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.
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.
“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.
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 accused in the United States of 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 the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies 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.”