavoidable possibility: “The point is, if it’s their intention to interfere, they are going to find ways to do that. We can take steps we can take, but this is something that, once they decide they are going to do it, it’s very difficult to pre-empt it.” Tillerson’s solution doesn’t hold much promise as he proposes to “just continue to say to Russia, ‘Look, you think we don’t see what you’re doing. We do see it, and you need to stop. If you don’t, you’re going to just continue to invite consequences for yourself.”
At the Munich Security Summit the White House National Security Advisor, General H.R. McMaster addressed the news, commenting that the new FBI indictments make Russian meddling in the 2016 elections undeniable. He added that “This effort to polarize our societies, to support rightest groups — even the most extreme forms of fascist groups — and groups on the left, to pit western societies against eachother, all that has done is appeal to those big fringes while uniting [the majority] against Russia and Russia interference.”
President Trump quickly followed up on General McMaster’s decisively strong message in a tweet that left an impression that there was a disagreement in the White House: “General McMaster forgot to say that the results of the 2016 election were not impacted or changed by the Russians and that the only Collusion was between Russia and Crooked H, the DNC and the Dems. Remember the Dirty Dossier, Uranium, Speeches, Emails and the Podesta Company!”
So far, Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, a former top deputy to the Trump campaign, Richard Gates, and the Trump campaign manager, Paul Manafort, as well as former campaign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, have been indicted on various charges related to Russia.
These mixed messages from the US government came at the same time as the news of the Trump administration’s refusal to impose the additional sanctions on Russia was made public. This particular set of sanctions is specifically designed as a retaliatory measure against Russia for meddling in the 2016 elections. It would also aim to deter Moscow from attempting to interfere in the 2018 midterm elections, which now appears to be highly probable as a 2017 US intelligence community’s report has already stated.
President Trump continues to call the allegations of Russian interference “fake news” and is yet to acknowledge that this new evidence alarming. On February 18, he did address the issue in a tweet: “I never said Russia did not meddle in the election, I said ‘it may be Russia, or China or another country or group, or it may be a 400 pound genius sitting in bed and playing with his computer.’ The Russian ‘hoax’ was that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia – it never did!” In another tweet, he added that he has been much tougher on Russia than President Obama ever was. Yet, he has not outright condemned Russia for the long list of charges the FBI has presented.
Most observers now believe that Tillerson was fired over his strongly-worded warning to Russia after the former British spy and his daughter were poisoned. What ended-up to be Mr. Tillerson’s final words to Russia were stern:
“Russia must assess carefully as to how its actions are in the best interest of the Russian people and of the world more broadly. Continuing on their current trajectory is likely to lead to greater isolation on their part, a situation which is not in anyone’s interest.”
But the Russia problem isn’t going to go away with the dismissal of Mr. Tillerson. According to the latest reports, the National Security Council has presented Mr. Trump with a list of options to take action against Kremlin. The Trump administration is expected to align with the UK government’s decision to expel 23 Russian diplomats after the poisonings and resort to a similar action. This is Mr. Trump’s chance to show a strong and decisive stance against Vladimir Putin, who was recently elected for his fourth term as Russia’s president.
While the US is still busy trying investigate the extent and impact of the Russian illegal intervention in its democratic institutions, it is forced to multitask as it must prepare for a bumpy year ahead
Whether or not and to what extent the Trump campaign colluded with Russia is still for Mr. Mueller to investigate. So far, Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, a former top deputy to the Trump campaign, Richard Gates, and the Trump campaign manager, Paul Manafort, as well as former campaign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, have been indicted on various charges related to Russia.
Thus the Mueller investigation seems to be turning up the heat, and the Trump administration’s employee turnover rate keeps increasing. But while the US is still busy trying investigate the extent and impact of the Russian illegal intervention in its democratic institutions, it is forced to multitask as it must prepare for a bumpy year ahead. Unfortunately, the US government’s actions so far do not inspire a lot of confidence in its ability to unite against its adversaries.
*Maia Otarashvili is Research Fellow and Program Manager of the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. She holds an MA in Globalization, Development, and Transitions from the University of Westminster in London, UK. Her current research is focused on the post-communist countries of the Eurasia region, including the Black Sea and Caucasus states.