The Russian government has waged a global effort to undermine confidence in election integrity and democratic processes, according to a new unclassified assessment by the U.S. intelligence community, broadening a decades-long pattern of behavior that has taken on new dimensions with the rise of social media. The intelligence community took note of efforts ranging from organizing protests and sabotaging voting to online efforts to spread conspiracy theories.
Calling Russia’s activity targeting democratic processes a “new emerging area of concern,” a senior State Department official said Friday that Russia’s known tactics of seeding or amplifying false information had intensified after what Kremlin officials perceived to be successes in influence campaigns that targeted previous American elections.
“[W]e are seeing them look at their perceived successand their perceived success in 2020 in gumming up outcomes to be something that should be continued moving forward, and even maybe expanded,” a senior intelligence official said. Both officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter.
The recently downgraded U.S. intelligence community assessment said Russia waged campaigns in at least 11 elections across nine democracies, including the U.S., between 2020 and 2022. It also identified a “less pronounced level” of Russian activity targeting 17 other democratic countries. The countries involved were not identified, but U.S. officials said the campaigns spread across multiple continents and included areas in the Middle East, South and North America and Asia.
The assessment’s findings were included in an unclassified cable sent to dozens of U.S. embassies around the world and obtained by CBS News. The senior State Department official said they were being shared broadly to “get ahead of…elections that are over the horizon over the next year.”
“Russia is pursuing operations to degrade public confidence in the integrity of elections themselves. For Russia, the benefits of these operations are twofold: to sow instability within democratic societies, and to portray democratic elections as dysfunctional and the resulting governments as illegitimate,” the cable said.
Among the examples cited in the cable were covert efforts by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) to use proxies to deploy “agitators” used to intimidate campaign workers, organize protests and sabotage overseas voting in an unspecified European election in 2020.
Overt efforts included the amplification by Russian media of false claims of voting fraud, U.S. interference and conspiracy theories about mail-in ballots. The Kremlin has also used proxy websites to publish articles in various languages under the guise of independent reporting to spread claims of election fraud, the cable said.
The activity outlined in the assessment was a “snapshot” of Russian efforts, and others may have gone undetected, it said. Russian operations almost always relied upon preexisting narratives within domestic populations, which were then leveraged and amplified, officials said.
For now, U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed the Kremlin to be the “leading culprit” in activity specifically targeting election integrity, noting the U.S. had “not observed” the Chinese government to be engaged in similar operations targeting democratic processes.
“[W]e are not saying here that we don’t think that the [People’s Republic of China] is interested in…influencing elections globally,” the senior intelligence official said. “We see both Russia and China looking to denigrate democracy as a governance approach.”
“We’re simply saying that for this specific tactic of focusing messaging on the integrity of the outcome in order to de-legitimize the government that got elected, we’ve seen more of it from Russia, and we still haven’t seen enough to say we see a trend for using this specific approach for China,” the official said.