Senate and House committees are still trying to figure out what went on regarding Russian intelligence activity during the 2016 US presidential campaign. The following is a review of what went on and what must be addressed in Helsinki.
Of the thirteen Russians who have been indicted for involvement in attempts to affect the Trump/Clinton presidential election, only two were cited by press sources in New York and Washington to have travelled in the U.S. The indictment, however, indicates this reconnaissance was in the course of the operation as early as 2014. These agents were named as Anna V. Bogacheva and Aleksandra Y. Krylova, both of whom were said to have had backgrounds in cyber activity. Presumably, they were working for or with the Internet Research Agency of St.Petersburg that has been identified with two other Russian companies in the indictment. These ladies reportedly travelled across the US from California to New York City visiting seven states in between.
The implication has been that the other eleven indictees never left Russia, though there are additional reports of various Russian "sight-seeing" trips. This reportedly included a series of pro-Trump rallies in Florida in 2016 involving one Irina Kaverzina also on the indictment list. Depending on its political intent, the explanation of this Russian operation has ranged from "an amateurish attempt to influence" to "a dangerous interference in the American democratic process". In any case, it showed a willingness to use cyber capabilities under commercial cover to attain the political propaganda ambitions of Moscow – however arcane they might be. The suggestion that the activity was only marginally connected to Russian intelligence may be convenient, but is at best naive.
The fact is, that Russian foreign intelligence, whether SVR or GRU (i.e. civilian or military) has been using non-governmental entities for many years. The one thing that is relatively new is that these cyber companies are partially or wholly privately owned by select Russian businesses. Prominent among the owners of these entities is Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, known to have contracts to supply food rations to the Russian army as well as other associated government activities. His fortune has been estimated to be in the billions, most of it amassed through his well-known high level Kremlin contacts. In addition, Prigozhin has been associated with the "Wagner Group" reported by American intelligence to be a military contractor operating in Syria. Private enterprise is and has been thriving for many years in Russia – just as long as the owners shared their gains with the right political and governmental leaders.
In the case of Russian involvement in the U.S. election, there has been close cooperation exposed between the particularly favored entity, Internet Research Agency (IRA) of St. Petersburg noted above and the appropriate elements of Russian government intelligence. The other two firms with Prigozhin connections (Concord Management & Consulting and Concord Catering) financed anti-U.S. operations with a budget of $1.25 million. In addition, the Mueller indictment states that a special focus was placed on the so-called purple states of Colorado, Virginia and Florida. Specifically, the IRA was charged with promoting rallies in 2016 in New York City, Florida, Pennsylvania and North Carolina along with various cyber efforts to exploit racial divisions and their existing supporting organizations. (As an important aside it should be recognized that Vladimir Putin was born and brought up in St. Petersburg – then called Leningrad – entered the KGB from there, returned to his hometown after his service and did not move to Moscow until 1996.)
In spite of recent expulsions, from the standpoint of local American information gathering, the Russian embassies in Washington and at the UN in New York, as well as consular offices around the U.S., still have staff intelligence officers overtly and covertly gathering and analyzing domestic American political, military and technological matters. This information is then transmitted to Moscow headquarters for dissemination, as decided among the appropriate internal and external instruments cleared for such affairs. Strictly economic information is handled by those specific sections. Covert activity aimed at influencing local U.S. targets would be the primary reason to detail specialized intel personnel for technological, political and psychological ops. That's where the St. Petersburg cadre comes in.
There is nothing arcane about this system, other than the fact that the American press appeared to have just awakened to the recognition that this in-gathering of information can be used in both offensive and defensive operations by Russian government-connected "private" cyber entities. It is a system also used by other nations, such as China, who have their own extensive and sophisticated networks.
What this all boils down to is a belated awareness of American media – often focused on anti-Administration issues – that the intelligence competition worldwide continues apace now including advanced technological developments. The latter are melded with political and psychological warfare techniques that have precedent going back to ancient times. Much has been made of the fact that the contemporary Russian operation appears to have been a rather amateurish attack on both presidential candidates in 2016. As American political parties do a rather good job on their own of attacking each other, the Russian effort would appear at best to be redundant in the U.S. political sense. The fact is that their operation seems to have been mounted simply because they could. The Russians really didn't care who became the American president. They had useful contacts within both campaigns.
The operational purpose clearly was to make the divisions between the two major parties so deep as to inhibit future cooperation between them in key areas of defense, homeland security, and socio-political interaction. All one has to do is look around the world with regard to Russian interests to see where they benefit from American lack of consistency economically, politically, and ultimately militarily. With the Middle East in its usual turmoil and a Korean War still not able to be ruled out, plus the recently announced Russian advances in nuclear delivery systems (to say nothing of internal U.S. divisions in respect to illegal immigration) Moscow is in an advantageous position to make gains internationally on a broad front. This factor can be exploited by China, in turn, in its current economic competition with the United States.
The question remains as to what Vladimir Putin has prepared as his own shopping list to present to President Trump during the forthcoming Helsinki meeting. Up to now all we have heard is speculation from American political circles on that which Donald Trump is expected to get Putin to agree. The negotiating position of the U.S. is clearly not as strong as it has been made out to be.
It's time for the United States to halt its internecine warfare and face the real dangers out there!