'Only tip of the iceberg': US intelligence report: Russia buys political influence worldwide with millions

A report personally requested by the US government on Russian influence abroad is making waves in Washington.

'Only tip of the iceberg': US intelligence report: Russia buys political influence worldwide with millions

A report personally requested by the US government on Russian influence abroad is making waves in Washington. The document reveals a new financial dimension, according to which the Kremlin secretly supported political parties and candidates abroad with hundreds of millions of euros. Since 2014, Russia has transferred at least $300 million to more than two dozen countries around the world, according to the American intelligence agency report released on Tuesday. "The Kremlin and its proxies sent these funds to shape the foreign policy environment in Moscow's favour," the document said.

The sum mentioned is probably just "the tip of the iceberg," as a senior US government official told the AFP news agency. According to the report, Russia probably gave even more money, which has so far remained undiscovered.

To which countries exactly the sums from Moscow flowed remains open. Russia has relied on state-owned companies and big corporations to covertly move funds across a number of regions -- including Central America, Asia, the Middle East and North Africa -- as well as think tanks and foundations specifically active in Europe, the report said. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken sent a telegram to embassies around the world on Monday detailing the findings of the intelligence report.

Among other things, the Russian ambassador in an unspecified Asian country is said to have made several million dollars available to a presidential candidate. In addition, a person familiar with the report's findings stated that Russia spent around half a million dollars supporting Albania's centre-right Democratic Party in the 2017 elections. According to this, parties and candidates in Bosnia, Montenegro and Madagascar are said to have been financed - among other things by means of forged contracts and letterbox companies.

According to the source, Russia specifically used the EU headquarters in Brussels as a hub for foundations that support right-wing extremist politicians. The Kremlin is also accused of having sent large sums of money to the Russian embassy in Ecuador from 2014 to 2017 - apparently with the aim of influencing the elections there.

According to the intelligence report, the covert global operations are being carried out by a range of Russian agencies and individuals, including the FSB domestic intelligence agency, as well as businessmen. The report names two close associates of Vladimir Putin, Yevgeny Prigozhin and Aleksandr Babakov, who are said to have been involved in the influence campaigns. In April, the US Department of Justice accused Congressman Babakov and two other Russian citizens of operating an "international foreign influence and disinformation network."

Russia bought its political influence with cash, cryptocurrency, electronic transfers and lavish gifts, the US document said. In order to disguise the origins, the sums were moved through a variety of institutions - including foundations, think tanks, political consultancies, shell companies and Russian companies. According to the report, funds are also secretly transferred via accounts at the Russian embassy.

With a view to the war of aggression in Ukraine, the US intelligence services warn that in the coming months Moscow could increasingly use its "tools for covert influence" - including secret political financing - in large parts of the world. On the one hand to undermine western sanctions, on the other hand to "maintain its influence in the different regions even during the war".

Russia's active influence on foreign politics has been well known since the 2016 presidential election in the United States. At that time, the US secret services confirmed that Moscow had interfered in the election campaign in favor of the eventual winner, Donald Trump. Methods included cyber operations to spread misinformation about Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. According to the secret services, Kremlin chief Putin also authorized a campaign in the 2020 elections to support Trump's candidacy and to discredit his challenger Joe Biden.

After Russia's invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the Biden government requested the report on Moscow's influence abroad. This is part of Biden's "Democracy Summit," which the US President launched shortly after his 2020 election victory. As a result of the report, the US State Department released a series of measures to counter Russian influence, such as economic sanctions and travel bans against known "financial influencers". In addition, the US called on its partner to protect itself not only from covert political financing from Russia, but also from "China and other countries who would emulate this behavior".

At a news conference on Tuesday, US State Department spokesman Ned Price emphasized that Russian interference -- similar to Putin's war on Ukraine -- is "an assault on sovereignty." "To combat that, we need to put it in the spotlight in many ways."

Sources: NY Times, CNN, with AFP footage

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