The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russia spent millions on secret global political campaign, U.S. intelligence finds

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow on Sept. 13. (Gavriil Grigorov/Sputnik/Kremlin pool/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Russia has secretly funneled at least $300 million to foreign political parties and candidates in more than two dozen countries since 2014 in an attempt to shape political events beyond its borders, according to a new U.S. intelligence review.

Moscow planned to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more as part of its covert campaign to weaken democratic systems and promote global political forces seen as aligned with Kremlin interests, according to the review, which the Biden administration commissioned this summer.

A senior U.S. official, who like other officials spoke to reporters Tuesday on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence findings, said the administration decided to declassify some of the review’s findings in an attempt to counter Russia’s ability to sway political systems in countries in Europe, Africa and elsewhere.

“By shining this light on Russian covert political financing and Russian attempts to undermine democratic processes, we’re putting these foreign parties and candidates on notice that if they accept Russian money secretly we can and we will expose it,” the official said.

Countries where such activities were identified included Albania, Montenegro, Madagascar and, potentially, Ecuador, according to an administration source familiar with the matter.

Officials pointed to one Asian country, which they declined to name, where they said the Russian ambassador gave millions of dollars in cash to a presidential candidate. They said that Kremlin-linked forces have also used shell companies, think tanks and other means to influence political events, sometimes to the benefit of far-right groups.

The senior official said the U.S. government detected an uptick in Russian covert political financing in 2014. The review did not address Russian activities within the United States.

Assessments by both U.S. spy agencies and a bipartisan Senate investigation concluded that Russia under President Vladimir Putin launched a campaign to interfere in the 2016 presidential election to assist then-candidate Donald Trump.

The publication of details about the Kremlin’s alleged political influence campaign comes as the United States expands its military support for Ukraine in its war against Russia, now in its seventh month.

Since early this year the White House has taken the unusual step of repeatedly releasing declassified intelligence related to Moscow’s intentions and actions related to Ukraine, part of an attempt to push back on Putin’s ambitions there and counteract what U.S. officials have described as Russian disinformation operations.

A State Department démarche Monday to U.S. embassies in more than 100 countries described the alleged Russian activities and suggested steps the United States and its allies can take to push back, including sanctions, travel bans or the expulsion of suspected Russian spies involved in political financing activities.

The cable, which officials provided to reporters, said that Russian political financing was sometimes overseen by Russian government officials and legislators, and had been executed by bodies including Russia’s Federal Security Service.

The démarche also named Russian oligarchs it said were involved in “financing schemes,” including Yevgeniy Prigozhin and Aleksandr Babakov.

Prigozhin, known as “Putin’s chef” after making vast sums in Russian government catering contracts, was charged by U.S. officials in 2018 with attempting to interfere in the 2016 U.S. elections. He has been linked to the private military firm Wagner and is wanted by the FBI.

Babakov is a Russian lawmaker allegedly involved in a financing a far-right party in France.

Moscow has used cryptocurrency, cash and gifts to shape political events in other countries, often employing accounts and resources of Russian embassies to do so, the cable said.

“In the coming months, Russia may increasingly rely on its covert influence toolkit, including covert political financing, in Central and South America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia in an attempt to undermine the efficacy of international sanctions and maintain its influence in these regions amid its ongoing war in Ukraine,” it said.

U.S. diplomats are briefing counterparts in other countries about the activities, which American officials believe could go far beyond the nations and sums that have been identified.

“We think this is just the tip of the iceberg,” the senior official said. “So rather than sit on the sidelines, we are sharing these response measures.”

U.S. officials are also asking partner nations to share their own information about Russian financing to help the U.S. government attain a fuller picture of what Russia is doing.

While the review did not address Russian influence efforts in the United States, the senior official acknowledged that issue remains a major challenge requiring continued work to safeguard the U.S. political system and elections.

“There’s no question that we have this vulnerability as well,” the official said.

Paul Sonne in Washington contributed to this report.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees Friday to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following staged referendums that were widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.

The response: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO, in an apparent answer to the annexations.

In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on Sept. 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.

The fight: Ukraine mounted a successful counteroffensive that forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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