Russia is not done meddling

Going back decades, the U.S. Department of State has hosted an annual gathering of opinion writers from around the country. Top diplomats share their perspectives and take questions on U.S. foreign policy objectives from across the globe.

I have had the opportunity to participate in several of these forums since becoming editorial page editor at The Day in 2007, bridging three administrations, including this past Wednesday. The American Society of News Editors, of which I am a member, organized the event.

Given President Trump’s harsh criticism of the news media, there had been speculation whether the forum would continue. It did, with the State Department presenting a star lineup of diplomats who play leadership roles in critical areas, including North Korea, Russia, Venezuela, global trade and the effort to defeat the Islamic State.

Among the presenters to the 30 journalists was Kathleen Kavalec, deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs. That makes her the point person for U.S. policy toward Russia. Appointed in August 2015, Kavalec previously served as director for Russian Affairs in that bureau.

As recently as a Sept. 22 tweet, Trump has dismissed the idea of Russian interference in U.S. elections to boost support for him, and the potential for collusion by members of his campaign with those efforts, as a media hoax intended to discredit his victory.

“The Russia hoax continues,” he wrote then. “What about the totally biased and dishonest Media coverage in favor of Crooked Hillary?”

But Kavalec told the opinion writers that the Russian interference in democratic elections, not only here but also in Germany, France and other western countries, is serious business. All the nation’s intelligence agencies reached the same conclusion. And we continue to learn more.

"There's going to be more revelations, I'm sure, as people investigate further," Kavalec said.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, she said, has communicated to Russian leadership how seriously its hacking into the emails of political parties, its probing of voting records and the planting of false, inflammatory reports on social media has damaged the relationship between the American people and the Russian people.

“It created serious mistrust between our two countries,” Kavalec said.

There has been diplomatic reciprocation as the U.S. closed Russian consulates and evicted diplomats in December and Russia, recognizing Trump was not going to reverse that decision by President Obama, did the same to our diplomats and compounds in Russia this past July.

That kind of gameplay is not going to discourage the Russians. But Trump has shown no inclination to ramp up the pressure, though Congress has. Kavalec said the meddling continues. Russian trolls on social media tried to stir up domestic trouble after the clash between white nationalists and counter protestors in Charlottesville in August, Kavalec said.

“Absolutely we should prepare for more,” she said, responding to a question. “I think what the experiences are teaching us is that the Russians are constantly monitoring opportunities to interfere or create division. The overall goal is to undermine democratic institutions and faith in those institutions.”

In July, speaking to Newsweek, the U.S. envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker, suggested the United States might provide defensive weapons to that country, such as anti-tank guns, to discourage Russia from pushing further after annexing the Crimean region in 2014. The Obama administration rejected the move for fear of escalating tensions.

Kavalec said the possibility remains.

“There’s no decision been taken there but it certainly is still an option,” Kavalec said. Providing defensive weapons is not a provocative act, she contended, while acknowledging Russia would certainly depict it that way.

In response to my question, Kavalec said there is both speculation and concern in the State Department about what may happen with Russia after the reign of Vladimir Putin ends. He turned 65 this past week.

“A lot of people worry that it could get worse, that nationalists and a more extreme faction could come to power. We can’t just assume that magically democracy will reappear,” she said.

The U.S. is keeping the lines of communication open with opposition groups and will continue to express its support for democratic principles and for human rights, Kavalec said.

In other words, the U.S. hopes, following Putin’s iron-fisted rule, to influence the future of Russia in a democratic direction. Note that she made no mention of hacking.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

 

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