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With the coronavirus crisis and President Vladimir Putin’s push for the option of seeking two more terms, as well as planning for the postponed Victory Day military parade, the Kremlin seemed to turn its attention inward in the past few weeks and months.
And after a weeklong vote that was marred by criticism and fraud claims cemented the constitutional changes, the authorities have been busy trying to tamp down anger over the prospect of Putin potentially remaining president until 2036 and, evidence suggests, to establish tighter control in preparation for the coming years amid what promises to be persistent political uncertainty.
But a series of events, reports, and accusations have come as a stark reminder of the Russian state’s assertive actions abroad, from military operations in the Middle East and alleged election-meddling in the West to the search for a COVID-19 vaccine.
Over the past two years, Putin’s falling poll ratings and the country's troubling economic developments have led to speculation that the Kremlin might take some big, aggressive step beyond its borders in hopes of a new “Crimea bump” – a reference to the surge of popularity the president enjoyed when Russia sent in troops and seized control of the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.
That hasn’t happened.
For example, despite a comment in which Putin said that nations splitting from the disintegrating Soviet Union took “a huge amount of Russian land” with them and suggested they should have left without these “gifts from the Russian people” -- a remark that may have seemed both chilling and off base to many in former Soviet republics other than Russia, which was one of the engineers of the 1991 breakup of the U.S.S.R. – Moscow has made no apparent move to encroach physically on Belarus or Kazakhstan or to help the separatists it backs in eastern Ukraine push westward and take control of more territory.
However, several developments in the past week have served to revive discussion of what the U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), James Gilmore, said were “Russia’s actions…to undermine states’ freely chosen alliances and partnerships, disrupt democratic governance, fuel societal intolerance, impugn international support for independent civil society, and foment military insecurity.”
Power And Will
On July 15, the U.S. military command in Africa accused the Kremlin-connected military contractor Vagner Group of planting land mines and other explosive devices in Libya, where Moscow backs strongman Khalifa Haftar in the battle against the UN-recognized National Accord government, in violation of a UN arms embargo.
Vagner’s “irresponsible tactics are prolonging conflict and are responsible for the needless suffering and the deaths of innocent civilians,” U.S. Marine Corps Major General Bradford Gering, director of operations of the U.S. Africa Command, said in a statement. “Russia has the power to stop them, just not the will.”
On the same day, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the United States had imposed sanctions on three people and five companies connected to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Kremlin-linked businessman who controls Vagner and an array of organizations that Western governments say conduct various forms of interference abroad, in an attempt to curb his “destabilizing global activity.”
Pompeo said the new measures target entities that have enabled Prigozhin to operate in Sudan, where he said the businessman’s role “highlights the interplay between Russia’s paramilitary operations, support for preserving authoritarian regimes, such as that of former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, and exploitation of natural resources.”
Existing U.S. sanctions are aimed at reining in Prigozhin and several organizations linked to him, including Vagner and the Internet Research Agency, which U.S. officials accuse of carrying out online media influence operations as part of Russia’s alleged campaign of interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
An echo of those bygone days reverberated in the form of a July 11 article in The Washington Post by Robert Mueller, the former Justice Department special counsel who investigated Russia’s actions.
Mueller’s article focused on Roger Stone, whose prison sentence for a conviction on charges of lying to Congress and witness tampering was commuted by President Donald Trump. But it served as a reminder that – despite Putin’s frequent but sometimes winking, “Who, me?” denials -- U.S. officials repeatedly reported finding evidence of a concerted Russian state campaign to meddle in the electoral process.
“We now have a detailed picture of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election,” Mueller wrote.
Crucial parts of that alleged campaign were conducted by hackers, and Western governments say efforts to meddle in elections continue. On July 16, the British government said that “Russian groups almost certainly sought to interfere” in 2019 general elections in the United Kingdom by stealing and leaking documents related to British-U.S. trade talks.
On the same day, Russia was also accused of conducting cyberattacks with a different aim: the theft of COVID-19 vaccine and treatment research from academic and pharmaceutical institutions around the world.
The British National Cybersecurity Center (NCSC) said that a hacking group called APT29, which it said “almost certainly operate[s] as part of [the] Russian Intelligence Services,” has targeted organizations involved in the development of a COVID-19 vaccine in Britain, Canada, and the United States.
Mark Galeotti, a writer on Russia and a senior associate fellow at the British-based Royal United Services Institute, said that the alleged cyberattacks help reveal the motives of the Kremlin, which “seeks to distract, divide, and demoralize us, to acquire leverage and maybe make a quick buck in the process”-- and that they also expose the limits of its current capabilities.
The leaked document was used in the 2019 campaign by Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party leader at the time, who “then went on to the largest election defeat since 1935,” Galeotti wrote in a July 16 article in the British publication The Spectator. “If the aim was to influence the election in any meaningful way, this must count as an abject failure.”
Still, Galeotti warned that the alleged attacks were a “wake-up call,” in part because while “the Russian threat has failed to live up to its true potential, with attacks that are often dangerous in intent but impotent in practice,” that could change.
A more worrisome prospect, he suggested, is that “the technical vulnerabilities evident in these cases could be exploited by other, sharper, better-resourced, and even more ruthless enemies in the future, such as Beijing.”
“Perversely, we perhaps ought to thank Putin for the wake-up call, if it allows us to address these weaknesses before they lead to much more serious consequences,” Galeotti wrote.