In Other News: Russia Threats, Mexico & More – March 19, 2021

March 19, 2021

A declassified report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence identifies Russian President Vladimir Putin as having authorized a state-sponsored campaign to influence the outcome of U.S. presidential elections in November 2020. According to the assessment, Russia’s efforts included covert operations to influence people close to then-president Trump to spread damaging misinformation about then-candidate Biden, as well as campaigns designed to sow division and undermine public trust in the U.S. electoral system. According to the report, evidence found does not indicate that Russia’s attempts to sway the election included efforts to disrupt the physical voting process. The report also named Iran as having pursued a campaign, authorized by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to undermine Trump, notably by sending fraudulent emails to Democratic voters in Florida (the scheme was identified early on as a ruse). The assessment also found that China considered its own influence campaign but opted against it owing to low likelihood of success and the risk that it would backfire if discovered. Though other countries attempted to influence the U.S. election outcome to varying degrees, the report clearly conveys that Russia’s operations were the most aggressive and widest ranging. Furthermore, it details efforts that follow a tried-and-true, KGB-era playbook. Soviet Russia’s intelligence apparatus made frequent and very skilled use of disinformation in its decades-long efforts to undermine the U.S. and other western democracies, sometimes to devastating effect, and the rise of social media has given the Kremlin greater reach and greater capacity to pinpoint target audiences to push that misinformation into mainstream U.S. discourse. Developing tools to identify and combat these efforts will be a challenge, but the ODNI report signals that countering an increasingly aggressive Russia is a high priority for the U.S.

Mexico will receive Covid-19 vaccines from the United States, as the two countries also negotiate the handling of migrants on the U.S. southern border. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has been working with the Biden administration to address the surge in migrants on the U.S. southern border but has been resisting pressure to do more. The Biden team has urged López Obrador to take in more families turned away by U.S. authorities and, like the Trump administration, is leaning on him to secure Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala. López Obrador commented that Biden is seen as the “migrant president,” implying that Biden is responsible for the surge in migrants, at least in part due to his rejection of Trump’s hard line immigration policies and the perception that the United States is now “open” to migrants. U.S. officials have countered by saying that Biden has a “more humane” approach to immigration. As the United States is seeking help from Mexico to deal with the influx of migrants, Mexico is seeking help from the United States to deal with Covid-19. In the past year, Mexico has sustained approximately 200,000 Mexican deaths from Covid-19, a drop in GDP of 8.5%, about 3.25 million jobs lost. López Obrador clearly sees this as a quid pro quo: help with the migrants in exchange for help with the vaccinee. In a strategic response, the White House announced yesterday that the Biden administration will make 2.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine available to Mexico and 1.5 million doses to Canada. The AstraZeneca vaccine has not been approved yet for use in the United States but has in Mexico and Canada.

The Biden administration is reportedly mulling new sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to link Russian gas directly to the German market. The 1,230 km pipeline would run along the floor of the Baltic Sea from Ust-Luga, Russia to Lubmin in northern Germany, bypassing Ukraine, whose existing pipeline network linking Russia to European customers has long been a source of (mostly) stable transit revenues. Nord Stream 2 is a top Kremlin priority, as it would strengthen Russia’s market power in Europe as well as its ability to use gas transit as a means of applying pressure on Ukraine. (Russia has cut gas deliveries to Ukraine twice over pricing disputes, impacting supply to buyers further downstream). Existing sanctions targeting the pipeline have slowed its construction, but Russia has pressed ahead despite challenges related to financing and securing services and equipment. New sanctions could include designation of the project’s parent company, Nord Stream 2 AG, as well as companies that provide services (such as insurance) and support to undersea pipe-laying vessels involved in the construction. The US appears committed to preventing the pipeline’s completion and has made other efforts to chip away at Moscow’s market power in Europe, including promotion of US liquefied natural gas exports to the EU. However, its best efforts have yet to bring construction to a halt, and Germany – a key US ally and a key consumer of Russian gas – continues to support its completion. Germany has in the past floated the possibility of shutting off incoming flows in the event that Russia crosses a red line, but the precise placement of such a red line, and the impact on German customers, would both be tricky issues to navigate. If stopping the pipeline proves to be beyond the powers of sanctions, the US will have to develop new ways of supporting Ukrainian efforts to shore up its independence from Moscow.

For more on Russia and its efforts to undermine American security and democracy, listen to TAG President Jack Devine’s recent interview on Top of Mind with Julie Rose. Jack discusses his new book Spymaster’s Prism and the ongoing fight against Russian aggression.