A U.S. congressional report issued Wednesday accused Russia of mounting a protracted assault on democracy at home and abroad, and urged a multi-pronged counter-strategy that begins with U.S. presidential leadership, something the report alleged has been lacking from Donald Trump.
Prepared by Democratic staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and provided in advance to VOA, the report said, “[Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s regime has developed a formidable set of tools to exert influence abroad” and “appears intent on using almost any means possible to undermine democratic institutions and trans-Atlantic alliances.”
Based on months of research and informational exchanges with foreign governments targeted by the Kremlin, the 206-page report exhaustively documented the full array of tools Russia has wielded beyond its borders.
Putin’s “asymmetric arsenal” ranges from “a lethal blend of conventional military assaults, assassinations, disinformation campaigns, [and] cyberattacks” in Ukraine to plotting a coup in Montenegro to disinformation and cyberattacks in Germany, France, the United Kingdom and beyond, according to the report.
The document also details years of alleged oppression and violence within Russia against Putin’s perceived adversaries and critics. The Russian leader, the report said, “gained and solidified power by exploiting blackmail, fears of terrorism, and war” and “combined military adventurism and aggression abroad with propaganda and political repression at home, to persuade a domestic audience that he is restoring Russia to greatness.”
“This is not a report on the hacking of the 2016 [U.S.] election. It’s a report about how Russia operates around the world,” said a committee staff members who helped prepare the document, adding that the report is the first from a U.S. governmental entity that spells out “the scale and scope” of the Russian threat.
Without fully understanding that threat, the staffer said, “you can’t prevent it from happening again.”
The report detailed steps European nations have taken to combat Russian influence, both individually and within organizations such as NATO and the European Union. The United States, it contended, lags far behind.
“President Trump has been negligent in acknowledging and responding to the threat to U.S. national security posed by Putin’s meddling,” the report said. “The president should immediately declare that it is U.S. policy to counter and deter all forms of the Kremlin’s hybrid threats against the United States and around the world. … The president should also present to Congress a comprehensive national strategy to counter these grave national security threats.”
Establishing a fusion cell
The report recommended establishing an inter-agency task force or “fusion cell” for combating Russian influence modeled on the National Counterterrorism Center. It also recommended designating countries that employ malign influence operations as “State Hybrid Threat Actors,” and subjecting them to “a pre-emptive and escalatory sanctions regime.”
Minority reports are common on Capitol Hill. Like all such reports, this one was prepared for the full Foreign Relations Committee, which is Republican-led.
“We think a lot of [the report’s] recommendations and findings would be supported on a bipartisan basis,” a committee staff member said.
Putin has consistently ridiculed any suggestion of foreign meddling, and last year Trump appeared to back him up, at least in regard to the 2016 U.S. election.
“He [Putin] said he didn't meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times," Trump told reporters after a November meeting with the Russian leader in Vietnam. "Every time he sees me, he says, 'I didn't do that.’ And I believe, I really believe, that when he tells me that, he means it."
Prominent Republicans have joined Democrats in slamming Trump’s remarks.
"There's nothing 'America First' about taking the word of a KGB colonel over that of the American intelligence community,” Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona said in a statement. “Vladimir Putin does not have America's interests at heart. To believe otherwise is not only naïve but also places our national security at risk."
In an interview last year on Australian Broadcasting Corp, McCain said, “I think he [Putin] is the premier and most important threat, more so than ISIS.”
Multiple U.S. congressional committees are conducting bipartisan probes of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, with final reports possible later this year. In the interim, lawmakers of both political parties have spoken out.
“What I will confirm is that the Russian intelligence service is determined, clever," Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, said in October. "And I recommend that every campaign and every election official take this very seriously."
"The Russian active measures did not end on Election Day 2016," the committee’s top Democrat, Senator Mark Warner of Virginia said, adding that the United States should take a "more aggressive whole government approach" to combat Russian interference.
In pursuing a comprehensive strategy, Democratic staff members on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee recommended examining Russia’s actions in Europe and elsewhere.
“The Europeans have learned some of these lessons and we can learn from them,” a staff member said. “Russia can be deterred.”
"There is a long bipartisan tradition in Congress in support of firm policies to counter Russian government aggression and abuse against its own citizens, our allies, and universal values," the Foreign Relation Committee's top Democrat, Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, wrote in an introduction to the document. "This report seeks to continue that tradition."
--- This report was embargoed and, as a result, VOA was unable to get White House reaction before its release.