eyes on russia
January 17, 2021

Shortly after police detained Russian opposition leader and Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny upon his return to Moscow from Germany, where he was recovering from a poisoning allegedly carried out by Russia's FSB spy agency, President-elect Joe Biden's incoming National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan called for the anti-corruption activist's immediate release.

Sullivan said the Kremlin's actions were a "violation of human rights" and "an affront to the Russian people who want their voices heard."

The forceful statement quickly drew attention from members of the U.S. media, who compared it to the Trump administration's generally more lax approach to Moscow.

Sullivan also beat the current White House to the punch — there's been no word on the Navalny situation from President Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, or National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien as of yet. Tim O'Donnell

January 17, 2021

Alexey Navalny, a Russian opposition leader and fierce critic of the Kremlin, flew back to Moscow following five months in Berlin, where he was recovering after he was allegedly poisoned by Russia's FSB spy agency. At airport border control, Navalny kissed his wife goodbye before Russian law enforcement promptly detained him, as expected.

Moscow's prison service said it had orders to arrest Navalny because he violated conditions after an embezzlement conviction. Navalny, one of Russian President Vladimir Putin's top rivals, has maintained the charges were politically motivated. Still, while he was always aware of his impending detainment, he told reporters who traveled with him it never crossed his mind not to return home to Moscow. "This is my home," he said. "I'm not scared of anything."

Alexei Makarin, the deputy director of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow, told Bloomberg that Navalny could have stayed in Germany, but in that case the Russian people "would quickly lose interest in him." Now, the anti-corruption activist may be seen as a "symbol of resistance behind bars and a big risk for Putin."

Navalny's wife and lawyer, however, opted to wait behind passport control where Navalny was taken, which reportedly suggests there's a chance he'll be released "with a writ of summons."

As far as the United States is concerned, if Russia does continue to hold Navalny, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul argues it will be the first big foreign policy test for the Biden administration. Tim O'Donnell

February 27, 2018

Michael Hayden, who led the CIA under former President George W. Bush, has had no reservations about speaking his mind on the topic of Russia. While Hayden wasn't willing to definitively say if he believes Donald Trump's presidential campaign colluded with Russia in the 2016 election, he did tell Politico's "Off Message" podcast that their agendas certainly saw a "convergence."

"There is an eerie and uncomfortable echo between some of the things the president tweets, the different points of emphasis on Fox News, the thematic stories in the alt-right media, and Russian bots," Hayden explained. "I don't have to create collusion here: Each for their own purposes are well-served by creating deeper divisions within American society. The president, to play to his base; Fox News, for ratings; the alt-right, because they have a conspiratorial view of everything; and the Russians, to mess with our heads."

Trump has emphatically denied any sort of organization between his campaign and Moscow, tweeting "WITCH HUNT" on Tuesday morning for the 24th time since his inauguration. A USA Today/Suffolk University poll out Monday, though, shows that fewer than 1 in 5 Americans doubt Russia made a serious attempt to meddle in the election. Americans are split on whether Russia actually affected the outcome of the election, however, 42 percent with saying it did and 44 percent saying it didn't.

There is no doubt in Hayden's mind about Russia's intentions. "The overall objective of the Russian effort was to mess with our heads and erode confidence," he said. "And they decided by mid-summer that the very best way they could mess with our heads was to make more people vote for Donald Trump, period." Listen to the full interview here. Jeva Lange

September 29, 2017

Russia has reportedly taken an interest in meddling in the Catalonian independence referendum in Spain, the Spanish newspaper El Pais reports, writing that "the Kremlin is using the Catalan crisis as a way to deepen divisions within Europe and consolidate its international influence." Courts in Spain ruled earlier this month that the referendum would violate the national constitution, although the autonomous Catalan region is set to vote on its independence on Oct. 1.

El Pais alleges that in the past several weeks, Russia has deployed the same tools that it used to influence America's 2016 presidential election, including fake news articles that are spread through social media by bots:

The definitive proof that those who mobilize the army of pro-Russian bots have chosen to focus on the Catalan independence movement can be seen in the fact that Catalonia has begun to appear in the list of regular topics on social media alongside Syria, Russia, Ukraine, Trump, Hillary Clinton, and the so-called Islamic State (ISIS).

This is reflected by the results of the Hamilton 68 tool developed by the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a project of the German Marshall Fund created in the wake of Russian meddling in the U.S. elections. This tool permanently monitors 600 pro-Kremlin accounts, both real and false. In 48 hours from Wednesday to Friday last week, one of the most-used hashtags employed by these profiles was #Catalonia, behind others including #HerpesHillary and #Trump. [El Pais]

El Pais also points to the Russian state-sponsored media organization RT, which has reportedly used its "Spanish-language portal to spread stories on the Catalan crisis with a bias against constitutional legality." Since late August, RT has published 42 articles about the Catalonia referendum, many under fake or misleading headlines.

Russia has denied any interest in the referendum. "This is an internal matter for Spain and we do not see any possible involvement in any way," said Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov. Read the full report in English at El Pais. Jeva Lange

September 11, 2017

The FBI has opened an investigation into Sputnik News, a Kremlin-funded media agency that has made moves to expand its influence in Washington, D.C., Yahoo News reports. The FBI is apparently seeking to determine if Sputnik is operating as a propaganda machine for Russia, questioning one former Sputnik correspondent on if he "ever got direction from Moscow."

"They were interested in examples of how I was steered towards covering certain issues," the former correspondent, Andrew Feinberg, confirmed to Yahoo News.

The FBI probe is specifically questioning if Sputnik "should be covered by the foreign agents registration law, a 1938 act passed by Congress to combat Nazi propaganda," Yahoo News writes. If Sputnik is indeed found to be attempting to influence Americans' opinions, it would have to henceforth be labeled "foreign propaganda" rather than "news," and could face fines or potential criminal charges.

Sputnik recently took over a Washington, D.C., FM radio station for an all-talk program, a move that comes amid concerning reports that Russia conducted a complicated fake news operation in an attempt to swing the 2016 presidential election. Margarita Simonyan, the head of Russia's English-language network RT, warned that the allegations are false and that "there is no doubt that Russia will respond to the FBI investigation in the same way and will check the work of American journalists in Moscow."

"It's disgusting," Simonyan added. "Freedom of speech is turning in its grave. It was killed by those who created it."

Former FBI counterintelligence agent Asha Rangappa told Yahoo that the FBI wouldn't simply be probing Sputnik without some "good information."

"The FBI has since the 1970s taken pains not to be perceived in any way as infringing on First Amendment activity," said Rangappa. "But this tells me they have good information and intelligence that these organizations have been acting on behalf of the Kremlin and that there's a direct line between them and the [Russian influence operations] that are a significant threat to our democracy." Read the full report at Yahoo News. Jeva Lange

August 25, 2017

Current and former CIA officials are concerned that if "something dicey" turns up in the ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign's ties to Russia, then CIA Director Mike Pompeo "would go to the White House with it," The Washington Post reports.

Pompeo has arranged for the Counterintelligence Mission Center to report directly to him, a decision that a former CIA official said was a "real concern for interference and politicization." "Pompeo has attributed his direct supervision of the counterintelligence center to a desire to place a greater emphasis on preventing leaks and protecting classified secrets," The Washington Post writes, adding that both are "core missions of the center that are also top priorities for Trump."

But some critics are nervous, especially since many believe Pompeo has downplayed the seriousness of the Russia investigation: "Of course" Russia meddled in the 2016 election, Pompeo told attendees of the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado, before adding, "and the one before that, and the one before that."

Read more about concerns within the department at The Washington Post. Jeva Lange

July 10, 2017

In a shocking statement Sunday, Donald Trump Jr. admitted to meeting with a Kremlin-connected lawyer who had "stated that she had information that individuals connected to Russia were funding the Democratic National Committee and supporting [Hillary] Clinton." While Trump added that "it quickly became clear that [the lawyer] had no meaningful information," MSNBC justice and security analyst Matthew Miller said Trump's statement in and of itself could be the potential confession of a crime.

"You know, it is a crime to solicit or accept anything of value from a foreign national in a campaign," Miller explained to the Morning Joe hosts. "The 'thing of value' has never come up in this context before because we've never had a campaign like this, that potentially colluded with a foreign government, but in other contexts, in bribery cases and extortion cases, a thing of value doesn't have to be money."

"It could be, potentially, accepting information," Miller added.

Miller noted that Special Counsel Robert Mueller would almost certainly be looking at Donald Trump Jr.'s statement "and the lies, the repeated lies, the changing statements from Donald Trump Jr. and other people connected to the administration."

"The only way to trust what any of these people say is to put them in the grand jury, put them under oath," Miller said, "where if they lie, if Donald Trump Jr. has the kind of shifting statements to a grand jury that he did to The New York Times, he'll go to jail for that." Jeva Lange

June 29, 2017

President Trump's former bodyguard and director of Oval Office operations Keith Schiller is on the witness list for the House Intelligence Committee's ongoing investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election, ABC News reports. Before joining Trump at the White House, Schiller served as Trump's personal bodyguard for nearly 20 years.

The inclusion of Schiller on the witness list is "the latest indication that the investigations are touching Trump's inner circle," ABC News writes. Ex-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, senior adviser Jared Kushner, and Trump's longtime friend Roger Stone are all expected to voluntarily face congressional investigators in the coming months.

While it wasn't immediately clear what specifically brought Schiller to the attention of investigators, the former New York police officer was entrusted by Trump to hand-deliver the letter firing former FBI Director James Comey to the FBI headquarters. Schiller also traveled with Kushner to Iraq in April alongside National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.

"Keith Schiller is not just some bodyguard," said Trump's former political adviser, Michael Caputo. "Nobody knows the score among the advisers better than Keith Schiller." Jeva Lange

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