(CNSNews.com) – Amid continuing investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections, a senior Russian diplomat on Monday accused the U.S. of trying to interfere in his country’s upcoming presidential vote, referring to efforts to “sway” young voters.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told lawmakers in Moscow that the foreign ministry and intelligence agencies were engaged on the issue.
“In the past years, the number of attempts to interfere in our domestic processes always increased ahead of presidential elections, as well as in the run-up to parliamentary elections,” the TASS news agency quoted him as saying.
“Such trends can also be seen during the current presidential campaign. The foreign ministry has been taking note of them, our agencies have been dealing with this issue.”
Ryabkov did not detail his charges, but did indicate there was a strong cyber component to the alleged interference.
He referred to “efforts by our opponents to sway young people,” and said that “the focus of this struggle will center on the information space.”
“Information warfare will grow far bitterer, and that’s something we will have to live with during the upcoming period.”
Separately President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters that the U.S. has a “rich tradition” of interfering in Russian and other countries’ elections.
“That the United States has a rich tradition of meddling in the internal affairs and electoral processes in many countries throughout the world, including our country, is not a secret for anyone,” he said. “This was acknowledged by the Americans themselves.”
Russia holds presidential elections on March 18, and Putin is expected to easily win a fourth term, which will extend his rule to 2024.
A primary concern for the Kremlin relates not to a strong opponent – a key rival has been prevented from running and other candidates lag in the polls – but to the size of the turnout.
Opponents have been urging a boycott in a bid to challenge the legitimacy of his anticipated victory. (Previous turnouts in presidential elections contested by Putin were 65 percent in 2012, 64 in 2004 and 68 in 2000.)
Ryabkov was addressing a temporary commission set up by the upper house, the Federation Council, to focus on protecting Russian sovereignty and preventing interference in its affairs.
In a recent report, as cited by TASS, the commission said it had found “numerous signs” of foreign interference in Russia’s sovereign affairs, during presidential elections in 2012, parliamentary elections in 2011 and 2016, and regional elections in 2013 and 2017 – although it also said those attempts had not succeeded in influencing the election outcomes.
Among the problems raised in the report were direct foreign funding of opposition groups, the conducting of polling to gauge the sentiments of Russian voters on various issues, and evidence pointing to the “training of promising Russian political figures abroad.”
“Such sort of ‘training’ is normally anti-Russian in nature and is hosted, in particular, in the Baltic states and in the United States, with the participation of officials of these countries.”
‘We don’t meddle’
In response to earlier accusations of U.S. meddling in Russia’s elections, U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman told a Russian radio network in January, “We don’t meddle. That’s not what we’re doing. We’re more engaged in people-to-people diplomacy, in reporting on politics and economics.”
Huntsman also said he hopes that Russia will steer clear of the U.S. midterm elections this year, because “if, in fact, there is meddling in November, I think it would have devastating consequences for this relationship.”
Ryabkov complained Monday that, even as the U.S. interferes in Russia’s internal affairs, it “also tries to blame Russia for pseudo-interference in America’s domestic affairs.”
He accused the U.S. of “hyping” the issue and of creating “artificial hysteria” without providing any evidence.
Notwithstanding Moscow’s repeated denials, U.S. intelligence agencies contend that Russia did interfere in the 2016 elections and is planning to do so again in this year’s mid-terms.
“There should be no doubt that Russia perceives its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 U.S. midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told the Senate Intelligence Committee last month.
‘An atmosphere of chaos’
Ryabkov did not limit his accusations of U.S. interference to the cyber realm, but said “hotheads” in the U.S. also want to foment “an atmosphere of chaos” in Russia – under the cover of promoting democracy.
“The United States’ continued policy aimed at achieving political goals under the guise of the struggle for democracy has been creating chaos in the past 20 years, causing wars and destroying a number of countries,” he said.
“Yugoslavia is no more, Iraq and Libya are bursting at the seams, and events in Ukraine are also worth mentioning,” he said. “U.S. hotheads wouldn’t mind to do the same to Russia as they consider us the major threat to their global dominance.”
Russia bitterly opposed NATO military operations in the Balkans in the 1990s, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and NATO’s airstrike campaign in support of Libyans facing a bloody crackdown by Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. The latter two interventions led to the downfall of dictators but also unleashed years of violence and instability.
In Ukraine, after the Moscow-backed president fled Kiev amid huge anti-government protests in 2014, Russia backed an armed separatist movement in eastern Ukraine, and after a referendum not recognized by the West, annexed Crimea.
The Kremlin views the Ukraine situation as part of a broader struggle to prevent NATO’s further eastward expansion. It fiercely opposes NATO membership for Ukraine or Georgia – another former Soviet state where its proxies control two breakaway regions.