Observation Missions ‘Part of the Playbook’ of Russian Interference in US Elections

By Eleanor Rose and Iggy Ostanin

Bellingcat looked at past performance and gathered analysis from chess genius Garry Kasparov to show why Russia observes US elections.

Russia is poised to mount electoral observation of the US elections, which some fear could be used as part of a campaign to discredit the US presidential elections and weaken Hillary Clinton’s position if she wins.

According to Bellingcat’s inquiries, Russia is planning to at least conduct a distance-monitoring mission, if not actually send a delegation to monitor the elections in person.

In the past, Bellingcat can show how personnel involved with such missions made their mind up in advance of observations, and used their reports and statements to the press to reinforce Kremlin lines and sow doubt without real evidence of electoral fraud.

Gary Kasparov told Bellingcat Russia was “using elections as a mechanism to bring people they support to power, or if it doesn’t work, making sure that those who stay in power so weak that they will not be able to move”.

In the case of the US elections, there was plenty of scope for interference, said Kasparov, ranging from having bogus monitors carry out flawed observations to tampering with voter databases so that voters would not find their names on the list when they turned up at the polling booth.

This was “all part of the same playbook”, said Kasparov, of capitalizing on Trump’s comments that the vote could be rigged and destabilizing the US around elections time.

Ruffled feathers over observation spat

Russia has suggested it wants to send a team of independent observers to monitor the US vote, but claimed the US government has forbid them from doing so.

The US State Department publicly stated that Russian observers were welcome to come as part of a delegation sent by the OSCE – the security-oriented intergovernmental organization that monitors elections across Europe, Asia and North America – and said the fact it declined to join that delegation suggested Russia was pulling a “PR stunt”.

Russia’s Izvestia newspaper reports that Russia opted not to join the OSCE mission but did apply to send a separate team of observers to “study” the process; a request that was refused by some individual states in the US.

The Guardian reports that the Russian consulate asked to have personnel in Oklahoma to study the presidential election, but was told that state law forbids the presence of foreign observers, according to Bryan Dean, spokesman for the Oklahoma State Election Board.

Russian officials complained at the refusals, saying it believed states had coordinated with the federal-level government when deciding to decline them.

“Overall, we are disappointed with the reaction of the US Administration,” said a statement by the Russian embassy in the US, “and, on top of that, with the unfriendly way it is currently portraying our desire to pursue normal diplomatic work in respectful contact with the authorities of the host country, which we hoped for.”

“It is obvious that in this case our American colleagues are lacking transparency for this kind of work,” the statement added.

But US states have always had different laws on elections – in much the same way they have different laws on gun control, the death penalty, and a host of other issues.

Kasparov commented to Bellingcat: “This is the way the United States election system works, and it still works fine. But it doesn’t matter because if you had a plan to discredit the US electoral process, you’d look for every opportunity and unfortunately the diversity of these laws from state to state offers an opportunity to present a picture of uncertainty, ambiguity, lack of transparency.”

It remains to be seen if Russia will persist with their idea to observe in person, but according to Kasparov, it’s unlikely, since the US is so large and there is little opportunity to “cause much damage”.

Closely monitoring from afar

Bellingcat unearthed signs that Russia’s Public Institute of Electoral Law – nominally an NGO – wants to conduct “distance monitoring”, a kind of observation mission where no physical observation need take place.

In August, the news agency Interfax reported that preparations had already begun at ROIIP.

The ambassador at large of Russia’s foreign ministry, Vladimir Churov, who has waded several times into various controversies surrounding the election, said he and Igor Borisov, head of ROIIP, developed their methodology in 2012 during the last US elections.

It involves monitoring media reports and other open sources, and allows for complaints to be made without unearthing any real evidence of misconduct.

Back in 2012, Arkady Lyubarev, an expert from Russia’s independent election watchdog Golos, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty: “I don’t believe this is a qualified study. I have very serious doubts that the Central Election Commission has specialists capable of correctly assessing U.S. elections. To monitor elections in any country, you have to spend time in that country and follow the process there.”

Indeed, on that occasion, Churov appears to have made his mind up about the US elections before they took place.

A few weeks before Americans went to the polls, Churov branded the US presidential elections “the worst in the world”, adding that 17 US presidents “have been elected by a tiny minority”, while taking the opportunity to mention that Russia has the “most liberal laws in the field of freedom of speech, the freedom of conscience”.

The 2012 report was carried out with the aid of several other organisations including International Institute of Newly Established States, led by Alexey Martynov.

Martynov was part of a Russian delegation sent by ROIIP to observe the Scottish referendum in the UK.

In contravention of the UK Electoral Commission’s code of conduct for observers, Martynov is notable for having published statements on Facebook claiming the vote was rigged before the polls closed. Martynov also said recently told media that Trump would make the better president.

His most notorious comments were made on Russian television last year, when he claimed the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack was the work of the CIA.

None of this stopped ROIIP lambasting the US presidential elections as falling dramatically short of international standards and using the 2012 “distance monitoring” report to lobby Western organisations.

The OSCE, meanwhile, said the vote had been “vibrant and highly competitive”, although it recommended a review of the way voters were registered and more focus on transparency of campaign financing.

Churov said the ROIIP report was made available to the State Department, and this was not the only example of attempts by Kremlin-affiliated organisations’ attempts to use elections to influence and lobby.

Scottish nationalist groups who campaigned for independence in the referendum of 2014 found themselves invited to events by Russian NGO the Anti-Globalisation Movement, alongside separatists from Catalan, Texas and East Ukraine.

The AGM was found by media to be funded by thousands of dollars in grants from the Russian state.

Kasparov commented: “Let’s agree on semantics, because you keep saying monitoring, but of course all these delegations and missions sent by Russia, are state controlled and they all just are working to further Kremlin’s agenda. Even if they are covered by NGO titles … it serves their plans to weaken the resolve of the free world.

He added that he feared much worse interference could be to come in which Putin could move to exploit comments made by Donald Trump that the elections may be rigged.

“Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge, the US electoral system, the databases run by the state and in some cases by municipalities, are very vulnerable and they could be soft targets for professional hackers working for Putin,” he said.

If thousands showed up in swing states, such as Florida, to cast their ballots but found their names had been deleted from voter lists, this would “give Trump a unique platform to challenge the entire process”.

Trump could then refuse to accept the result. And then, worries Kasparov, “You would have tens of millions of people in this country who will not recognise Hillary Clinton as president – and America will be weakened. So American resolve to oppose Putin’s aggression will not be adequate.”