Russia has spent over $300 million attempting to win over politicians and political parties in dozens of countries since 2014, and it plans to spend even more money in future years, U.S. officials told media outlets Tuesday, the latest allegation of Russian meddling in foreign politics.
The money was often covertly sent to politicians and parties through think tanks, fake contracts, state-owned enterprises, and shell companies, the New York Times and several other outlets reported, citing an unnamed official and an unclassified State Department cable.
In one case, U.S. officials alleged the Russian ambassador to an unspecified Asian country gave a presidential candidate millions of dollars in cash.
Some of these influence operations are linked to Russian politician Aleksandr Babakov, and oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, both of whom have been charged by federal prosecutors for interfering in U.S. politics, the State Department cable reportedly said.
It’s unclear how U.S. officials arrived at the $300 million figure or which countries were targeted by Russia’s alleged spending campaign. However, the State Department’s cable reportedly said Russian officials have covertly funneled money through companies and think tanks in Europe, Central America, Asia, and the Middle East. A State Department spokesperson told Forbes, “Russian covert political influence poses a major challenge to the United States and other democracies around the world,” but did not specify any countries that have faced Russian interference.
Russia has faced years of allegations that it interferes in foreign elections to tip the scales toward its preferred candidates. American intelligence agencies say Russia’s intelligence service sought to denigrate 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and promote Republican candidate Donald Trump, using a combination of social media campaigns and hacking efforts against Clinton backers’ emails. Similarly, the FBI said in 2020, the Russian government tried to “denigrate” then-candidate Joe Biden, and U.S. prosecutors charged Russian intelligence officers with meddling in France’s 2017 elections. Russia has also been accused of election meddling in Ukraine—which Putin has sought to keep in Russia’s orbit—for years. Its ties to leaders of African countries like Sudan have also drawn scrutiny. Past reports of foreign election interference have marred the U.S.-Russia relationship, which is now at its worst point in decades due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
One of the Putin allies flagged in Tuesday’s disclosure—Yevgeny Prigozhin—is notorious for allegedly funding the Internet Research Agency, a Russian “troll farm” involved in influencing the 2016 U.S. election. He’s also the alleged financier of the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary organization that has sent fighters to Ukraine, Syria, and several African nations, often cultivating close ties with foreign governments (both Prigozhin and the Russian government have denied ties to the Wagner Group). Prigozhin’s links to the Russian president and catering contracts with the Kremlin have earned him the nickname “Putin’s chef.”
A U.S. official told CNN the Biden Administration is releasing intelligence on Russia’s apparent election meddling efforts because “one of the most effective ways to counter Russian covert influence is to expose it.” The administration used a similar tactic in the leadup to Russia’s war in Ukraine earlier this year, releasing intelligence that accused Russia of plotting fake attacks to create a pretext to invade its former Soviet neighbor. The administration’s predictions on Russian invasion plans turned out to be largely correct, though it faced criticism at the time for leveling serious allegations without providing any direct evidence.