Are China and Iran meddling in US elections? It’s complicated.

“Russia’s main strategy is to sow discord and division, and diminish faith in democracy. It also favors President Donald Trump, partly because he helps advance the first two goals, and because of his oft-stated desire to improve relations between Washington and Moscow.

China and Iran are more averse to chaos in the US, and are much more focused on pushing their own national objectives. They want different things from the United States, Emerson T. Brooking, a resident fellow at the Digital Forensic Research Lab of the Atlantic Council, told me.

For China, that might mean promoting its Covid-19 narrative, or getting the US to shut up about Hong Kong protests. For Iran, that could mean promoting criticism of Israel or US sanctions policy.

All three countries have different capabilities. China might not use online trolls in the way Russia or even Iran does because it has other, far more effective tools — economic, technological — that could achieve those aims.

And, of course, interference may go beyond disinformation or influence campaigns. There is the threat of hacking or cyber intrusions of politicians, or campaigns, or even election infrastructure. There is also a concern over how individuals with ties to foreign governments might use money in politics. And there’s probably something else, because as one analyst told me, what the US doesn’t want to be doing is fighting the last war.”

“A Department of Homeland Security whistleblower complaint also alleges that the administration tried to downplay the Russia threat because it upsets Trump, and that National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien pressured the department to elevate China and Iran activities to the level of Russia’s, even though that didn’t fit with the actual intelligence data available.”

“Russia is still pushing disinformation through social media and has reportedly attempted to hack campaigns associated with both Democrats and Republicans. The Kremlin is also filtering pro-Russia narratives through Ukrainian politicians to undermine Biden and the Democrats, talking points that are being regurgitated by Trump and GOP allies. The ODNI has said that Russia “is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden.”
Taken together, Moscow’s tactics create chaos and distrust in US institutions and democracy, exacerbating America’s partisan divides like a finger pressed to a bruise.

Based on what’s known publicly, China and Iran are echoing some of those strategies. They’re spreading disinformation. They reportedly targeted campaigns and political entities.

But China and Iran want different things when it comes to America.

Russia wants to disrupt and destabilize and confuse people on how to see the world. Iran and China would like the world to see things their way. At least right now, China, in particular, sees a lot more value in building itself up than in tearing America apart.

“For China and Iran, ultimately, their interests are not served by an American political system that is chaotic, unable to think long-term, make strategic decisions about their relationships with either of those two countries,” Priscilla Moriuchi, an expert on state-sponsored cyber operations and fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, said.

This is not to say that China and Iran are cool with the United States as is. But China doesn’t want a chaotic world, Brookings’s West told me. It wants stability. So if it’s going to meddle in the 2020 election, it’s not out to cause Russian-style pandemonium.”

“The ODNI report says Russia wants to denigrate Biden, but says Iran and China have particular preferences when it comes to the 2020 election. US intelligence assess China “prefers that President Trump – whom Beijing sees as unpredictable – does not win reelection.” But the ODNI doesn’t say that China is necessarily tipping the scales for Biden. Instead, China’s operations are mostly focused on deflecting criticism of China.
As for Iran, the ODNI says it seeks to “undermine President Trump” and democratic institutions, saying it’s mostly focused on online and anti-US propaganda.

This has created a sense that Russia is on one side and China and Iran are on the other — one for Trump, two for Biden. But this is the wrong way to look at it, experts told me. It muddles the actual efforts and objectives of each of these actors.

“It’s certainly true that different US adversaries might have different preferences for the outcome of the election,” Brooking, of the Atlantic Council, told me. “But they don’t go about executing their goals the same way.””

” This is a US presidential election; Beijing has a preference, but so do Brussels and Mexico City and Tokyo. Allies and adversaries alike are going to have an idea of an outcome they’d like to see based on their own foreign policy, national security, and economic interests. As Cordero said, that’s not the same thing as “taking specific actions using their intelligence services, using their military, cyber capability to actively affect the outcome of our election.””

“”it is not clear that China is really interested in turning a lot of this apparatus to privilege one candidate or another in the presidential election.”

So far, China hasn’t really shown itself to be interested in that kind of disruption, James Andrew Lewis, senior vice president and director of the Technology Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told me. Instead, he said, China is “more interested in getting the US off their back.”

“With China, it’s to benefit China,” Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation fellow at the Wilson Center”

“Moriuchi, at the Belfer Center, cautioned against the notion that this somehow means China is the JV team to Russia’s varsity, because, again, they’re essentially playing two different games. Russia is trying to disrupt the 2020 election and see what kind of disorder it can create. Beijing is playing the long game.”

“Russia is an adversary, but Moscow can’t directly challenge the US’s economic dominance, or its position in global hegemony. Trying to bolster the Russian political system in the US wouldn’t be as useful in weakening US democracy as, for instance, amplifying doubts about mail-in voting.”

“Russia’s disruption tactics are a kind of asymmetric warfare against a larger power. It’s low tech and not all that costly, but America’s homegrown political dysfunction has made it seem wildly effective.

This isn’t the case for China. China is challenging the US for global hegemony. “China — the Chinese Communist Party — believes it is in a generational fight to surpass our country in economic and technological leadership,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said in July. China does want to manipulate the American political system to help achieve those ends. It just has a lot more capabilities than Russia does.

“It’s certainly true that if China wanted, they could have extraordinary impact on this social media space,” Brooking said. “But the Chinese also don’t need to do that.” They’re the second-largest economy in the world, he added. “They have so many levers of influence and power, which don’t rely on creating sock puppet accounts and botnets.”

China is carefully, and strategically, expanding its influence in the US in ways that might not fit with our perception of “meddling.” And if China doesn’t like what the US or others are saying about its policies, it doesn’t necessarily need to rely on a fake Facebook page.”

““The Chinese don’t want you to say what we did in Hong Kong was bad, and they use market pressure and money and influence operations to push that China’s great: ‘Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,’” CSIS’s Lewis said.

This also prompts certain industries or institutions to self-censor, tiptoeing around sensitive issues to avoid displeasing China. But China can also more directly use its economic prowess, enticing Wall Street or Hollywood with investment or funding think tanks and universities that may push more Beijing-friendly talking points.

There are also legitimate concerns about what China is doing with its technology. China uses apps like WeChat to spread pro-Chinese messaging, including to the Chinese diaspora around the world, and the government almost certainly uses it as a surveillance tool. The same goes for concerns about censorship and/or data tracking on Chinese-owned apps like TikTok.

And then there are the hacking operations meant to gather intelligence — that is, to spy. FBI Director Wray said in that same July speech that the US opens a counterintelligence case against China every 10 hours; of the FBI’s 5,000 counterintelligence cases, about half involve China.

China has waged a relentless campaign to steal technological and trade secrets from the United States. Hackers with ties to Chinese military or intelligence have carried out cyber operations to steal massive amounts of data — hacks like the 2017 Equifax breach that affected about half of all Americans, or the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) hack.

“So China is probing campaigns like the Russians (and Iranians), but what it will do with that information is a lot less clear. In 2016, Russia released stolen information through WikiLeaks, which was far more dramatic and influential than just quietly collecting information for its own use. China, we know, has these cyber capabilities, but so far it hasn’t tried to dump any information to alter the presidential race.”

“Iran definitely has cyber capabilities. But Zoli said, overall, they’re not sophisticated enough to have a truly enormous impact. “They don’t have the capabilities and they haven’t thought through a really multi-pronged strategy. They’re not going after, you know, these ancillary institutional sites to try to have a big impact on political decision-making.””

“Plenty of other countries — even those who’d fall into the US ally camp — are using social media to spread state propaganda, or messaging that favors their foreign policy goals. Saudi Arabia-linked accounts have spread pro-Trump messaging on Twitter. During the George Floyd protests, Turkey tried to link Syrian Kurds to antifa. Whether this stuff really works isn’t the point; it doesn’t require a lot of resources, it’s not all that complicated, and right now, getting taken down by Twitter or Facebook is a fairly low cost.”

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s new Russia report, explained

““The Russian government engaged in an aggressive, multi-faceted effort to influence, or attempt to influence, the outcome of the 2016 presidential election,” the report, which was co-signed by both Democrats and Republicans on the Senate committee, says. “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian effort to hack computer networks and accounts affiliated with the Democratic Party and leak information damaging to Hillary Clinton and her campaign for president” to WikiLeaks.

Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chair, comes under heavy criticism in the report for his “willingness to share information with individuals closely affiliated with the Russian intelligence services” — this “represented a grave counterintelligence threat.”

However, the report goes further than special counsel Robert Mueller did — it claims some information suggests Manafort and a longtime associate of his, Konstantin Kilimnik, were “connected” to the Russian government’s effort to hack and leak Democrats’ emails. These details are redacted, though.

The report also retells the story of how Roger Stone tried to get inside information on WikiLeaks’ plans at the behest of the Trump campaign. “Stone obtained information indicating that John Podesta would be a target of an upcoming release,” the report says. It also describes Jerome Corsi’s claims that Stone tried to get WikiLeaks to time the release of Podesta’s emails to distract from the Access Hollywood tape.

There are many other topics addressed in the report, including some criticism for how the FBI handled the “Steele dossier” allegations about Trump. There are also matters that remain murky — most notably, the purpose and extent of Manafort’s communications with Kilimnik, and the exact nature of the information Stone got regarding WikiLeaks.”

Top Putin critic Alexei Navalny was poisoned, German doctors confirm

“Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most outspoken critic is lying in a coma in a Siberian hospital from a suspected poisoning — and his family and supporters allege Putin and his government are behind it.
They have good reason to suspect that. The Kremlin has a long, sordid history of poisoning political dissidents, defectors, and other enemies of the state. Indeed, this is actually the second time Navalny — the leader of Russia’s splintered opposition — is suspected of having been poisoned in just a little over a year.

On Thursday, Navalny drank some tea at a Siberian airport before boarding a flight to Moscow. He became ill on the aircraft, with a video purportedly showing the politician moaning and needing immediate medical attention.

The plane made an emergency landing in Omsk, near Kazakhstan, where an ambulance waited to take him to a local hospital. But Navalny’s condition worsened, and he fell into a coma before he arrived at the facility.

Omsk Emergency Hospital No. 1, where Navalny is currently being treated, has since become the site of a frustrating standoff between Navalny’s family and supporters and the doctors overseeing his care. Navalny’s wife and supporters allege the doctors are controlled by the Kremlin and trying to cover up the poisoning attack instead of properly treating their patient.

The physicians say Navalny wasn’t poisoned but instead suffers from a “metabolic disorder” that leads to low blood sugar. “Poisons or traces of their presence in the body have not been identified,” Anatoly Kalinichenko, the deputy chief doctor at the Omsk emergency hospital, told reporters on Friday. “The diagnosis of ‘poisoning’ remains somewhere in the back of our minds, but we do not believe that the patient suffered poisoning.””

“A medical plane sent by the Berlin-based humanitarian group Cinema for Peace Foundation arrived in Omsk on Friday to take the opposition leader to Germany for treatment. The Russian doctors initially blocked the transfer, saying Navalny wasn’t stable enough to travel, before finally allowing the German physicians to take a look at the patient’s condition.”

“Late on Friday, the Russian physicians granted the transfer request, but the earliest he’d be transported would be Saturday morning, his team said.

Hanging over all the drama, though, are two pressing questions: Was Navalny actually poisoned? And if so, did Putin have anything to do it?

As of right now, we don’t have definitive answers to those questions — and we may never get them.”

“Plausible deniability is baked into the cake of his authoritarian system. Everyone who works in the government knows what Putin wants without him having to explicitly ask. That means Kremlin operatives have the green light to pursue some of those goals — like knocking off a political rival — while officially keeping Putin out the loop.

That, in a sense, is how he gets what he wants without having his fingerprints on the government’s dirtiest actions.

So Putin could have ordered Navalny dead himself, but it’s equally possible that someone who wanted to make Putin happy did it on their own initiative.”

“things aren’t looking too great for Putin right now. He’s overseeing one of the world’s worst coronavirus outbreaks, facing protests that question his leadership, and watching as his ally in Belarus faces nationwide calls to step down. With all that instability, Putin may have wanted to target his main political rival to send a strong message.”

“The end of arms control as we know it”

“why get out of a deal that almost everyone says is vital to keeping US-Russia relations stable? The answer is China. “We need to make sure that we’ve got all of the parties that are relevant as a component of this as well,” Pompeo told

Russia’s coronavirus outbreak is getting bad. Putin says the worst is yet to come.

“As of April 28, Russia reported nearly 100,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and nearly 1,000 deaths. Those numbers make Russia the eighth-hardest-hit country in the world.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday admitted that the country had a shortage of critical personal protective equipment for health care workers, and warned that the worst the pandemic is yet to come.

“Ahead of us is a new stage, perhaps the most intense stage of the fight against the epidemic,” he said in a national address, in which he also announced an extension of his nation’s lockdown until May 11. “The risks of getting infected are at the highest level, and the threat, the mortal danger of the virus persists.”

“Russia has managed to slow down the spread of the epidemic, but we haven’t passed the peak yet,” Putin continued.

His pessimism is warranted. Hospitals have become overrun with patients, leaving ambulances stuck idling in long lines outside hospitals just to deliver sick patients. At least one driver had to wait about 15 hours. Moscow might run out of intensive care unit beds before the end of this week. And nurses have quit en masse to protest poor working conditions and low pay.

Millions of Russians could lose their jobs this year due to the lockdown and oil revenues, which make up a significant portion of Russia’s economy, have dropped sharply as people around the world have stopped traveling and business have shuttered due to the coronavirus.”

The Saudi Arabia-Russia oil war, explained

“three years ago Russia made a deal to coordinate its production levels with the group, in a pact known as OPEC+.”

“Saudi Arabia, the cartel’s leader, suggested the participants collectively cut their oil production by about 1 million barrels per day, with Russia making the most dramatic cut of around 500,000 barrels a day. Doing so would keep oil prices higher, which would bring in more revenue for nations in the bloc whose economies are heavily dependent on crude exports.”

“Riyadh considered the move necessary as Asia, which is roiling from thousands of cases of coronavirus mainly in China and South Korea, no longer consumes as much energy as it did only a few months ago. China’s refineries, for example, cut their imports of foreign oil by about 20 percent last month. Lower demand leads to a drop in the commodity’s price, which thus hurts countries’ bottom lines.

The Russians, wary of such a move for weeks, opted against the plan. It’s still unclear exactly why that’s the case. Some say Russia wants prices to stay low to hurt the American shale oil industry or is gearing up to seize a bigger sliver of Asian and global oil demand for itself.

“The Russians are more worried about market share and think they’d do better competing with the Saudis rather than cooperating at this point,” says Emma Ashford, an expert on petrostates at the CATO Institute in Washington.

Saudi Arabia didn’t take too kindly to the Kremlin’s decision and responded by slashing its export prices over the weekend to start a price war with Russia. That brought the price per barrel down by about $11 to $35 a barrel — the biggest one-day drop since 1991.”

U.S. Faces Tough ‘Great Game’ Against China in Central Asia and Beyond

“words go only so far. The Americans fail to present an economical alternative to Huawei. And the Trump administration is discovering that its belligerent approach toward allies has a cost when it comes to China strategy. Withdrawing from the global Paris climate agreement and the landmark Iran nuclear deal, starting trade conflicts with friendly governments and berating members of NATO make those nations less likely to listen to Washington’s entreaties on China.

A recent policy report on China by the Center for a New American Security said “critical areas of U.S. policy remain inconsistent, uncoordinated, underresourced and — to be blunt — uncompetitive and counterproductive to advancing U.S. values and interests.””

“Beijing says it will help build up the region under what it calls the Silk Road Economic Belt, which is part of the larger Belt and Road Initiative, a blanket term for global infrastructure projects that, according to Beijing, amount to $1 trillion of investment. The Trump administration says the projects are potential debt traps, but many countries have embraced them.

The economic liberalization of Uzbekistan under Mr. Mirziyoyev, who took power in 2016 after the death of a longtime dictator, has resulted in greater trade with China.

China is Uzbekistan’s largest trading partner, and trade totaled almost $6.3 billion in 2018, a nearly 50 percent increase from 2017, according to Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency. Chinese goods, including Huawei devices, are everywhere in Samarkand, Bukhara, Tashkent and other Uzbek cities.”

“China’s People’s Liberation Army has gained a new foothold in the region, in the form of a base in Tajikistan’s Pamir Mountains. For at least three years, Chinese troops have quietly kept watch from two dozen buildings and lookout towers near the Tajik-Chinese border and the remote Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan.”

“Mr. Pompeo also made a demand regarding human rights in China as he met with officials in Tashkent and Nur-Sultan, the capital of Kazakhstan. He raised the issue of China’s internment camps that hold one million or more Muslims and urged the Central Asian nations, which are predominantly Muslim, to speak out against the camps. In Nur-Sultan, he met with Kazakhs who have had family members detained in the camps.

Yet, as in other predominantly Muslim nations, Central Asian leaders have remained silent on this.”

“Trump administration policies perceived as anti-Muslim undermine trust in Washington. On Jan. 31, Mr. Trump added Kyrgyzstan and five other nations, all with substantial Muslim populations, to a list of countries whose citizens are restricted in traveling to the United States. In an interview in Nur-Sultan, a Kazakh television journalist, Lyazzat Shatayeva, asked Mr. Pompeo, “What do you think that signals to the other countries and other governments in Central Asia on why it happened?”

Mr. Pompeo said Kyrgyzstan must “fix” certain things: “passport issues, visa issues, visa overstays.”

“When the country fixes those things,” he said, “we’ll get them right back in where they can come travel to America.””

Playing on Kansas City Radio: Russian Propaganda

“What was once Radio Moscow was reborn as Radio Sputnik in 2014. Mr. Putin backed the effort to create a central, state-run news organization — called Rossiya Segodnya, or Russia Today in English — designed to challenge the West’s global dominance on reporting news.

In a modern spin on propaganda, it focuses on sowing doubt about Western governments and institutions rather than the old Soviet model of selling Russia as paradise lost.”