Foreign Election Influence Efforts in 2020

In the late summer and fall of 2020, the U. S. government issued a number of warnings about attempts by foreign governments to influence the upcoming American presidential election, with officials indicating that Russia, China, and Iran posed the main threats. In the last few weeks, the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) has provided further information on the nature and extent of foreign election influence operations in 2020, information that has permitted us to revise and update the picture presented last fall.

Election Influence Versus Election Interference:

In its analyses, the U.S. IC distinguishes between election influence and election interference. From a March 10 assessment:

Election influence includes overt and covert efforts by foreign governments or actors acting as agents of, or on behalf of, foreign governments intended to affect directly or indirectly a US election – including candidates, political parties, voters or their preferences, or political processes. Election interference is a subset of election influence activities targeted at the technical aspects of the election, including voter registration, casting and counting ballots, or reporting results (Intelligence Community Assessment, 1; bold in original)

In short, election influence involves efforts to impact the opinions and preferences of voters, parties, and candidates. Election interference involves trying to alter the processes and infrastructure of an election, including vote tallies.

After analyzing the evidence the US IC found no evidence of foreign election interference in 2020. In the words of a March 16 joint statement from the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, while “Russian, Chinese, and Iranian government-affiliated actors materially impacted the security of certain networks during the 2020 federal elections, the Departments found no evidence that any foreign government-affiliated actor manipulated election results or otherwise compromised the integrity of the 2020 federal elections.” (Joint Statement from the Departments)

Foreign government efforts at election influence, however, were another matter.

Election Influence Efforts by Iran and China:

On March 16, the U.S. Intelligence Community released its overall assessment of foreign efforts to influence the course of the 2020 U.S. elections. Among other conclusions, this document confirmed that Iran was involved in such a campaign:

We assess with high confidence that Iran carried out an influence campaign during the 2020 US election season intended to undercut the reelection prospects of former President Trump and to further its longstanding objectives of exacerbating divisions in the US, creating confusion, and undermining the legitimacy of US elections and institutions. (Intelligence Community Assessment, 5)

As far as China, the IC, in contrast to its fall assessments, stated that “China did not deploy interference efforts and considered but did not deploy influence efforts intended to change the outcome of the US presidential election.” This decision by China not to actively seek to influence the election was likely due in part to a Chinese belief that “its traditional influence tools, primarily targeted economic measures and lobbying key individuals and interest groups, would be sufficient to achieve its goal of shaping US policy regardless of who won the election”, as well as the fear that the “risk of interference was not worth the reward.” (Intelligence Community Assessment, 7)

The IC report does note that the National Intelligence Officer for Cyber disagreed with this view, assessing with moderate confidence that the Chinese made some modest efforts to influence the election campaign to Trump’s detriment.

Russian Election Influence Efforts:

One thing the IC assessment makes abundantly clear is that, just as in 2016, Russia was the major foreign state source of efforts to influence the US election process.

We assess that President Putin and the Russian state authorized and conducted influence operations against the 2020 US presidential election aimed at denigrating President Biden and the Democratic Party, supporting former President Trump, undermining public confidence in the electoral process,and exacerbating sociopolitical divisions in the US. (Intelligence Community Assessment, 2)

Confirming previously released information, the March 16 assessment noted that the Russians utilized influence assets in Ukraine to “launder influence narratives–including misleading or unsubstantiated allegations against President Bidenthrough US media organizations, US officials, and prominent US individuals, some of whom were close to former President Trump and his administration.” (Intelligence Community Assessment, 2)

Among the most notable of these conduits was a Ukrainian legislator named Andriy Derkach, who “has ties to Russian officials as well as Russia’s intelligence services,” and whose activities “Putin had purview over.” Derkach was already sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department last September for his election interference activities, including his infamous meeting with President Trump’s personal attorney, Rudolph Giuliani. (Ibid.)

Just as in 2016, the Russian authorities utilized bots, trolls, and other forms of social media activity to spread their preferred U.S. election narratives. Involved in many of these activities was Lakhta Internet Research, the new name for the notorious troll farm formerly known as the Internet Research Agency. According to the March 16 assessment, Russian social media actors also continued their broader attempts to disrupt the cohesion of American society, by promoting “conspiratorial narratives about the COVID-19 pandemic, made allegations of social media censorship, and highlighted US divisions surrounding protests about racial justice.” (Ibid., 4)

New Election Influence Sanctions:

In response to the extent of Russian efforts to influence the outcome of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, on April 15, the Treasury Department announced sanctions “against 16 entities and 16 individuals who attempted to influence the 2020 U.S. presidential election at the direction of the leadership of the Russian Government.” (Treasury Escalates Sanctions)

Among the most notable targets of these new sanctions was an individual named Konstantin Kilimnik. The sanctions announcement identified Kilimnik as:

A Russian and Ukrainian political consultant and known Russian Intelligence Services agent implementing influence operations on their behalf. During the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign, Kilimnik provided the Russian Intelligence Services with sensitive information on polling and campaign strategy. Additionally, Kilimnik sought to promote the narrative that Ukraine, not Russia, had interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In 2018, Kilimnik was indicted on charges of obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice regarding unregistered lobbying work. (Treasury Escalates Sanctions)

Kilimnik was prominently featured in the Mueller Report due to his close connections with Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort. It was the latter who, in 2016, gave Kilimnik the “sensitive information on polling and campaign strategy” that he then gave to Russian intelligence. While the Mueller Report noted that Manafort gave this data to Kilimnik, the April 15 announcement was the first official confirmation that Kilimnik then passed this information on to the Russians. According to media reports, Kilimnik’s Russian intelligence ties are primarily with military intelligence, the GRU. (see Bertrand, “The Shadowy Operative”) This is the same agency responsible for hacking numerous Democratic Party-related accounts in the spring of 2016, and then releasing the contents to Wikileaks.

The March 16 assessment described Kilimnik as a “Russian influence agent,” part of “A network of Ukrainelinked individuals” who in 2020 “took steps throughout the election cycle to damage US ties to Ukraine, denigrate President Biden and his candidacy, and benefit former President Trump’s prospects for reelection.” (Intelligence Community Assessment, 3)

Among other things, the role of Kilimnik shows the essential underlying continuity of Russian efforts at election influence in both 2016 and 2020. In both elections, the goal was to further divide American society, as well as to weaken the Democratic nominee and boost the prospects of Donald Trump.

Previous CWIS Blog Posts on 2020 Foreign Election Influence/Interference:

Foreign Election Interference in 2020

Previous CWIS Blog Posts on Russian Influence/Interference in the 2016 US Elections:

Active Measures (Активные Mероприятия)

The “Neighbors”: The GRU in America, from “Ales” to “Fancy Bear”

“Putin’s Chef” and the “Troll Farm”: Russian Social Media Subversion in 2016

Recent Revelations About “Fancy Bear”: Russia’s Military Hacking Unit

Federal Government Sources on 2020 Foreign Election Influence:

Intelligence Community Assessment: Foreign Threats to the 2020 U.S. Federal Elections. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, March 16, 2021.

Joint Statement from the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security Assessing the Impact of Foreign Interference During the 2020 U.S. Elections. Office of Public Affairs, U. S. Department of Justice, March 16, 2021.

Treasury Escalates Sanctions Against the Russian Government’s Attempts to Influence U.S. Elections. U. S. Department of the Treasury, April 15, 2021.

Additional Sources:

Bertrand, Natasha. “The Shadowy Operative at the Center of the Russia Scandal.”, March 29, 2018.

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