China's Economic "Attack" on Russia amidst Western Sanctions

China’s Economic “Attack” on Russia amidst Western Sanctions

In an unexpected turn of events, China has initiated what seems like an economic assault on Russia, diverging from the conventional military or weapon-based confrontations often seen in geopolitical tensions. Several major Chinese banks have opted to restrict their operations with Russia, as reported by US media outlet Newsweek.

This move coincides with Moscow facing a widespread economic embargo from Western nations due to its actions concerning Ukraine. The implications of this embargo have prompted Chinese entities to reassess their financial ties with Russia, leading to limitations in access to services or even severing ties altogether.

Among the notable actions, China UnionPay, a prominent payment system often touted as an alternative to MasterCard and Visa, has retracted to reduce its exposure to Russia. Additionally, the Commercial Bank of Zhejiang Chouzhou, a significant institution used by Russian exporters, has suspended all transactions for clients from Russia and Belarus.

Experts cited by Newsweek predict that the ramifications of these actions may become evident after the Chinese New Year period, which typically witnesses reduced economic activity in China. However, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs is yet to provide a response to these developments.

Contrary to these reports, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Rudenko has vehemently denied any issues in the economic relations between Moscow and Beijing. Rudenko reassures that the economic ties between both nations remain robust and capable of resolving various challenges.

This sentiment echoes statements made by Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, emphasizing ongoing dialogues between Moscow and Beijing to address emerging issues. The burgeoning trade relationship between Russia and China has grown tighter in the aftermath of Western sanctions against Russia.

Trade volume between the two nations surged to US$240.1 billion in 2023, marking a 26.3% increase from the previous year. Furthermore, both countries are actively pursuing de-dollarization efforts through the BRICS economic pact, aiming to reduce reliance on the US dollar.

Highlighting the gravity of the situation, Russia’s Central Bank revealed that over a third of Russia’s imports and exports with China are now settled in yuan. This signifies a significant shift in global economic dynamics and underscores the escalating pressure on Russia amidst Western sanctions.

As Russia navigates these challenges, it seeks to mitigate the impact of Western sanctions by strengthening its trade ties with China. However, experts caution that the restrictions imposed by Chinese banks could have significant long-term consequences, necessitating careful consideration of future actions.

The decisions made by Chinese banks underscore the severity of international pressure on Russia, prompting Moscow to explore solutions to address its increasingly challenging economic landscape. As geopolitical tensions persist, the dynamics between Russia, China, and the Western world continue to evolve, shaping the future of global economic relations.


Putin meets China's Ambassador Wang Yi

China and Russia deepen ties as top diplomat tells Putin crisis is ‘opportunity’

On eve of Ukraine invasion anniversary Russian leader says China relations ‘proceeding as planned’

China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, has met Vladimir Putin in Moscow, as China and Russia reaffirm their close bilateral relationship just days before the first anniversary of the start of the Ukraine war.

In brief televised remarks Wang said China and Russia were ready to deepen their strategic cooperation. Earlier on Wednesday, Wang met Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, where he said he expected to reach a “new consensus” on advancing the relationship between the two allies.

Putin said that “Russian-Chinese relations were proceeding as planned” and talked of reaching “new milestones” in areas such as bilateral trade. Putin said the two countries had “ongoing cooperation” in international affairs and expressed Russia’s gratitude to China.

Putin described the international situation as “quite complicated” and said Sino-Russian cooperation was “important for stabilising the international situation”.

Wang said “a crisis is always an opportunity” and that the Sino-Russian relationship was “never dictated by any third parties”. Both leaders emphasised the importance of “multipolar” approaches to international affairs – a worldview that rejects what China describes as the US’s “unipolar” approach to dominating global leadership.

Since the start of the war in Ukraine last year, China has claimed to be neutral, although it has made many comments supporting Russia. On Saturday the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said China could be on the verge of supplying lethal weapons to Russia, a claim China denies.

The meetings came during a week of diplomatic activity ahead of the Ukraine anniversary. On Monday Joe Biden met Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Ukraine’s president, in Kyiv during a historic trip, the first time a US president had visited the capital of a country at war without the US controlling the critical infrastructure.

Xi Jinping, China’s president, is expected to visit Putin in Russia in the coming months, although an exact date has not been announced.

Wang’s visit to Moscow, where he was due to meet other top officials such as Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the security council, shows that the “relationship is not only on track, but it’s expanding, growing”, said Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

On Tuesday China published a government paper on its global security initiative that described the principles underpinning Beijing’s policies. It proposed a UN-backed concept of “common security” that would “respect and guarantee the security of every country”. It said that “only security based on morality and correct ideas can have a solid foundation and be truly durable”.

The paper also explicitly rejected the use of sanctions as a means of resolving disputes. Xi has made repeated calls for China to become self-sufficient in key industries, such as semiconductors, as it faces a growing number of US export controls. Were China to attempt to take over Taiwan by force, the prospect of international sanctions, similar to those that have been imposed on Russia, would be one of the many hurdles in its path.

Xi is expected to give a “peace speech” on Friday, the anniversary of the invasion, which will probably build on the ideas outlined in the global security initiative.

Gabuev said he was sceptical about warnings that China was imminently planning to negotiate new deliveries of arms or munitions that would directly affect the war effort. Beijing could tie arms deliveries to similar US support for Taiwan, he suggested.

Rather than wanting to escalate the conflict, Wang’s visit to Moscow was a chance to promote the idea that China wants a “peaceful settlement”, said Rosemary Foot, a professor of international relations at Oxford University. The Chinese leadership emphasises the importance of stability in international affairs, both as an ideology and as a means of achieving its economic targets.

Foot said China also saw Russia as a buffer against western scrutiny. Last year Thomas Haldenwang, the head of Germany’s domestic intelligence service, said that when it came to international security, “Russia is the storm, China is climate change”. Ken McCallum, the director of MI5, has made similar comments. This argument reinforced Beijing’s belief that “China would have to take more of the brunt of western criticisms and actions were Russia not to exist in its present form”, Foot said.

For Russia, expanding economic cooperation with China is key to surviving sanctions and maintaining the war effort.

“China is increasingly becoming a lifeline that keeps the regime afloat and prevents it from turning into a giant North Korea with an overly militarised industry and total destruction of normal life,” said Gabuev. “Of course Russia is a much more robust economy, but without the ability to sell to the Chinese market or access Chinese tech, life will be harder and the war effort would be harder to sustain.”

“So I think it’s absolutely essential for Russia to maintain and expand these ties.”


2016 US election

Study says Russian trolls didn’t sway the US 2016 election

Breaking down what was real and what was exaggerated about Russian interference

That’s the implication from a new study in Nature Communications, written by a team of six academics who tried to assess whether the Russian government’s Twitter propaganda effort during the 2016 campaign actually changed users’ minds. “We find no evidence of a meaningful relationship between exposure to the Russian foreign influence campaign and changes in attitudes, polarization, or voting behavior,” the authors wrote.

This isn’t a surprise to me — I’ve long believed the Russian troll farms had little impact. But with the afterlife of the Trump-Russia scandal remaining fiercely contested — with many on the right and some “heterodox” leftists continuing to question whether Russia did anything at all of significance — it’s worth looking back and taking stock of what the Russian government did do that year. Because it wasn’t nothing.

Basically, the Russian government tried to intervene in the 2016 election, and it did so in two main ways.

First, there was that social media propaganda effort: the Russian trolls. On Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, Russians posed as Americans and posted content designed to inflame US political tensions, often attacking Hillary Clinton and supporting Donald Trump. This happened, and it was rather unusual, but as this new study corroborates, there’s no convincing reason to believe it made any difference to Americans’ voting behavior. The Russian propaganda was just some more drops in an ocean of media and social media messaging that Americans were swimming in.

Second, and more consequentially, there were the stolen emails: the hack-and-leak. Russian intelligence officers hacked and obtained emails and documents from many top Democrats and had those put out publicly — giving some to WikiLeaks, providing others to reporters, and posting more on websites they controlled.

These hacks and releases did make an impact — notably, they were a negative story for Clinton that simmered throughout the last month of the campaign. But did they swing the election? That is, in a counterfactual world with no Russian interference, would Clinton have won? My assessment is “probably not,” but it’s difficult to conclusively say for sure.

Still, these interventions were quite unusual in the context of American elections; it was appropriate to treat them as a big deal and understandable that Americans might resent Russia trying to swing their votes. There were real victims here, in the people who saw their private correspondence dumped on the internet, and it’s certainly important to deter interventions like this from happening in the future.

The Russian trolls didn’t swing the 2016 election

The Russian social media propaganda effort was carried out by the Internet Research Agency, an organization based in St. Petersburg and funded by Yevgeny Prigozhin — a Russian oligarch close to Putin who also heads the Wagner Group (a paramilitary group active in the Russia-Ukraine war). The IRA is not officially a government agency, but a bipartisan report from the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded that “the Russian government tasked and supported” its 2016 election interference efforts.

Employees of the IRA created online accounts, claimed to be American, and posted inflammatory or trollish material about US politics. Much of this material was rather crude or silly, but the overall thrust was clear: It tended to praise Trump and attack Hillary Clinton. The IRA also paid for online ads featuring the following pro-Trump, anti-Clinton messaging, as seen in this table from an indictment brought by Robert Mueller’s team, which was tasked with investigating Russian interference with the election:

All this was the source of much fascination and media attention when news of it emerged after the election. Facebook estimated that IRA messaging reached as many as 126 million people on their platform, which certainly seems like a big number. “It leaves all of us who use social media to keep up with friends, share photos and follow news wondering: How’d the Russians get to me?” the Washington Post’s Geoffrey Fowler wrote in November 2017.

But there were always solid reasons to doubt that the IRA posts had much of an impact, despite those scary numbers. If I scroll through Twitter for just 15 minutes, I could be “reached” by messages from hundreds of sources, if not more. I’ll use the metaphor again that these were drops in an ocean: Americans were swimming in messaging about the 2016 election from all sorts of traditional media and social media sources for months (as well as the campaigns and their ads), and there was no reason to believe Russian posts or ads had extra-special persuasive powers that all those other messages lacked.

Donald Trump shake hands with Vladimir Putin

Now, the authors of the Nature Communications study — Gregory Eady, Tom Paskhalis, Jan Zilinsky, Richard Bonneau, Jonathan Nagler, and Joshua A. Tucker — have conducted their own analysis driving this home. Back in 2016, they surveyed nearly 1,500 US Twitter users at various points in the campaign, returning to those same respondents to track how their opinions changed. They also analyzed all the Twitter accounts those respondents followed to see how many were exposed to Internet Research Agency content.

Overall, they found that 70 percent of exposures to IRA posts were concentrated among 1 percent of their respondents, and those respondents were mostly highly partisan Republicans who already liked Trump. That makes sense, given what we know of social media — if you go looking for anti-Clinton, pro-Trump content, that’s what you’ll find, either due to algorithmic recommendation or the accounts you follow simply retweeting messages they agreed with without knowing too much about who was saying them. And that’s the sort of content the IRA was providing. But the finding suggests the IRA messaging was not finely calibrated to target wavering swing voters.

The authors also put the exposure to this messaging in perspective by finding that users had far more posts from traditional media and politicians in their timelines than Russian trolls — an “order of magnitude” more, they write. And ultimately, their survey results “did not detect any meaningful relationships between exposure to posts from Russian foreign influence accounts and changes in respondents’ attitudes on the issues, political polarization, or voting behavior.”

Now, it is true that this is just a study of Twitter posts and not other social media platforms like Facebook where the IRA was also active. The overall logic is sound, though. Americans can certainly resent the Russian effort to propagandize their views, and Mueller’s team argued that much of what they did violated US laws. But the Russians didn’t have some magically effective messaging that warped Americans’ minds and forced them to support Donald Trump.

The hack-and-leak was a bigger deal (but still may not have swung the election)

In 2016, the GRU, Russia’s foreign military intelligence agency, went on a spree of hacking of Americans involved in politics or government.

Using simple spear-phishing emails (links to a fake Google page that asked people to enter their password), they obtained access to the email accounts of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta, as well as several Clinton staffers, volunteers, and advisers. According to the Mueller report, they spear-phished an employee of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which got them credentials for access to the DCCC computer network and eventually the connected Democratic National Committee network. The hackers then used malware to scoop up emails and documents.

(Some critics of the Russia investigation like journalist Matt Taibbi still purport to be skeptical that the hacks were the Russian government’s doing, but Mueller’s report and his indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers provide a wealth of specific detailed allegations about exactly how these hacks happened and which specific officers and units in the GRU were responsible. This is inconvenient for the Russiagate skeptics, so they tend to ignore it.)

Foreign hacking is far from unusual; the Chinese government, for instance, was said to have hacked Barack Obama’s and John McCain’s presidential campaigns in 2008, and the US has likely done a fair amount of it as well. The jarring departure was what happened next: The stolen information began showing up publicly, in massive accounts. (Another unusual aspect was that one major candidate openly welcomed this intervention, with Trump publicly urging Russia to “find” more Clinton emails.)

The GRU used the persona of “Guccifer 2.0” (“Guccifer” was a name used by a jailed Romanian hacker) and registered a website, DC Leaks, posting hacked material there and providing some to reporters. But two specific batches were saved for WikiLeaks, a nonprofit that had posted leaked US government material in the past.

First, in late July 2016, just before the Democratic National Convention, WikiLeaks posted thousands of DNC emails and revealed that many DNC members privately spoke of Bernie Sanders with disdain. The revelations drove DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and other top staffers to resign, and overall made an ugly start for the Democratic convention.

Second, in early October 2016, WikiLeaks began posting Podesta’s emails — and would continue to post them, in batches, up through the election. The Podesta emails weren’t as explosive, but in anyone’s private email there will be embarrassing material they’d prefer to keep private, and if that embarrassing material is only being released about one candidate, there could be an impact. So each new release drove some media coverage, and they were touted constantly by Trump on the campaign trail, who often baselessly claimed they revealed some malfeasance or another.

Trump sank in the polls for the first half of October, as controversy over his Access Hollywood tape hit the news. In the second half of the month, the news cycle moved on and his poll numbers rebounded. He didn’t pass Clinton in the polls, but he got closer — close enough to pull out a win by less than 1 percentage point in three key swing states.

Yet I would be hesitant to claim that the drip-drip-drip of Podesta email coverage was responsible for Trump’s recovery. Part of it could simply be about Republican partisans briefly turned off by his scandals “coming home” to him before the election — a process that may have unfolded even if there had been no Russian interference. (Trump improved in the polls in the last half of October 2020, as well.)

The case could be made that, simply by keeping the words “Clinton” and “emails” in the news for a month, the Podesta releases hurt her campaign (since any coverage of the leaks would remind voters of a separate matter, the FBI investigation into Clinton’s emails). Still, it’s far easier to make the case that FBI Director James Comey’s late October letter saying new Clinton emails had been discovered changed the outcome, as Nate Silver has argued, than the Russian hack-and-leaks. The Comey letter was a discrete event that dominated headlines and preceded a sharp change in the polls, while the Podesta leaks were one of many stories simmering in the background throughout October.

So I’ve never been persuaded that Russia fully got Trump elected. That is a high bar, though, and despite the overhyped Russian trolls, it seems to me the hack-and-leak was a consequential intervention that damaged Clinton and the Democrats to some extent. And it really was an attempt to affect Americans’ votes and hurt a presidential candidate who Russia didn’t like — an attempt that violated US laws against hacking and disclosing campaign activity. The intervention was real, the investigation into it was justified, and the anger at the Russian government for what it tried to do is justified as well.

Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.


Putin rally

New Evidence Shows How Russia’s Election Interference Has Gotten More Brazen

The Kremlin-linked operation behind 2016 election meddling is using similar tactics for 2020, plus some new ones.

Intelligence officials have reportedly found that Russia is interfering in the 2020 elections to try to support President Trump’s reelection, while also meddling in the Democratic primaries to help Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign. The reports have not revealed details about what actions Russia is taking or their scope, but my analysis of social media activity exposes some examples.

I found that social media accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency (IRA), the Kremlin-linked company behind an influence campaign that targeted the 2016 elections, have indeed already begun their digital campaign to interfere in the 2020 presidential election. And they are getting even more brazen in tactics, as a sample of new posts shows.

In September 2019, just a few months ahead of the Democratic primaries, I noticed some posts on Instagram that appeared to use the strategies and tactics very similar to those of the IRA that I observed in my research on Russian interference in the 2016 elections on social media. A few weeks later, Facebook announced that it had taken down about 75,000 posts across 50 IRA-linked accounts from Facebook (one account) and Instagram (50 accounts).

My team at Project DATA (Digital Ad Tracking & Analysis) happened to capture some of these posts on Instagram before Facebook removed them. We identified 32 accounts that exhibited the attributes of the IRA, and 31 of them were later confirmed to be the IRA-linked accounts by Graphika, a social media analysis firm commissioned by Facebook to examine the accounts.

Some strategies and tactics for election interference were the same as before. Russia’s trolls pretended to be American people, including political groups and candidates. They tried to sow division by targeting both the left and right with posts to foment outrage, fear, and hostility. Much of their activity seemed designed to discourage certain people from voting. And they focused on swing states.

But the IRA’s approach is evolving. Its trolls have gotten better at impersonating candidates and parties, more closely mimicking logos of official campaigns. They have moved away from creating their own fake advocacy groups to mimicking and appropriating the names of actual American groups. And they’ve increased their use of seemingly nonpolitical content and commercial accounts, hiding their attempts to build networks of influence.

Continuing the same strategies and tactics

Overall, the IRA appears to still employ many of the same strategies and tactics as in 2016: posing as domestic actors, the IRA targeted both sides of the ideological spectrum with wedge issues. Especially noticeable were same-side candidate attacks (i.e., an “in-kind candidate attack” targeting the likely voters of the candidate), a type of voter suppression strategy designed to break the coalition of one side or the other.

Fraudulent identity

The IRA used generic names or mimicked existing names similar to domestic political, grassroots, and community groups, as well as the candidates themselves.

Targeting both sides

We made inferences on targeting based on account names, followings, and followers because unlike our studies conducted in the 2016 elections (e.g., Kim et al., 2018), we were unable to collect information about the users who were exposed to the posts this time.

The IRA targets both sides of the ideological spectrum to sow division. This strategy is unique to Russian election campaigns, making it different than conventional persuasion-oriented propaganda or other foreign countries’ election interference strategies.

The divide between the police and the Black community, for instance, has been a running theme of the IRA’s influence campaigns, as clearly exhibited in IRA activities between 2014 and 2017 through posts around “Blue Lives Matter” vs. “Black Lives Matter.” Furthermore, the IRA exaggerated a sharp division in the African American community.

In the context of the 2020 elections, I found both endorsement and attack messages for major candidates, parties, and politicians including the president. Compared to the posts highlighting existing divides around social identities or issues, election-related endorsements and attack posts are more direct, honed, and straightforward.

Wedge issues

The majority of the IRA’s influence campaigns are indeed issue or interest based. The IRA is well-versed enough in the history and culture of our politics to exploit sharp political divisions already existing in our society. Targeting those who are likely to be interested in a particular issue but dissatisfied with the current party platforms or policies, the IRA campaigns often create an “us vs. them” discourse, feeding fear to activate or demobilize those who consider an issue personally important.

My analysis of the IRA campaigns between 2014 and 2017 found that race, American nationalism/patriotism, immigration, gun control, and LGBT issues were the top five issues most frequently discussed in the IRA’s campaigns.

Similarly, the issues frequently mentioned in the IRA’s posts in 2019 include racial identity/conflicts, anti-immigration (especially anti-Muslim), nationalism/patriotism, sectarianism, and gun rights.

Targets of those issue or interest based posts include veterans, working-class whites in rural areas, and nonwhites, especially African Americans.

One notable trend is the increase in the discussion of feminism at both ends of the spectrum.

It is also notable that one of the accounts, stop.trump2020, was fully devoted to anti-Trump messaging, similar to the IRA’s organization of the post-election rally, “Not My President.”

Geographic targeting

Geographically, these accounts specifically target battleground states including Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, Ohio, and Arizona.

Voter suppression

Drawing upon the literature (e.g., Wang 2012), I define voter suppression as a strategy to break the coalition of the opposition. Accordingly, I identify four types of voter suppression messages: election boycott, deception (lying about time, location or manner of voting), third-party candidate promotion (e.g., the promotion of Jill Stein targeting likely Hillary Clinton voters), and same-side candidate attack (i.e., an in-kind candidate attack, such as an attack on Clinton targeting likely Clinton voters).

Among the posts we captured in September 2019, I did not notice any messages that promoted election boycotts or deceptions yet, perhaps because those types of voter suppression campaigns usually occur right before the elections, thus it was too early to observe them.

However, I found other types of voter suppression tactics, such as “third-candidate” promotion (e.g., promotion of Rep. Tulsi Gabbard) and same-side candidate attacks, both targeting likely Democratic supporters.

In particular, the same-side candidate attack tactic that centers around major candidates in the Democratic primaries is very common. For example, trolls targeted liberal feminists with attacks on former Vice President Joe Biden portraying him as engaging in inappropriate touching.

In another example, the IRA targeted African Americans for heavy attacks on Sen. Kamala Harris.

Do the IRA-linked groups prefer President Trump and Bernie Sanders?
Recent reports have indicated that Russia is interfering in the 2020 elections in support of President Trump’s reelection and Sanders’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

In 2016, my analysis showed that while the IRA’s voter suppression campaigns on social media clearly targeted likely Clinton voters, especially nonwhite voters, no single voter suppression message targeted likely Trump voters.

As to whether Russia-linked groups are trying to aid Trump or Sanders over other candidates in 2020, unfortunately, this analysis itself cannot provide a definite answer yet.

Note, unlike my previous studies that examined the corpus of all of the digital campaigns exposed to a representative sample of the U.S. voting age population (87 million ads exposed to nearly 17,000 individuals who represented the U.S. voting age population) or the entire body of IRA posts on social media for three years, this analysis is limited to an anecdotal data collection at an earlier stage of the 2020 elections. While I found that similar to the 2016 case, the promotion of Trump’s agenda was prevalent across these accounts, I also found an anti-Trump account and anti-Trump messages targeting liberal voters.

In a similar vein, while I found a fake Sanders campaign account promoting Sanders, it is still premature to conclude that Russia is helping him at this point. For example, The United Muslims of America, one of the IRA groups that was active in the 2016 election, appeared to promote pro-Clinton agenda early on, but it later turned into one of the most anti-Clinton groups. More systematic analysis examining the full scope of the IRA activities around the 2020 elections are required.

However, it is very clear that as of September 2019, the IRA-linked groups have already begun a systematic campaign operation to influence the 2020 elections on Facebook and Instagram. This includes targeting liberal voters with attack messages on major candidates in such as Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

The evolution of Russian tactics

Despite tech platforms’ implementation of transparency measures, it appears that the IRA tactics aimed at the 2020 elections have become even more brazen than those from 2016.

Fraudulent identity

In 2016, the IRA created “shell groups” mimicking grassroots advocacy groups, and in some cases, impersonating candidates. Those fakes were relatively easy to detect, as an examination often revealed that those shell groups existed solely in Facebook Pages or external websites. They often used their own invented logos, landing page addresses, and the like, even when they tried to mimic existing domestic actors.

IRA attempts to influence the 2020 election appear to have improved their mimicry, however. In the newer IRA posts, I saw fake accounts pretend to be a Democratic candidate or an official campaign committee, with only subtle changes in the names or landing page addresses that are harder to notice. For example, the IRA mimicked the official account of the Bernie Sanders campaign, “bernie2020,” by using similar names like “bernie.2020__”.

Use of domestic nonprofits’ identities

Putin applauded by Russian

Among the IRA posts I reviewed that touched on the 2020 election, many use the identity of legitimate, relatively popular nonprofits, political action committees (PACs), or grassroots organizations, even in their original posts (not a repost from those groups).

Because I did not cross-compare all of the IRA’s posts and those of domestic groups historically, at this point, it is unclear whether the IRA is simply stealing names, logos, and materials already used by legitimate organizations, or unwitting collaboration between those legitimate organizations and the IRA’s shell groups occurred.

However, it is worth noting that in 2016, even when the tech platforms were not imposing transparency measures, the IRA never used exactly the same logo or name of already existing, legitimate, and active domestic groups while they mimicked the groups’ activities.

Tech platforms’ policies against political campaigns by foreign actors (e.g., Facebook Pages need to verify their U.S.-based identity) might have made Russian operations adapt to the changes and evolve over time. By using domestic political groups’ identities and materials, it would have been easier for foreign actors to bypass tech platforms’ enforcement. The lack of severe punishment for the 2016 election interference also might have reinforced such illicit behavior.

This tactic works favorably overall for IRA election interference strategies that exploit existing sharp political divides in our society, as it boosts the credibility of messages and helps amplify them among the members and supporters of the domestic groups. However, it certainly poses a great many challenges to investigators as well as tech platforms, as it is extremely difficult to detect “foreign” election interference and coordination.

Use of nonpolitical, commercial, domestic accounts and materials

Similarly, I noticed an apparent increase in the use of nonpolitical content and seemingly apolitical or commercial materials. While this tactic was utilized in 2016, especially to build audiences and support bases at an earlier stage of the IRA’s influence campaigns, it was not as common as now. This tactic conceals the political nature of the large scope of influence campaigns and its coordinated networks, disguising the true purpose of the campaigns.

What should we do?

The potential adaptation and evolution of the foreign election interference tactics pose even more challenges to those who care to protect our citizens and election systems. Ahead of the 2020 elections, digital political advertising has become a hot potato. Twitter withdrew from selling political advertising altogether, and Google decided to limit microtargeting options for candidate campaigns’ narrow-targeting ability. Facebook has announced no major change in political ad policies, although it has made its transparency tools easier to use.

These recent developments have made some at both ends of the political spectrum unhappy. Yet no laws have been enacted to promote election integrity on digital platforms. Three years after Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections came to light, we are still debating what we should do to prevent malicious actors’ disinformation campaigns from targeting our elections — especially sweeping, systematic foreign election interference campaigns on digital platforms used by ordinary people in their daily lives.

A comprehensive digital campaign policy framework must be considered to ensure the integrity of election campaigns. Just ahead of the elections, unfortunately, no such regulatory policy exists.

Enhance transparency and monitoring mechanisms

Tech platforms must do a better job at transparency, including identity verification and labeling. This would help reduce foreign actors’ production of “shell groups.”

It’s still too hard to discern foreign and domestic actors, false identities, and potential coordination between various groups, especially because of the tactics discovered in this analysis, such as the use of domestic groups’ logos and identities in the original posts. Platforms like Facebook aggressively protect intellectual property, for example with technology that automatically blocks posts that contain copyrighted material like songs. The platforms should consider applying similar tools to the political arena to block fake accounts from stealing the logos and brand identity of candidates and groups.

Enhance the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA)

The law requires that agents representing the interest of foreign powers in a political or “quasi-political” capacity must disclose their relationship with the foreign power. While FARA focuses on lobbying activities, it should acknowledge the changes in the nature of foreign influences in the digital era. Stronger regulation under FARA, including enhanced monitoring mechanisms, could help.

Enact rules for digital political campaigns

While the Federal Election Commission provides the rules and policies for political committees, its current policies do not adequately address digital political campaigns in general. For instance, a clear and consistent definition of political advertising must be provided across tech platforms to make transparency measures more effective. Likewise, comprehensive, cross-platform archives of political campaigns, including issue ads and target information, would help audiences, law enforcement, and researchers understand what’s happening in digital political advertising.

Without safeguards like these, Russia and other foreign governments will continue their efforts to manipulate American elections and undermine our democracy.

Author: Young Mie Kim is a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Brennan Center for Justice affiliated scholar.

Russian police detain hundreds at Moscow protest

Russian police detain hundreds at Moscow protest

Riot police crack down on rally against the exclusion of opposition candidates from the Moscow city council vote.

Russian police have detained hundreds of people attending an unauthorised protest in the country’s capital, Moscow, to demand free elections, according to a monitoring group.

Phalanxes of helmeted riot police linked arms and swept people away on Saturday as activists gathered on Pushkin Square to rally against the exclusion of independent and opposition candidates from the Moscow city council election.

The crowds were pushed to Trubnaya Square where police continued the crackdown.

At least 828 people were detained by police, according to OVD-info, an independent monitoring group. Police said they had detained 600 and said 1,500 had attended the protest, though footage of demonstrations which flared in different parts of Moscow suggested many more had taken part.

At a similar protest last week, police arrested at least 1,400 demonstrators, beating some people with truncheons.

OVD-info said some of the detainees at the latest protest reported being beaten by the police. Those allegedly beaten included a member of the precinct election commission, Aleksandr Sviderskiy,

MediaZona, a Russian media outlet, shared a video on Twitter that showed police beating a protester who was lying on the ground.

Grigory Durnovo, a coordinator for OVD-info, told Al Jazeera that police started to detain protesters even before the demonstration began.

Hundreds arrested at Moscow demonstration for free elections (1:54)

“The rally was planned to start at 2pm Moscow time [11:00 GMT]. The first detentions started about two hours before. We can call it preventive detentions, because people were taken to police stations and they were told to sign warrants warning them not to attend the rally and even not to appear in the streets close to the place where the rally was to be held,” he said from Moscow.

Prominent activist Lyubov Sobol, currently three weeks into a hunger strike after being barred from taking part in the local polls, was dragged from a taxi and detained as she set off for the rally on Saturday.

‘Atmosphere of total control’

Russian police crack down on rally

Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan, reporting from the protest in Moscow, said there were more police officers in the area than demonstrators.

“They are going into the crowd and detaining people. Most of the protesters are going peacefully, letting themselves be arrested. But this is nowhere near the number we have seen in previous protests,” he said.

“The massive security operation by the Moscow police appears to have worked.”

The dispute over the local election has provoked a large outcry. On July 20, about 20,000 people turned out for a demonstration that was the largest in the city in several years.

People in the crowd on Saturday said they just wanted the opposition to have a chance to run. “I want there to be big changes… now there is an atmosphere of total control,” Varvara, a 22-year-old artist, told AFP news agency.

“I believe everyone should have a right to take part [in the polls],” 39-year-old Robert said.

About 3,000 people attended a rally in St Petersburg supporting the Moscow protests, the local news site reported.

Sensitive elections

The Moscow city council, which has 45 seats, is responsible for a large municipal budget and is now controlled by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party. All of its seats, which have a five-year term, are up for grabs in the September 8 vote.

Once a local, low-key affair, the vote has shaken up Russia’s political scene as the Kremlin struggles with how to deal with strongly opposing views in its sprawling capital of 12.6 million.

Also on Saturday, Russian investigators launched a money-laundering probe against detained opposition leader Alexei Navalny‘s anti-corruption group, which has worked to expose the questionable wealth of top officials.

This week, the group published a new investigation into Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin’s deputy, accusing her of selling prime Moscow property to family members at rock-bottom prices.

Employees of the Foundation for Fighting Corruption (FBK) “received a large sum of money from third parties which they knew was procured illegally”, investigators said, alleging the group “laundered” one billion rubles ($15.3m).

“Accomplices” of FBK “gave a legal appearance” to the funds by transferring them to bank accounts and ultimately to the accounts of the FBK, investigators said.

The FBK collects money through donations, and Navalny’s ally Leonid Volkov dismissed allegations of money laundering as an attempt to stamp out Navalny’s national network of volunteers.

Navalny is currently serving 30 days behind bars for violating rules on public gatherings. Last weekend, he was hospitalised with symptoms his doctor said looked like poisoning.

A state toxicology lab said no traces of poison were found.

Several of Navalny’s associates are also in police custody over protests about next month’s elections in Moscow.

President Vladimir Putin has yet to comment on the situation in Moscow.


Russia Latest Election

Russia’s Latest Election: Putin’s Party Keeps On Winning

Remember in May when Newsweek pondered whether Vladimir Putin’s electability was slipping? And then there was this poor analysis back in 2011 by Agence France Presse, “there are signs that Putin’s once invincible popularity is on the wane.” Call it what it really is — wishful thinking — but, reality is that the ruling United Russia party isn’t waxing or waning. They are steadily holding onto power, with Putin himself having almost no serious rivals. On Sunday, Putin’s party did what it always does: win.

Russians voted in local elections yesterday with more than 6,000 politicians on the ballot. There were no upsets: politicians from United Russia won almost everywhere. Turnout was low, but it is hard to say whether or not that was a protest vote, or if — like here in the States — gubernatorial races don’t ignite people’s passions to go to the polls.

The highest voter turnout was registered in Mordovinia, a state with around 900,000 inhabitants located southeast of Moscow. Some 71% showed up. Vladivostok, a mostly maritime shipping state that’s about an hour and half flight north of Pyongyang, had a low 12.7% turnout.

On the party front, the closest contenders anywhere within the Russian Federation were the Communist Party (around 17%) and the nationalistic Liberal Democratic Party (as much as 20.6%), led by Vladimir Volfovich Zhirinovsky. If you think Putin has it in for the United States and Europe, try getting a load of this guy. CNBC calls him, Russia’s Trump. His party is the closest think to an opposition against Putin. Alexei Navalny’s anti-corruption, anti-war technocratic centrist Progress Party did not seem to register on the dial, perhaps because they were not allowed to run. Their Russian language website was totally void of election news. They have no seats in the State Duma, the equivalent of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Russia’s Election Commission said it did not receive any critical election violations that would have affected the results of the vote. Independent election watchdog, Golos, said there were problems in districts with early voting, but did not say whether those irregularities tipped the scales in favor of United Russia. On Golos’ Russian language website, they said that they recorded 709 reports of violations, roughly 250 more than the official election commission as reported by Vedomosti.

United Russia winning

Just how “rigged” was this election for Putin’s allies? Golos said they found voting problems in 55 regions, with 74% of the problems at the mayoral level and the rest at the equivalent of the state level. The most common complaints were “violations of the rights of election observers, commission members and the media” (21.4% of reports); illegal campaigning (13.3%); voter fraud such as voting twice and voting for someone else (22.7%).

Interest in elections has declined because of the a generally weak opposition, Kommersant business daily explained yesterday. Since 2015, the political opposition in the gubernatorial elections have often put out little-known candidates to compete with the establishment players on the ballot. In some regions, election officials have reportedly refused to register some candidates for various declared reasons, usually technical in nature. Opponents that are greenlighted tend to be candidates from Zhirinovsky’s party or the Communists who — despite some here who believe Russia is trying to rebuild its commie empire — could not seriously compete with Team Putin. Another halfway recognizable party, A Just Russia, ideological cousins of the European socialist parties, still does not have a contender. Its founder, Sergei Mironov, was one of four challengers taking on Putin in 2012. He garnered less than 4% of the vote.

Sunday marked the last day of voting before Russia’s presidential elections on March 18, 2018. Putin has not yet confirmed he was running. If he runs and wins, it will be his fourth term as president after two terms as prime minister. He would be on his way to become the longest serving leader of Soviet and post-Soviet Russia since Josef Stalin, a comparison often made to put the two men in the same political camp.

Gleb Kuznetsov, member of the Board of Directors of the Expert Institute for Social Research (EISI), told Kommersant that investors shouldn’t equate regional elections with the national campaign. “Turn-out will be much higher,” he said.

Outside of Russia, the preferred anti-Putin candidate remains Navalny. He is clearly the most palatable by Western standards. But Navalny is currently not allowed to participate in the elections for some arcane reason. Regardless, his polling numbers don’t have him close to Putin, even though many more people respect the man than is let on in the national media. Navalny is no Euromaidan activist, the name given to the pro-European activists that swarmed Ukraine in 2014 and pulled Kiev on what seems to be a permanent course westward. Navalny is a centrist, and while he is also no Cold War spy master like Putin, both men are very much pro-nation state.

But if Sunday’s elections are any indicator, Navalny will need a miracle. Either Putin bows down and hands the reins to someone else in United Russia, or Putin is elected president against next year. That seems like the safest bet.

Russian political scientist Abbas Gallyamov believes United Russia will be at the helm for a long time. “The opposition needs to organize better,” Kommersant reported. “I think the population has an internal, emotional fatigue with this notion of irremovable power,” Gallyamov told the paper.

Vladimir Putin - President of Russia

Cornell University Researchers Alleged Systemic Russia Election Fraud Since 2004

Russia President Vladimir Putin has consistently maintained elections in his country are free and fair.

The Russian Federation, main successor state to the Soviet Union, has been officially a democracy since its founding in 1991. But there has been doubt that their elections have been open, free and fair under Russian President Vladimir Putin and his cohort.

Researchers at Cornell University, in a paper updated in late June, argue that data show “convincing evidence of election fraud” in federal Russian elections since 2004.

“We analyzed raw data from seven federal elections held in the Russian Federation during the period from 2000 to 2012 and found that in all elections since 2004 the number of polling stations reporting turnout and/or leader’s result expressed by an integer percentage (as opposed to a fractional value) was much higher than expected by pure chance,” researcher Dmitry Kobak and his colleagues write.

“Unlike previously proposed statistical indicators of alleged electoral falsifications, our observations can hardly be explained differently but by a widespread election fraud,” they allege.

President Putin has dismissed concerns about election fairness in the past, and stood by the legitimacy of the results.

“That happens every time and will be happening in the future. The opposition always struggles and takes every opportunity to sideline the authorities, to blame them and to highlight their mistakes. It is a totally normal thing,” Putin said in 2011 following elections for Russia’s parliament, the Federal Assembly.

Putin has been either president or prime minister, Russia’s first and second ranking positions, respectively, since 1999.

But the Cornell researchers agree with conclusions reached in a 2011 Wall Street Journal analysis, among other reports critical of Russian election.

“In the Soviet period, the Communist Party routinely reported 100 percent results for turnout and support in its elections, in which other parties weren’t allowed to run. In recent years, similarly high tallies for United Russia have come from Russia’s Caucasus and other ethnic regions,” Gregory White and Rob Barry wrote, following the parliamentary elections that Putin vouched for.

Of course, it is possible the elections are actually largely legitimate and that Putin and his United Russia party are simply popular. Putin’s approval ratings are sky-high— over 80 percent in 2015 and 2016, numbers that are corroborated by Western firms.

Michael Birnbaum of The Washington Post points out what could be a separate problem than election fairness—the lack of open media in Russia.

“In a nation in which the Kremlin controls the airwaves, opinions can also be easily swayed, because few contrary opinions can be found in the mainstream,” Birnbaum writes.