By Jonathan Landay and Simon Lewis
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Friday released a U.S. intelligence assessment sent to more than 100 countries that found Moscow is using spies, social media and Russian state-run media to erode public faith in the integrity of democratic elections worldwide.
“This is a global phenomenon,” said the assessment. “Our information indicates that senior Russian government officials, including the Kremlin, see value in this type of influence operation and perceive it to be effective.”
A senior State Department official, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity, said that Russia was encouraged to intensify its election influence operations by its success in amplifying disinformation about the 2020 U.S. election and the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Success breeds more, and we definitely see the U.S. elections as a catalyst,” the official said.
The Russian embassy did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The release of the assessment comes amid serious tensions between the United States and Russia over Moscow’s war against Ukraine and a raft of other issues.
The assessment was sent in a State Department cable dated Wednesday to more than 100 U.S. embassies in the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa for distribution to their host governments, he said.
Washington was privately briefing recipient governments and shared the assessment “to get ahead of elections that are over the horizon over the next year,” the official said.
The report represents Washington’s latest move to combat what it says are Moscow’s efforts “to sow instability” in democratic countries by portraying elections as “dysfunctional, and resulting governments as illegitimate.”
Washington “recognizes its own vulnerability to this threat,” said the report, noting that U.S. intelligence agencies found that “Russian actors spread and amplified information to undermine public confidence in the U.S. 2020 election.”
U.S. President Joe Biden, a Democrat, in 2020 beat his Republican predecessor, Donald Trump, who refuses to accept the results, falsely claiming that he lost due to fraud.
Concerted Russian operations between 2020 and 2022 sought to “undermine public confidence in at least 11 elections across nine democracies, including the United States,” the report said, adding 17 others were targeted by “less pronounced” efforts.
It did not identify any of the other countries.
Russia “utilizes both overt and covert mechanisms, including influence networks and proxies managed” by Russian spy services, the report said.
As an example, it continued, Russia’s FSB security service secretly worked to intimidate election workers, organize election day protests and “sabotage overseas voting” in an unnamed European country’s 2020 election.
Russian state media openly claimed polls would be undemocratic and “amplified false claims of fraud” in advance of multiple elections in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and South America between 2020 and 2021, it said.
Russia also used social media platforms and “proxy websites” to sow doubts about the integrity of elections, it said.
It called Russia “the leading culprit” conducting operations to undermine public faith in the conduct and results of elections.
While China has interfered in elections, it was not assessed to be using that tactic, the official said. China denies interfering in elections.
The report recommended that countries work to mitigate Russian election interference through sanctions, information sharing, expulsions of Russian spies and travel bans.
(Writing by Jonathan Landay, Editing by Nick Zieminski)