Lawmakers Probe Russia’s Ramped-Up Threats to Democracy

WASHINGTON (CN) – Girding the country for a new round of Kremlin-driven interference in next year’s election, members of Congress grilled foreign-affairs experts Tuesday about how Russia uses disinformation and financial corruption to sow chaos across the globe.

Rep. Bill Keating, D-Ma., led a House subcommittee hearing Tuesday on Russia’s efforts to undermine democracy.

For many at the hearing, the experience of 2016 is still fresh, but Representative Bill Keating opened the subcommittee hearing this morning by pointing to a scandal still erupting in Austria that has led to a series of political resignations just in the last few days.

The news broke on Saturday when two German newspapers published video of a 2017 meeting where Austria’s far-right leaning Vice Chancellor Heinz Christian Strache promised lucrative government contracts to a woman he believed to be the niece of a Russian oligarch, in exchange for campaign donations.

After viewing footage of the meeting Tuesday, House lawmakers heard testimony from four experts about steps the United States can take to deter Russian meddling.

Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., poses question at a House subcommittee hearing Tuesday on Russia’s efforts to undermine democracy.

But Representative Dina Titus, a Nevada Democrat, questioned the extent to which President Donald Trump undermines such deterrence efforts by framing Russia as a potential ally.

Michael Carpenter, senior director at the foreign policy think tank Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, agreed with Titus that “the scope for cooperation is minimal to nil.”

“There is this myth that we have a range of potentially cooperative interests with Russia, when in fact Russia’s primary interest is to undermine U.S. democracy,” Carpenter said. 

Carpenter also noted that the notion of media bias is one that Russia trumpets.

“So when the [U.S.] president calls the media ‘the enemy of the people,’ he is playing into Putin’s narrative,” Carpenter said. “That is exactly what Russia wants.”

Michael Carpenter, senior director at the foreign policy think tank Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, testified Tuesday at a House subcommittee hearing on Russia’s efforts to undermine democracy.

Keating, a Massachusetts Democrat who chairs this morning’s subcommittee, said the evidence shows Russia has “doubled down” on attempts at financial corruption and backdoor dealing that has otherwise been longstanding.

“Look at Hungary,” Keating said. “Hungary has now allowed [Russia’s] International Investment Bank to build its new headquarters in Budapest and its bank chairman has ties to Putin.”

This move pulls Hungary further away from the European Union’s orbit and closer to that of Putin, Keating warned.

Heather Conley, senior vice president for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, testified that Russia’s objective to destabilize democracy relies on a messaging to “deepen disgust, create doubt and change how [Americans] think of themselves.”

Heather Conley, senior vice president for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, testified Tuesday before a House subcommittee on Russia’s efforts to undermine democracy.

As an example of how Russia exploits weaknesses in a nation’s social makeup, Conley noted how the country disseminates propaganda that buoys racist or sexist attitudes.

Russian news organizations like RT and Sputnik amplify stories that are rooted in falsehoods, Conley said, and they magnify those which are critical of the European Union or the United States while simultaneously elevating other stories involving right-wing or extremist and fringe ideology.

Beyond the Internet Research Agency, one of the Russian-backed organizations identified by Special Counsel Robert Mueller as responsible for meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, Conley warned that Russia’s disinformation activity isn’t limited to online troll collectives.

The scale is grander and the methods are more “nefarious,” she said.

As for pushing back, the experts said the European Union needs a first line of defense against the Russian president and his network of spies, businessmen and government officials who may seek to exploit – and cash in on – vulnerabilities in democratic governments.

Carpenter told lawmakers the formation of an anti-money laundering institution that represents the whole of the European Union would be a strong deterrent.

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