Russia’s efforts to discredit and undermine democratic elections appears to be expanding rapidly, according to newly declassified intelligence, spurred on by what the Kremlin sees as its success in disrupting the past two U.S. presidential elections.
The U.S. intelligence findings, shared in a diplomatic cable sent to more than 100 countries and obtained by VOA, are based on a review of Russian information operations between January 2020 and December 2022 that found Moscow “engaged in a concerted effort … to undermine public confidence in at least 11 elections across nine democracies.”
The review also found what the cable describes as “a less pronounced level of Russian messaging and social media activity” that targeted another 17 democracies.
“These figures represent a snapshot of Russian activities,” the cable warned. “Russia likely has sought to undermine confidence in democratic elections in additional cases that have gone undetected.
“Our information indicates that senior Russian government officials, including in the Kremlin, see value in this type of influence operation and perceive it to be effective,” the cable added.
VOA reached out to the Russian Embassy for comment on the cable warnings but so far has not received a response.
Russia has routinely denied allegations it interferes in foreign elections. However, last November, Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin appeared to admit culpability for interfering in U.S. elections in a social media post.
“Gentlemen, we interfered, we interfere and we will interfere,” Prigozhin said.
U.S. officials assess that, in addition to Russia’s efforts to sow doubt surrounding the 2016 and 2020 elections in the United States, Russian campaigns have targeted countries in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and South America.
The goal, they say, is specifically to erode public confidence in election results and to paint the newly elected governments as illegitimate — using internet trolls, social media influencers, proxy websites linked to Russian intelligence and even Russian state-run media channels like RT and Sputnik.
And even though Russia’s resources have been strained due to its invasion of Ukraine, Moscow election interference efforts do not seem to be slowing down.
It is “a fairly low cost, low barrier to entry operation,” said a senior U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the intelligence assessment.
“In many cases they’re amplifying existing domestic narratives that kind of question the integrity of elections,” the official said. “This is a very efficient use of resources. All they’re doing is magnifying claims that it’s unfair or it didn’t work or it’s chaotic.”
U.S. officials said they have started giving more detailed, confidential briefings to select countries that are being targeted by Russia. Some of the countries, they said, have likewise promised to share intelligence gathered from their own investigations.
Additionally, the cable makes a series of recommendations to counter the threat from the Russian disinformation campaigns, including for countries to expose, sanction and even expel any Russian officials involved in spreading misinformation or disinformation.
The cable also encourages democratic countries to engage in information campaigns to share factual information about their elections and to turn to independent election observers to assess and affirm the integrity of any elections.