New evidence details the Kremlin's plot to spread disinformation and undermine democracies, including a secret multi-agency effort to interfere in US elections five years ago.
During a closed session of Russia's National Security Council on January 22, 2016, President Vladimir Putin personally authorised a secret spy agency operation to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election, The Guardian reported July 15, citing leaked Kremlin documents.
At the meeting, Putin, his intelligence chiefs and other senior ministers agreed to a number of objectives, including "the destabilisation of the US's sociopolitical system" and the weakening of the American presidency, according to the leaked documents.
The leaked documents appear to represent a "serious and highly unusual leak from within the Kremlin", according to The Guardian, which showed the papers to independent analysts who assessed them to be genuine.
Inserting 'media viruses'
An official photo from the January 22 meeting shows Putin sitting at the head of the table with then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to his right.
Other officials in attendance included Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov; Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, in charge of Russia's GRU military intelligence agency; Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) then-chief Mikhail Fradkov; Federal Security Service (FSB) chief Alexander Bortnikov; and former FSB director Nikolai Patrushev, who attended as Security Council secretary.
The officials discussed the economy and Moldova, according to an official summary.
But the leaked report, authored by Vladimir Symonenko, the senior official in charge of the Kremlin's expert department, suggests the real purpose of the meeting was to discuss confidential proposals drawn up by Symonenko's team, The Guardian reported.
The suggestions include how Russia might insert "media viruses" into American public life that would "alter mass consciousness, especially in certain groups".
After the meeting, Putin set up by decree a new and secret interdepartmental commission with the urgent task of realising the goals set out in the "special part" of the report, according to a separate leaked document.
The decree said the commission, headed by Shoigu, should take practical steps against the United States as soon as possible.
The decree put the GRU in charge of "preparing measures to act on the information environment of the object". This command, according to The Guardian's assessment, includes the hacking of sensitive American cyber-targets identified by the SVR.
The SVR was told to gather additional information to support the commission's activities, while the FSB was assigned counter-intelligence.
The spy chiefs received orders to return with concrete plans by February 1.
Just weeks after the security council meeting, one such plan appears to have been executed.
GRU hackers raided the servers of the US Democratic Party National Committee and released thousands of private emails in an attempt to undermine the 2016 US election.
With the United States in turmoil, "Putin would be able in clandestine fashion to dominate any US-Russia bilateral talks, to deconstruct the White House's negotiating position, and to pursue bold foreign policy initiatives on Russia's behalf," said the leaked report, according to The Guardian.
The report also addresses sanctions and admits that those imposed by the United States after Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea had contributed to domestic tensions.
Long history of interference
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the allegations brought by The Guardian story, but the Kremlin's denials are not surprising.
The Russian regime has a history of supporting hackers to stir unrest, steal information, spread disinformation and carry out other cyber crimes.
Last October, the US government charged six GRU officers in absentia with carrying out cyber-attacks on Ukraine's power grid, the 2017 French elections and the 2018 Winter Olympics.
The six Russian agents were also accused of staging a 2017 malware attack called "NotPetya" that infected computers of businesses worldwide, causing almost $1 billion in losses to three US companies alone.
In addition, they allegedly targeted for obstruction international investigations into the nerve agent poisoning in England in 2018 of Russian former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, as well as waging cyber-attacks on media outlets (2018) and parliament (2019) in Georgia.
Last October, the Russian regime was caught stealing US voter information ahead of the 2020 election in an attempt "to communicate false information to registered voters that they hope will cause confusion, sow chaos, and undermine confidence in American democracy".
The US government on July 15 offered $10 million rewards for information on ransomware attacks, which officials say often originate in Russia.
US President Joe Biden raised the issue with Putin on two recent occasions, threatening to take action directly if Moscow does not curb cyber crime, the White House said in a statement.
The United States on April 15 announced sanctions and the expulsion of 10 Russian diplomats in retaliation for the Kremlin's US election interference, a massive cyber-attack and other hostile activity.
Among other measures, Washington sanctioned six Russian technology companies accused of supporting Moscow's cyber intelligence activities, particularly the SolarWinds hack discovered in December, which compromised thousands of US government and private sector computer networks.
In February, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) offered a $250,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of Yevgeny Prigozhin, known as "Putin's chef", for his Internet Research Agency (IRA), a St. Petersburg-based "troll factory" that was behind US election interference in 2016 and 2020.
Undermining pro-democracy movements
While the leaked documents offer unique insight into the Kremlin's disinformation and destabilisation campaign targeting the US political system, Russia has employed similar tactics closer to home as well.
Last October, Russian journalists covered political protests in Kyrgyzstan in a manner that supported the Kremlin's desire to create civil unrest -- pitting the north against the south -- and even staged events on camera to achieve their objectives.
Mass protests began October 5 in Bishkek following parliamentary elections in which parties close to pro-Russian President Sooronbay Jeenbekov prevailed amid accusations of widespread vote buying.
Jeenbekov resigned October 15, saying he wanted to bring an end to the crisis.
Russian TV channels' provocative reports on the protests attempted to foment civil unrest and increase Bishkek's reliance on Moscow, analysts and viewers said.
"Disinformation is part of the new 'hybrid' military doctrine of Putin's Russia against post-Soviet countries seeking to escape the influence of the former colonial metropole," said Askat Dukenbayev, a Bishkek-based political scientist, at the time.
"Russian media are a complete lie," Yelena Orlova from Minsk, Belarus, wrote on Facebook. "They are reporting the same lie about Belarus. We are already used to it and don't pay any attention."
In Belarus, the Kremlin showed similar distaste for protesters who demanded the resignation of authoritarian leader and Putin ally Alexander Lukashenka after he claimed a sixth term in disputed elections last August 9.
Russian media personalities "clearly convey the Kremlin's fear of the people's protest against lies and against the usurpation of power", wrote Ksenia Sergeyeva, a resident of Novgorod, Russia, at the time.