Category Archives: Cyber

Reuters: Putin-Controlled Think Tank Created Plan to Interfere With US Election

Mother Jones

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Reuters reports that Vladimir Putin personally directed RISS, a Russian think tank, to develop plans to interfere with the US election:

A Russian government think tank controlled by Vladimir Putin developed a plan to swing the 2016 U.S. presidential election to Donald Trump and undermine voters’ faith in the American electoral system, three current and four former U.S. officials told Reuters.

….The first Russian institute document was a strategy paper written last June that circulated at the highest levels of the Russian government but was not addressed to any specific individuals. It recommended the Kremlin launch a propaganda campaign on social media and Russian state-backed global news outlets to encourage U.S. voters to elect a president who would take a softer line toward Russia than the administration of then-President Barack Obama, the seven officials said.

A second institute document, drafted in October and distributed in the same way, warned that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was likely to win the election. For that reason, it argued, it was better for Russia to end its pro-Trump propaganda and instead intensify its messaging about voter fraud to undermine the U.S. electoral system’s legitimacy and damage Clinton’s reputation in an effort to undermine her presidency, the seven officials said.

According to Reuters, there’s no evidence that the Trump campaign colluded in this. It was purely a Russian operation. Nor did the RISS plans say anything about the release of hacked emails. “The officials said the hacking was a covert intelligence operation run separately out of the Kremlin.”

So we have the RISS plan. We have the email hacks, which were far more extensive than initially reported. We have the RT cable network and the Sputnik news agency, which specialized in anti-Clinton stories. We have the Russian troll factory in St. Petersburg writing pro-Trump tweets under hundreds of aliases. We have thousands of Russian Twitter bots to make sure the tweets went viral. We have Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear and dozens of other covert Russian operations. We have Guccifer 2.0. We have DCLeaks.com. And finally, Russia appears to have used Wikileaks—either wittingly or unwittingly—for maximum exposure of all its hacks.

That’s a pretty big operation. Did it work? We’ll never know, but given how close the election was, the answer is probably yes.

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Reuters: Putin-Controlled Think Tank Created Plan to Interfere With US Election

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With Nunes Out, the New Guys Running the Trump-Russia Probe Ain’t Much Better

Mother Jones

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On Thursday morning, the inevitable happened: Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House intelligence committee, announced he was yielding the reins on his panel’s derailed investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Nunes claims the reason for his retreat is that the House ethics committee is investigating whether he publicly revealed classified information—a charge he insists is “baseless.” Whatever happens with this ethics inquiry, his departure does not guarantee the investigation will fare any better than it has.

In his statement, Nunes curiously said nothing about Vladimir Putin’s secret political attack on the United States. Nor did he mention the question of contacts between Trump associates and Moscow. He only discussed one aspect of the committee’s probe: the leaking of classified information (mainly about Michael Flynn, who was fired from the national security adviser post after news reports showed he had lied about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States during the transition). “The charges…are being leveled just as the American people are beginning to learn the truth about the improper unmasking of the identities of US citizens and other abuses of power,” Nunes declared. So even as he said bye-bye to the probe, the congressman—who served on the Trump transition team and who delegitimized himself while trying to provide cover to President Donald Trump for his fact-free charge that Barack Obama had wiretapped him—was still promoting Trump’s distraction of choice: The big story is what happened when Trump and his team were possibly picked up by “incidental” intelligence collection, not Putin’s attempt to subvert an American election or the FBI’s investigation of Trump associates for possibly coordinating with Russia.

And the committee members Nunes designated as his heirs have been champions of the same diversionary tactic.

Nunes, who is retaining his post of committee chairman, assigned the task of running the Russia investigation to Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas). He also noted that Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) and Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) will assist Conaway. At the committee’s first hearing for its Russia probe—before Nunes ran the investigation into a ditch—his three designees, as they questioned FBI chief James Comey and National Security Agency head Mike Rogers, focused on the narrow issue of leaks and unmasking. (“Unmasking” is the term of art for when a senior US official cleared to handle top-secret reports based on intelligence intercepts of foreign targets requests an intelligence agency to disclose to him or her the identity of a US citizen referenced in a report.) Or they asked questions designed to raise doubts about the intelligence community’s assessment that Putin meddled in the election to assist Trump. That is, they stuck to the GOP’s political script.

Moreover, in early January, Conaway dismissed the issue of Russian involvement in the campaign with a wacky comparison. Speaking to a Dallas newspaper, he compared the Russian hacking-and-leaking assault to standard campaign moves: “Harry Reid and the Democrats brought in Mexican soap opera stars, singers and entertainers who had immense influence in those communities into Las Vegas, to entertain, get out the vote and so forth. Those are foreign actors, foreign people, influencing the vote in Nevada. You don’t hear the Democrats screaming and saying one word about that.” As the Dallas Morning News reported, “Asked whether he considers that on par with Russian cyber-intrusions that aimed to damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign, Conaway said: ‘Sure it is, it’s foreign influence. If we’re worried about foreign influence, let’s have the whole story.'”

This attitude was on full display during the hearing with Comey and Rogers—at which Comey declared the FBI had no evidence to support Trump’s Obama-wiretapped-me claim and revealed the FBI had been investigating Trump-Russia contacts since July. When Conaway was granted time for questioning, he dwelled on when and why the FBI and the NSA had reached the conclusion that the Russian operation was designed to help Trump. Conaway tried to make an issue out of the fact that the FBI hit this conclusion with more certainty a few weeks before the NSA did late last year. Comey had to point out, “To be clear, Mr. Conaway, we all agreed with that judgment.” And Rogers echoed him.

Conaway’s intent was clear: to attempt to show this damaging-to-Trump assessment was still iffy. This led him into a bizarre exchange with Comey over rooting for college football teams and whether a person can cheer for one team to lose and not really desire the other team to win. (Conaway referenced his wife’s favorite team, the Red Raiders of Texas Tech.) Comey noted that “logically, when Putin wanted Hillary Clinton to lose,” he wanted Trump to win. Conaway then tried to discredit a Washington Post story by noting that the anonymous sources who provided the newspaper information about the US intelligence community’s assessment of the Russian operation (before that evaluation was made public) had probably broken the law. It was not obvious what he was driving at. But Conaway had not bothered to express any outrage over the Russian intervention or to encourage the FBI’s ongoing investigations. He was in Trump-damage-control mode.

Rooney used his grilling time to pose to Rogers a long and detailed series of questions about incidental collection and unmasking. These are not unimportant subjects. But they have nothing to do with how Putin and Russian intelligence intervened in the election. (Rogers noted that only 20 senior-ranked officials at the NSA, including himself, are authorized to approve unmasking requests.) Then came the money shot. Rooney asked, “If the NSA obtained the communication of General Flynn while he was communicating with the surveillance target legally, would you please explain how General Flynn’s identity could be unmasked based on the exceptions that we discussed?” So this was all about targeting those current or past US officials who had leaked information on Flynn’s conversation with the Russian ambassador. Rooney was more concerned about the leaking than Flynn’s deceptions and back-channel communications (for which Flynn was fired). Rogers replied, “I’m not going to discuss even hypotheticals about individuals, I’m sorry.”

Nevertheless, Rooney decried the “serious crime” that had apparently been committed via a presumed act of unmasking. He noted he was worried that the intelligence community had broken a “sacred trust” with the American people. (There was not a word about Flynn violating any trust.) He did not once address the Russian intervention.

When Rooney was done, Gowdy picked up this line of questioning. Gowdy is best known for running the House special committee on Benghazi that went on endlessly—after other House committees had scrutinized the matter and blown apart the various anti-Clinton conspiracy theories of the right—and was marred by partisan moves and, yes, leaks from the GOP side of the committee. (Gowdy also declared during the campaign that he believed Clinton should be prosecuted for how she handled her official email when she was secretary of state.) Citing several newspaper stories about Flynn’s calls with the Russian ambassador—which referred to classified intercepts that had captured these communications—Gowdy said to Comey, “I thought it was against the law to disseminate classified information. Is it?” Comey replied, “Yes, sir. It’s a serious crime. I’m not going to comment on those particular articles because I don’t want to, in any circumstance, compound a criminal act by confirming that it was classified information, but in general, yes, it’s a serious crime.”

Gowdy subsequently followed up with this question: “Is there an exception in the law for reporters who want to break a story?” Comey answered, “Well that’s a harder question as to whether a reporter incurs criminal liability by publishing classified information and one probably beyond my ken.” But Gowdy suggested that a reporter could be prosecuted for publishing a story containing classified information. “You’re not aware of an exception in the current dissemination of the classified information statute that carves out an exception for reporters?” he asked the FBI chief. No, Comey said: “I’m not aware of anything carved out in the statute. I don’t think a reporter’s been prosecuted certainly in my lifetime, though.”

Gowdy did not ask anything related to how the Kremlin had targeted a political party and presidential campaign to subvert an election. Instead, he fixated on leaks and locking up journalists who receive and report classified secrets. He pressed Comey to investigate the Flynn leak, and he ticked off a list of Obama officials who might have had access to unmasked names—James Clapper, John Brennan, Susan Rice, Loretta Lynch, Sally Yates—as if to suggest one or more of them deserved to be investigated for the Flynn leak.

Toward the end of the hearing, Gowdy did speak one sentence about the FBI’s Russia investigation. He told Comey, “I want you to go find every single witness who may have information about interference, influence, motive, our response, collusion, coordination, whatever your jurisdiction is, wherever the facts may take you. Though the heavens may fall, go do your jobs because nature abhors a vacuum.” But Gowdy then cautioned people not to confuse “evidence” with “facts” and to be wary of hearsay. This seemed to be an indirect way of questioning media reporting regarding the Russian intervention in the election and the contacts between Trump associates and Russia. In any event, Gowdy had tried to turn the hearing into an inquiry about the Flynn leak and the once-obscure subject of unmasking—which matched the agenda of Trump defenders.

Acting in a partisan and puzzling manner, Nunes made a hash of the House intelligence committee’s investigation of the Trump-Russia scandal. After his botched stunt, his credibility was shot. Stepping aside was the correct action. Yet he has placed this important exercise in the hands of men who have indicated they are not fully concerned with the main issues, which, of course, are rather inconvenient for their party and its president. Conaway, Rooney, and Gowdy have not yet demonstrated they can mount an independent and vigorous investigation on this politically sensitive terrain. Nunes may be gone, but the challenges facing the committee remain.

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With Nunes Out, the New Guys Running the Trump-Russia Probe Ain’t Much Better

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Watch the Top Democrat on the Senate Intel Committee Explain the Trump-Russia Scandal

Mother Jones

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The US Senate intelligence committee on Thursday convened its first hearing in its investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. In stark contrast to the House intelligence committee’s investigation—which has been brought to a halt by the partisan brinksmanship of the panel’s chair, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.)—the leaders of the Senate investigation say they are trying to keep things as bipartisan and transparent as possible. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the committee’s vice chairman, used his opening statement to sum up Russia’s election interference—and the ways that Trump associates may have been connected to this Kremlin operation. “We are seeking to determine if there is an actual fire, but there’s clearly a lot of smoke,” Warner said. Read his full statement below:

Today’s hearing is important to help understand the role Russia played in the 2016 presidential elections.

As the U.S. intelligence community unanimously assessed in January of this year, Russia sought to hijack our democratic process, and that most important part of our democratic process, our Presidential elections. As we’ll learn today, Russia’s strategy and tactics are not new, but their brazenness certainly was.

This hearing is also important because it is open, as the chairman mentioned—which is unusual for this Committee. Due to the classified nature of our work, we typically operate behind closed doors.

But today’s public hearing will help, I hope, the American public writ large understand how the Kremlin made effective use of its hacking skills to steal and weaponize information and engage in a coordinated effort to damage a particular candidate and to undermine public confidence in our democratic process.

Our witnesses today will help us to understand how Russia deployed this deluge of disinformation in a broader attempt to undermine America’s strength and leadership throughout the world.

We simply must – and we will – get this right. The Chairman and I agree it is vitally important that we do this as a credible, bipartisan, and transparent a manner as possible. As was said yesterday at our press conference, Chairman Burr and I trust each other, and equally important, we trust our colleagues on this committee that we are going to move together and we are going to get to the bottom of it and get it right.

As this hearing begins, let’s take a minute to review what we know: Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a deliberate campaign carefully constructed to undermine our election.

First, Russia struck at our political institutions by electronically breaking into the headquarters of one of our political parties and stealing vast amounts of information. Russian operatives also hacked emails to steal personal messages and other information from individuals ranging from Clinton campaign manager John Podesta to former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

This stolen information was then “weaponized.” We know that Russian intelligence used the “Guccifer 2.0” persona and others like WikiLeaks and seemingly choreographed times that would cause maximum damage to one candidate. They did this with an unprecedented level of sophistication about American presidential politics that should be a line of inquiry for us on this committee and candidly, while it helped one candidate this time, they are not favoring one party over another, and consequently should be a concern for all of us.

Second, Russia continually sought to diminish and undermine our trust in the American media by blurring our faith in what is true and what is not. Russian propaganda outlets like RT and Sputnik successfully produced and peddled disinformation to American audiences in pursuit of Moscow’s preferred outcome.

This Russian “propaganda on steroids” was designed to poison the national conversation in America. The Russians employed thousands of paid Internet trolls and bot-nets to push-out disinformation and fake news at high volume, focusing this material onto your Twitter and Facebook feeds and flooding our social media with misinformation.

This fake news and disinformation was then hyped by the American media echo chamber and our own social media networks to reach – and potentially influence – millions of Americans.

This is not innuendo or false allegations. This is not fake news. This is actually what happened to us, and understanding all aspects of this attack is important.

Russia continues these sorts of actions as we speak. Some of our close allies in Europe are experiencing exactly the same kind of interference in their political processes. Germany has said that its Parliament has been hacked. French presidential candidates right now have been the subjects of Russian propaganda and disinformation. In the Netherlands, their recent elections, the Dutch hand-counted their ballots because they feared Russian interference in their electoral process.

Perhaps, most critically for us, there is nothing to stop them from doing this all over again in 2018, for those of you who are up, or in 2020, as Americans again go back to the polls.

In addition to what we already know, any full accounting must also find out what, if any, contacts, communications or connections occurred between Russia and those associated with the campaigns themselves.

I will not prejudge the outcome of our investigation. We are seeking to determine if there is an actual fire, but there’s clearly a lot of smoke. For instance:

• An individual associated with the Trump campaign accurately predicted the release of hacked emails weeks before it happened. This same individual also admits to being in contact with Guccifer 2.0, the Russian intelligence persona responsible for these cyber operations.
• The platform of one of our two major political parties was mysteriously watered-down in a way which promoted the interests of President Putin — and no one seems to be able to identify who directed that change in the platform.
• A campaign manager of one campaign, who played such a critical role in electing the President, was forced to step down over his alleged ties to Russia and its associates.
• Since the election, we have seen the President’s national security advisor resign — and his Attorney General recuse — himself over previously undisclosed contacts with the Russian government.
• And, of course, in the other body, on March 20th, the Director of the FBI publicly acknowledged that the Bureau is “investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russian efforts.”

I want to be clear, at least for me: This investigation is not about whether you have a “D” or an “R” next to your name. It is not about re-litigating last fall’s election. It is about clearly understanding and responding to this very real threat.

It’s also, I believe, about holding Russia accountable for this unprecedented attack against our democracy. And it is about arming ourselves so we can identify and stop it when it happens again. And trust me: it will happen again if we don’t take action.

I would hope that the President is as anxious as we are to get to the bottom of what happened. But I have to say editorially, that the President’s recent conduct — with his wild and uncorroborated accusations about wiretapping, and his inappropriate and unjustified attacks on America’s hard-working intelligence professionals — does give me grave concern.

This Committee has a heavy weight of responsibility to prove that we can continue to put our political labels aside and get to the truth. I believe we can get there. I have seen firsthand, and I say this to our audience, how seriously members on both sides of this dais have worked so far on this sensitive and critical issue.

As the Chairman and I have said repeatedly, this investigation will follow the facts where they lead us .If at any time I believe we’re not going to be able to get those facts, and we’re working together very cooperatively to make sure we get the facts we need from the intelligence community, we will get that done.

Mr. Chairman, I thank you for your commitment to this serious work and your commitment to keeping this bipartisan cooperation, at least, if not all across the hill, alive in this committee. Thank you very much.

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Watch the Top Democrat on the Senate Intel Committee Explain the Trump-Russia Scandal

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Jeff Sessions Met Twice With Russian Ambassador During Trump Campaign

Mother Jones

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And now here comes the Washington Post on contacts between the Trump team and Russia:

Then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) spoke twice last year with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Justice Department officials said, encounters he did not disclose when asked about possible contacts between members of President Trump’s campaign and representatives of Moscow during Sessions’s confirmation hearing to become attorney general.

One of the meetings was a private conversation between Sessions and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak that took place in September in the senator’s office, at the height of what U.S. intelligence officials say was a Russian cyber campaign to upend the U.S. presidential race.

….Officials said Sessions did not consider the conversations relevant to the lawmakers’ questions and did not remember in detail what he discussed with Kislyak.

That was Mike Flynn’s initial answer too, wasn’t it? That he “didn’t remember” the details of a conversation from less than half a year ago. I wonder how long Sessions’ version will hold up?

Can we all now agree that maybe Sessions really does need to recuse himself from the FBI’s investigation of Trump’s ties to Russia?

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Jeff Sessions Met Twice With Russian Ambassador During Trump Campaign

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Russian Hackers May Now Be Mucking With European Elections

Mother Jones

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When the US intelligence community released a report in early January laying out the evidence for Russian meddling in the US election, US officials warned that this wasn’t a one-off attack, and that Russia could soon set its hacker corps loose to disrupt elections in other countries. “Moscow will apply lessons learned from its Putin-ordered campaign aimed at the US presidential election to future efforts worldwide,” the report said, “including against US allies and their election processes.”

Putin didn’t wait long to fulfill that prediction. On February 22, the Moscow Times reported that the Russian government had “created a new military unit to conduct ‘information operations’ against Russia’s foes.” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said, when announcing the unit, that “propaganda should be smart, competent and effective.” There’s no concrete evidence yet, but it appears that Russia may be now attempting to weaken NATO and to divide Europe by destabilizing elections in France and Germany, two of the EU’s strongest members.

“This form of interference in French democratic life is unacceptable and I denounce it,” Jean-Marc Ayrault, France’s minister of foreign affairs, said on February 19 in an interview with Le Journal du Dimanche, a French newspaper. “The French will not accept that their choices are dictated to them,” he said while discussing Russian actions in Europe and attempts to weaken non pro-Russian candidates ahead of the country’s presidential election in May.

Ayrault was responding to reports that the Russian government may have been targeting the campaign of Emmanuel Macron, a centrist “pro-liberal and pro-Europe” candidate who has a chance of defeating Marine Le Pen, a right-wing nationalist, in the hotly contested French presidential elections this May. Le Pen has promised to pull France out of the European Union, and, much like Donald Trump, has advocated a better relationship with the Russian government. Macron’s campaign has said its computer systems have been attacked, and that “fake news”—that include allegations of a homosexual affair and attempts to connect Macron with American financial interests and Hillary Clinton—has been spread throughout France by Russian-owned media, such as Sputnik and RT.

Daniel Treisman, a professor of political science at UCLA and an expert on Russian politics, says “it certainly seems plausible” that the Russian government would attempt to interfere in the European elections, as it’s alleged to have done in the US.

“Putin is quite skeptical about the possibility of building strong friendships or cooperation in the future with the elites of western Europe,” Treisman tells Mother Jones. “He feels that they’ve taken a very anti-Russian line, so he’s reaching out to other forces who are also opposed to the European elites.” Among those so-called Western European elites, are German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte, and Macron in France. Part of Putin’s plan could be to keep the west distracted “with its own problems” so it is “less able to cohesively oppose what he’s done in Ukraine,” Treisman says.

The French government’s top figures reportedly had internal discussions about cyber threats to its presidential election, and earlier this year the official in charge of security for the nation’s ruling party told Politico that the country’s leading politicians and political campaigns “have received no awareness training at all about espionage and hacking,” and that “we are not at all up to the level of the potential threat.” The Russian government has denied that it is working to meddle in the French elections, just as it denied meddling in the 2016 US presidential election.

“We didn’t have, and do not have, any intention of interfering in the internal affairs of other countries,” Kremlin spokesman Dmirtry Peskov told reporters on February 14. “That there is a hysterical anti-President Vladimir Putin campaign in certain countries abroad is an obvious fact.”

Worries aren’t limited to the French elections, which will be held in April and May. The head of the German foreign intelligence service said in November that its next election cycle could be buffeted with the same sort of misinformation and cyber-attacks that plagued the US elections. “We have evidence that cyber-attacks are taking place that have no purpose other than to elicit political uncertainty,” said Bruno Kahl, the president of the Bundesnachrichtendienst (the German foreign intelligence service), according to the Guardian. Angela Merkel said at the time that “such cyber-attacks, or hybrid conflicts as they are known in Russian doctrine, are now part of daily life and we must learn to cope with them.” Merkel’s hard line against Putin in the wake of the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and strong support of the European Union are among the reasons that she could be targeted by Russia before her reelection vote in September.

And in the Netherlands, Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders told Politico on January 12 that he didn’t have “concrete evidence” interference had taken place, but he wasn’t “naive” to the fact that it could happen at some point ahead of that country’s March 15 election, wherein Rutte is being challenged by Geert Wilders. Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that the Russian government, among other countries, had “tried hundreds of times in recent months to penetrate the computers of Dutch government agencies and businesses.”

Far-right MP Wilders—a vehement opponent of Islam and a strong contender to be the Netherlands next prime minister—has also called for leaving the EU, but he may not be as pro-Putin as Le Pen and Trump. Nevertheless, Dutch officials have said they will count all election ballots by hand due to worries about manipulation of electronic vote counting machines.

Treisman says what happens next in terms of Russia and the European elections is “all up in the air, in part because we don’t know what the US administration is going to end up doing” with regard to its policy toward Russia.

Trump has repeatedly said that he’s hoping for a good working relationship with Putin, but offered mixed and confusing signals during the campaign about what he thought about Putin’s actions in the Ukraine and his annexing of Crimea in 2014. During her first full day on the job, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley condemned Russian violence in eastern Ukraine and called for “an immediate end to the Russian occupation of Crimea.” Trump has rattled European allies by praising Brexit and calling NATO “obsolete,” but members of his cabinet have reaffirmed the US commitment to a strong NATO, which is one of Putin’s main points of contention with the west.

While it makes sense to watch all of this and try to discern a pattern in Putin’s strategy, Treisman says, “I don’t think he has this clear over-arching agenda, that he’s out to expand Russia’s borders or achieve anything very concrete. I think he’s just looking for ways to resist pressures he sees coming from the west and increase his influence, and his options, and his friends worldwide.”

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Russian Hackers May Now Be Mucking With European Elections

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