The leaders of the U.S. government, including the President and his top national-security advisers, face an unprecedented dilemma. Since the spring, U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement agencies have seen mounting evidence of an active Russian influence operation targeting the 2016 presidential election. It is very unlikely the Russians could sway the actual vote count, because our election infrastructure is decentralized and voting machines are not accessible from the Internet. But they can sow disruption and instability up to, and on, Election Day, more than a dozen senior U.S. officials tell TIME, undermining faith in the result and in democracy itself. The question, debated at multiple meetings at the White House, is how aggressively to respond to the Russian operation. Publicly naming and shaming the Russians and describing what the intelligence community knows about their activities would help Americans understand and respond prudently to any disruptions that might take place between now and the close of the polls. Senior Justice Department officials have argued in favor of calling out the Russians, and that position has been echoed forcefully outside of government by lawmakers and former top national-security officials from both political parties.
National: Putin wants revenge and respect, and hacking the U.S. is his way of getting it | The Washington Post
The recent spate of embarrassing emails and other records stolen by Russian hackers is President Vladimir Putin’s splashy response to years of what he sees as U.S. efforts to weaken and shame him on the world stage and with his own people, according to Russia experts here and in the U.S. intelligence world and academia. Putin is seeking revenge and respect, and trying to reassert Russia’s lost superpower status at a time of waning economic clout and an upcoming Russian election, according to interviews with specialists here and in Washington, with a senior U.S. intelligence official, recently retired CIA operations officers in charge of Russia, and the last three national intelligence officers for Russia and Eurasia analysis in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. “He’s saying, if you think you have the chops to do this — well, we do, too!” said Fiona Hill, a national intelligence officer for Russia during the George W. Bush and Obama administrations who is now at the Brookings Institution.
It has been described as the most boring election of 2016, a parliamentary race set for Sunday that is largely devoid of drama and unlikely to change Vladimir Putin’s Russia very much. But among the country’s citizens faith in the democratic process has never been stronger. A report published in January by the Moscow-based Levada Centre has found that 62% of Russians believe the country is truly democratic, compared with just 36% five years ago. Putin’s personal approval rating has risen to 82%, underlining just how much the Kremlin has cemented its power since 2011, when the previous parliamentary elections degenerated into the biggest protests since the fall of the Soviet Union.
In Moscow there have been fewer election posters and banners on view than in previous years. Last week one Russian newspaper joked that the Duma election had been classified “Top Secret”, since voters did not know the names of the candidates. And yet, in theory, this election should have been more exciting than previous polls. A change to the law has permitted more parties to participate than in 2011 and even a handful of Kremlin critics have been allowed to run.
What’s more, this time half of the 450 Russian MPs will be elected – not by party lists – but in single-mandate districts: the return to a system in which Russians can vote for a candidate of their choice in their own constituency. However, the timing of this vote has kept public interest low. The Duma election had been scheduled for December. Instead the authorities brought it forward by three months, closer to the summer. As a result, Russians have been more concerned with holidays, harvesting fruits and vegetables on their allotments and preparing for the new school year than with electing a new Duma.
Russia will elect a new parliament three months earlier than planned after a majority vote in mid-2015 to move the elections up from December 4 to September 18 of this year. The initiative from the Duma chairman Sergey Naryshkin was supported by President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party, as well as Just Russia and the Liberal Democrats. Like the Communists, who are more or less loyal to the Kremlin, these parties are sure to remain in parliament. Meanwhile, a coalition between the two main opposition parties has fallen apart. The “Russian Democratic Party” (Yabloko) and the “People’s Party of Freedom” (RPR-PARNAS), co-founded by Boris Nemtsov, the opposition politician who was murdered in February 2015, will now go into the election independently from each other. Polls say that these “outlier” parties barely stand a chance of crossing the 5 percent threshold for representation.
Editorials: Putin’s suspected meddling in a U.S. election would be a disturbing first | The Washington Post
Credit for the internecine furor that disrupted the Democratic Party on the eve of its convention should go to Vladimir Putin. As The Post has reported, cybersecurity experts say Russian intelligence operatives were likely responsible for the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s computer network, as well as for leaking to the Moscow-friendly WikiLeaks website some 20,000 emails. The trove appeared online Friday, just in time to create discord between supporters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders as they headed to Philadelphia. To no one’s surprise, the emails showed that DNC staffers opposed the attempt of the socialist Mr. Sanders to take over the party. Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz was forced to announce her resignation, and — as Russia likely intended — Ms. Clinton’s campaign took a hit. Mr. Putin’s regime has tried to intervene in the internal politics of numerous European countries, from Ukraine and Moldova to Italy and France. But the evident attempt to meddle in a U.S. presidential election is a first. That may reflect the reckless aggressiveness Mr. Putin has embraced in foreign affairs since returning to the presidency in 2012. It likely also reveals Moscow’s judgment that it stands to reap a geopolitical windfall if Donald Trump is elected president.
An unusual question is capturing the attention of cyberspecialists, Russia experts and Democratic Party leaders in Philadelphia: Is Vladimir V. Putin trying to meddle in the American presidential election? Until Friday, that charge, with its eerie suggestion of a Kremlin conspiracy to aid Donald J. Trump, has been only whispered. But the release on Friday of some 20,000 stolen emails from the Democratic National Committee’s computer servers, many of them embarrassing to Democratic leaders, has intensified discussion of the role of Russian intelligence agencies in disrupting the 2016 campaign. The emails, released first by a supposed hacker and later by WikiLeaks, exposed the degree to which the Democratic apparatus favored Hillary Clinton over her primary rival, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and triggered the resignation of Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the party chairwoman, on the eve of the convention’s first day. Proving the source of a cyberattack is notoriously difficult. But researchers have concluded that the national committee was breached by two Russian intelligence agencies, which were the same attackers behind previous Russian cyberoperations at the White House, the State Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff last year. And metadata from the released emails suggests that the documents passed through Russian computers. Though a hacker claimed responsibility for giving the emails to WikiLeaks, the same agencies are the prime suspects. Whether the thefts were ordered by Mr. Putin, or just carried out by apparatchiks who thought they might please him, is anyone’s guess.
The thrilling spectacles offered by the U.S. presidential election, the U.K. referendum on leaving the European Union and even Austria’s cliffhanger presidential vote have overshadowed an election campaign in Russia, which will get a new parliament on Sept. 18. That’s because, even though they have all the the trappings of democracy, the Russian elections are mostly theater, whose actors are shadows from the country’s brief experiment with competitive politics. In theory, the elections shouldn’t be boring. The previous ones, in 2011, gave rise to the most meaningful and vigorous protests against Vladimir Putin’s corrupt system of his more than 15 years in power. Then, tens of thousands of Muscovites took to the streets to protest what they saw as the falsification of vote results: Statistical analysis suggested that United Russia, the pro-Putin party, owed its majority to widespread ballot-stuffing. It even appeared briefly that the Kremlin — occupied then by Putin’s stand-in, Dmitri Medvedev — was unsettled enough to change a few things. Gubernatorial elections, which had been abolished, were allowed again, and the authorities took care to make voting more transparent for the 2012 presidential election, organizing a live video feed from every polling station and making sure not to obstruct observers’ work. Putin, however, saw the protests as a U.S.-inspired threat of a revolution like the one would shake Ukraine in 2013-2014. As soon as his third presidential term began — after he pulled off an undeniable electoral triumph — he started tightening the screws, using the parliament — the State Duma — to pass legislation that sharply limited the freedoms of assembly and expression. The chamber came to be known as an “amok printer” because of the speed at which it spewed out repressive laws.
The September 18 Russian parliamentary elections will take place amidst a deep economic crisis, with oil at $30 a barrel, and with election rules deliberately designed to blunt and conceal voter disaffection. The Putin regime incurs risks with this strategy because it creates an opportunity for political forces to emerge that actually address the deep concerns of the people. It is virtually impossible for the scheming Putin to know from whence such a threat will come. Russia’s last parliamentary election (December 2011) sent tens of thousands of protesters into the streets calling for “Russia without Putin,” in outrage over the flagrant election fraud on the part of Putin’s United Russia (dubbed the “party of crooks and thieves”). The demonstrations shook Putin, who responded by cracking down hard on dissent.
The Kremlin is putting “unprecedented” pressure on opposition activists as President Vladimir Putin prepares for his toughest electoral test amid Russia’s longest recession in two decades, according to his former prime minister. “The authorities understand that 2016 will be decisive because the economic and political situation is acute,” Mikhail Kasyanov, who was premier from 2000 to 2004 and is now one of Putin’s harshest critics, said in an interview in Moscow. “They are tightening the screws, and if they don’t allow the opposition to engage in politics and compete in elections, all this will soon lead to a revolution.” Kasyanov said pro-Kremlin activists are hounding him and supporters of his opposition Parnas coalition across the country ahead of parliamentary elections in September. He’s also facing death threats, including an Instagram video posted last month by the Kremlin-backed leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, that showed him in the crosshairs of a scope sight. Kadyrov later added a picture of himself with a sniper rifle.
The Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan, linked to pro-Moscow President Almazbek Atambayev, came out on top at Sunday’s parliamentary election in the ex-Soviet state, with five other pro-Russian parties also winning seats. Results released by the country’s Central Electoral Commission showed the SDPK, founded by Atambayev, won the hard-fought poll with close to 27 percent of the vote. In second place was the nationalist Respublika-Ata-Jurt party at just over 20 percent. Most of the parties competing in the election appeared to be alliances of convenience, targeting a regionally divided electorate without clear political platforms.
Thousands of people rallied on the streets of Moscow on Sunday to demand fair elections and challenge Vladimir Putin’s 15-year-old rule, in the first significant opposition protest in the capital for months. The gathering was restricted by authorities to a district of southern Moscow. Police said no more than 500 took part, while a Reuters witness said there were some 3,000 protesters. “Putin is a bureaucrat, not the czar,” one poster said. Opposition leaders, including anti-Kremlin figurehead Alexei Navalny, said they were protesting against what they called Putin’s “lifelong” rule. “Russia will be free!” Ilya Yashin told the rally. “We will not depart from the country and leave it in the mercy of ‘crooks and thieves’,” he said, referring to a phrase coined by Navalny to describe Russia’s ruling party.
Thousands of people gathered in Moscow Sunday evening calling for greater political freedoms and a change to the country’s ruling powers after opposition parties failed to win representation in regional elections this month. Between 8,000 and 10,000 gathered at the rally just outside of the center of the Russian capital, said Leonid Volkov, one of the organizers, by telephone on Sunday. Prior to the rally as many as 8,400 people had registered their interest on Facebook while Moscow authorities gave permission for up to 40,000 demonstrators to congregate. Moscow police press-service said that about 4,000 people turned up. Opposition leader Alexey Navalny called the rally after his party failed to win parliamentary seats in the one region where it was allowed to stand in elections on Sept. 13.
After watching the local and gubernatorial elections in Russia on Sunday, one cannot help wondering: Why bother? Why does the Kremlin need to push the illusion of democracy when the results are predetermined? The only region where an opposition force worthy of the name was allowed to participate — in Kostroma oblast east of Moscow — saw voting marred by bullying and the arrests of anti-Kremlin candidates. No one could figure out why the Democratic Coalition, the only grouping of parties openly critical of President Vladimir Putin, was even allowed to run. All municipal, regional and gubernatorial elections in Russia are held on the same day, and in nearly all of them United Russia, the main pro-Kremlin party, was victorious. How could it lose when its candidates enjoyed access to unlimited resources and dominated the airwaves while their challengers were vilified as traitors?
Hackers in California attacked several of the Russian government’s websites over the weekend, Russian officials said on Monday, just as the country was trying to conduct elections. “Someone attempted to hack our website and alter the data there, making 50,000 requests per minute,” said Vladimir Churov, chairman of the Central Election Commission of Russia, according to a report in the state-funded Russia Today. Such an attack is known as a distributed denial of service, which is designed to crash a website.
Every morning when Svetlana arrives at Susanin Square in the centre of Kostroma, she has to remind herself that she is doing this out of idealism. The soft-spoken 28-year-old is a campaign volunteer for the Russian opposition in regional elections scheduled for this Sunday, and things are not going well. “People react negatively to us,” says Svetlana as she tries to hand out flyers for RPR Parnas, a party co-chaired by Boris Nemtsov, the veteran opposition leader shot dead earlier this year. “The relentless propaganda works and people have it in their brains that we are the fifth column.” A few days ago, two women asked Svetlana why there were Russian flags on top of her stand and suggested that the party should instead fly American ones since it was a US lackey. Sunday’s elections, in which 16 regions will choose governors and 14 will select parliaments, illustrate just how far president Vladimir Putin has progressed in hollowing out the country’s democratic institutions during his 15 years in power, and how resigned to that the population has become.
Just before Ilya Yashin launched into his second stump speech of the day, two sullen youths began to hand out fliers accusing him of being paid by the United States to destroy Russia from within. It was ten days before elections to the Kostroma region’s parliament, and the arrival of the young members of an organisation called “Patriots of Russia” – and a subsequent accusation of theft against one of Mr Yashin’s activists – was by now a routine part of the campaign trail. “That is small beer. They try something like it every day,” Mr Yashin said. “It’s a form of psychological pressure. But we got used to that a long time ago.” Fresh faced, short, and slight of build, Mr Yashin, 32, is already a veteran of Russian opposition politics – and he knows a thing or two about psychological pressure. During the 2000s, he campaigned for the once-popular democratic parties that have seen their share of the vote shrink with each election under Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian but popular rule. In late 2011, he was one of several leaders of a surge of anti-Kremlin protests – and endured the subsequent crackdown, which saw arrests, apartment searches, and several allies sent to prison.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has agreed to early parliamentary elections and to share some power with his opponents, a concession that may facilitate a broader international coalition against Islamic State, Russian President Vladimir Putin said. Russia would consider participating in the coalition and the Russian president has already discussed the issue with U.S. President Barack Obama, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, Putin told reporters in Vladivostok on Friday. Russia has been pushing for a wider campaign against Islamic State that would include Assad, something the U.S. and Europe have opposed. “There is a general understanding that joint efforts in the fight against terrorism should go hand by hand with the political process in Syria,” Putin said. Assad “agrees to this,” and has also agreed to early parliamentary elections and to include “healthy opposition” in the government, said Putin, a key ally of the Syrian president. Four Syrian lawmakers couldn’t be immediately reached for comment.
Ukraine: France and Germany Warn Vladimir Putin About Ukraine Separatist Elections | Wall Street Journal
The leaders of France and Germany told Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday that rebel-run elections conducted in the separatist-controlled regions of Ukraine would endanger the so-called Minsk peace process for the country, a German government spokesman said. Ukraine is obliged to hold local elections by the end of this year in the east under the cease-fire deal agreed between Kiev, Moscow, Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists in Minsk, Belarus, on Feb. 12. The country will hold local elections on Oct. 25 but has said it won’t run elections in rebel-held areas in the east because of continued violence there. The separatists have said they will hold their own ballots in mid October and early November.
Russia’s ruling parliamentary party, which has always based its policies on supporting Vladimir Putin, will not ask the president to allow them use his image in the 2016 elections campaign, a business daily reports. Kommersant newspaper quoted unnamed sources in United Russia as saying that its presidium has already chosen five people who will top the party’s lists in the forthcoming primaries, and the president was not among them. The sources did not disclose the names of these politicians. They also said that most of the places in the lists would be reserved for regional party leaders, as this would make the primaries “democratic to the maximum.” United Russia officials also told Kommersant that the party did not want to involve Putin in its election campaign in order to protect the president from possible damage to his political rating, because it was difficult to forecast how many voters would lend their support to the party this time around.
Russia’s joint Democratic Coalition, led by renowned anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny and the supporters of the late opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, have been refused the right to run for election across all the regions where they opted to campaign on the grounds of irregularities in their applications, Russian national daily Kommersant reports. Local council elections in Russia will be held in September and the Democratic Coalition, which is made up of several of the biggest opposition movements to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s regime, was due to contest four constituencies.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the only billionaire jailed by Vladimir Putin, is assembling an army of volunteers to challenge the electoral system that supports his nemesis. Accusations of murder and poisoning are already flying. Khodorkovsky, freed 18 months ago, has said he hopes to spark a palace coup from self-imposed exile in Switzerland, exploiting what he predicts will be rising discontent with a contracting economy. He’s starting with a project to hunt for violations in the first major elections Putin and his ruling United Russia party will face since the president returned to the Kremlin in 2012 after a four-year stint as prime minister.
President Vladimir Putin has signed off on a law that brings next year’s Russian parliamentary elections forward by three months, a move some commentators said gives an unfair advantage to pro-Kremlin parties. “The election of the seventh convocation of State Duma deputies will take place on the third Sunday of September 2016,” the Kremlin said in a statement on Wednesday. Parliamentary elections were initially scheduled to take place in December 2016. Supporters of the initiative, including State Duma speaker Sergei Naryshkin, have said an early election would ensure continuity between the adoption and implementation of the 2017 budget. Critics of the move have argued it is unconstitutional and unfairly plays into the hands of the Kremlin.
Russia’s Constitutional Court has upheld the legality of early parliamentary elections, clearing the way for lawmakers to vote on bringing forward next year’s State Duma elections by three months. The court said the initiative was constitutional so long as election dates were not regularly shifted. The effort to bring forward the 2016 elections, from December to September 18, is expected to come to a vote on July 3. The bill has strong backing from deputies for the United Russia, A Just Russia, and ultranationalist Liberal Democratic parties.
Lawmakers in Russia’s Kremlin-controlled parliament on Friday gave tentative approval to a bill that would move up next year’s parliamentary election by three months, a tactic seen by critics as an attempt to weaken the opposition. The lower house voted 339-101 with one abstention Friday to approve the bill in the first of three readings. It would also need to be approved by the equally-docile upper house and signed by President Vladimir Putin.
Russia’s former finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, came up with an interesting idea for turning Russia’s recent economic woes to the country’s advantage: moving up the scheduled 2017 presidential election. The problem with this suggestion — which may have been floated as a trial balloon with the Kremlin’s approval — is that President Vladimir Putin could use it to take Russia further into the past. Kudrin, who built up the international reserves that are now helping Russia ride out a second economic crisis, lost the finance minister’s job in 2011 and has since made liberal statements that went against Putin’s line. The president, however, still counts him among his loyalists. During a carefully choreographed call-in session with voters in April, Kudrin asked the president about creating a new growth model for Russia. In response, Putin called their relationship “very good, practically a friendship,” and said he would stick to the policies Kudrin helped formulate during his tenure: “If you and I failed to envision something, that is probably our fault, and yours, too.”
Senior ruling-party politicians are throwing their weight behind a proposal to move Russia’s next parliamentary elections up three months to September 2016, a shift that could put opposition candidates at a further disadvantage by relegating the campaign to vacation season. Sergei Naryshkin, leader of parliament’s lower chamber and a member of President Vladimir Putin’s ruling United Russia party, on Thursday called the rescheduling proposal “possible and even wise,” according to the Interfax news agency. The reason he gave was that budgets are passed in the fall and it would make more sense to elect new lawmakers beforehand.
Russia’s main opposition groups say they will combine forces to fight for election in three regions this autumn. They are hoping for a springboard for the 2016 national parliamentary vote. The “democratic coalition” was formed last weekend to unite six parties and groups under the banner of RPR-Parnas, the party of murdered opposition politician Boris Nemtsov. The coalition includes the party of anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, but he cannot run for office. He is serving a suspended prison sentence in an embezzlement case that he argues was fabricated.
Editorials: Europe will watch Finland’s election closely—perhaps for the wrong reasons | The Economist
For a useful corrective to the notion that only sunny optimism can win elections, Charlemagne recommends a visit to Finland. Like sauna-goers vigorously lashing themselves with birch branches, Finnish politicians are lining up to talk their homeland down in the run-up to the general election on April 19th. Juha Sipila, leader of the Centre Party and the most likely next prime minister, talks freely of the need to slash public spending. Antti Rinne, the finance minister and head of the Social Democrats, laments Finland’s dire export performance. The biggest dose of gloom, though, comes from Alex Stubb, the centre-right prime minister. Mr Stubb claims to be an “eternal optimist”, but says that Finland has had a “lost decade” and admits that the coalition he has led since June 2014 has often been a failure.
France: €40m of Russian cash will allow Marine Le Pen’s Front National to take advantage of rivals’ woes in upcoming regional and presidential elections | The Independent
The financial and political firepower of Marine Le Pen’s Front National (FN) is to be transformed by a €40m (£32m) loan from a bank with links to the Kremlin, it has been alleged. Ms Le Pen confirmed earlier this week that a Russian bank was lending her cash-strapped, far-right party €9m. This is part of a growing pattern of connections between Vladimir Putin’s Russia and far-right and Europhobic parties in the European Union. Ms Le Pen dismissed as “fantasy” a report that the €9m was the first instalment of loans totalling €40m which will allow her to mount an unbridled challenge to France’s mainstream parties in regional elections next year and presidential elections in 2017. However, other senior FN officials told the investigative website Mediapart that there was an agreement that the First Czech-Russian Bank would provide most of the party’s funding needs up to the presidential election in 30 months’ time. “A first instalment has been agreed of a €40m loan,” a member of the party’s political bureau told Mediapart. “The €9m has arrived. Another €31m will follow.”