To understand how Russia interferes in elections, look at it's doing in Ukraine

As Ukrainians can attest, election interference should be considered an act of war – because it is one.

By MARK PFEIFLE
April 4, 2018 20:05
4 minute read.
Ukrainian soldiers fire artillery during the conflict in Donbas

Ukrainian soldiers fire artillery during the conflict in Donbas. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Hardly a day passes without some jaw-dropping revelation about Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election.

With a special counsel and five congressional committees competing vigorously for a breakthrough, the 24-hour media coverage is ample material for several mini-series and mounting legal bills for those ensnared and multiple indictments.

Meanwhile, the recent ouster of secretary of state Rex Tillerson in favor of President Trump confidante and CIA Director Mike Pompeo, leaves the US with a temporary leadership vacuum at Foggy Bottom.

While in Ukraine, sadly, stories of Russian aggression and interference are nothing new, Americans struggle to wrap their heads around Russia successfully attacking their democracy. American policy-makers would be wise to watch what is happening in Ukraine.

Plagued by rampant corruption and Vladimir Putin’s attacks, Ukraine is a hot spot of international intrigue with a cast of shady characters more befitting a trashy novel than the grand chessboard to which the country was once compared.

Vadim Rabinovich is one such figure, an unlikely influencer of the tortured story of Ukraine’s wars against corruption and Russia. Rabinovich unsuccessfully sought the presidency of Ukraine in 2014. He has links stretching from the Kremlin to current Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko. With a presidential election to be held within the year, he is almost certain to make another attempt.

This time around, Rabinovich will have the backing of Pavel Fuchs, a Russian businessman who counts former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani as a friend and earned the nickname “the mercenary” in Kharkiv, where he grew up.

A recent poll shows Rabinovich’s “For Life” political party running about even with Poroshenko’s bloc.

And while it is possible this is a result of backlash against Poroshenko’s reputation for corruption, US officials are rightly watching to see what Rabinovich’s real endgame is.

Now aged 64, the one consistent thread running through Rabinovich’s career has been a series of shady dealings. In 1984, Soviet authorities sentenced him to a 14-year prison sentence for “misappropriation of state funds.” Rabinovich managed to shorten his sentence by claiming insanity.

In the 1990s, he was allegedly the middleman in the sale of between 150 and 200 T-55 and T-62 tanks to the Taliban in Afghanistan. He was part of a partnership that started one of Ukraine’s largest television stations, only to be bounced out by his partners on allegations of fraud.

And now Rabinovich’s moral flexibility has caught the attention of influential and wealthy individuals in the capital of Ukraine’s northern neighbor, Russia, and it has won him friends like Fuchs.

In addition to a colorful nickname and well-known American political friends, Fuchs is a wealthy Russian businessman, a major player in Moscow’s recent reconstruction.

He added to his fortune by snatching up more than $1.5 billion of former Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovich’s assets for pennies on the dollar.

Not only is Fuchs actively promoting Rabinovich in Kiev, so too is Viktor Medvedchuk, the former chief of staff to ex-Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma during the time Kuchma’s regime was accused of beheading an independent journalist.

Medvedchuk named Putin as godfather to his daughter and is a subject of US sanctions.

Medvedchuk is a chief point of contact between the Kremlin and Poroshenko. His backing of Rabinovich carries as much, if not more, weight in Moscow.

While Fuchs is also a frequent visitor to the Ukrainian presidential administration, both Medvedchuk and Poroshenko have been linked in the gas market by Ukrainian media.

Rabinovich is an agent of influence, but it remains to be seen if he is a puppet to pave the way for Yanukovich’s return, a spoiler to help Poroshenko maintain his hold on power – increasingly seen as corrupt by the West – or some combination of both.

Putin, of course, easily won reelection as Russian president and he is widely expected to harden his already extreme tactics against Ukraine.

For Americans wondering how much worse things can get, this saga provides a clue.

Russia isn’t done interfering in elections in Ukraine, and Americans would be wise to realize that he is not done interfering in elections in the US either.

The US Congress has allocated $120 million to the State Department to monitor and defend the US from cyber attacks from countries like Russia that are targeting our democracy. One of Pompeo’s first acts should be to put this operation into motion immediately.

And as Ukrainians can attest, election interference should be considered an act of war – because it is one.

The writer was deputy national security adviser for strategic communications and global outreach at the US National Security Council from 2007 to 2009. He is president of Off the Record Strategies in Washington.


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