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U.S. is the real meddler, Russia claims

| Sunday, June 25, 2017, 1:03 a.m.

MOSCOW — The Russian government has steadfastly denied that it hacked or otherwise interfered in last year's U.S. presidential election.

Now, some Russian officials are saying America is meddling in Moscow's domestic affairs. The United States has been doing it for years, they say.

The Kremlin's website is attacked daily “from within U.S. territories,” Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, said this month.

U.S.-funded media outlets such as Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America have long run what the Kremlin sees as an anti-Putin propaganda campaign aimed at supporting the Russian opposition.

A report prepared by a committee of the Russian parliament said American media outlets engaged in biased and “anti-Russia” coverage of Russian parliamentary elections in 2016. Radio Free Europe, Voice of America and CNN in particular were criticized for their stories, which the report claimed unfairly “questioned the democratic nature of the electoral system in Russia.”

“It is difficult to deny that during last year's parliamentary election campaign, these radio stations that are being financed from the United States were using journalism as a cover to spread one-sided propaganda and disinformation on the Russian electoral process,” said Leonid Levin, a parliamentary deputy who presented the report to the parliament in May.

Russian officials say what is at stake now are Russia's 2018 presidential and national elections. They said the government must act swiftly to counter any attempts by the United States and its allies to interfere.

“There is no doubt that in the time that is left before the Russian presidential elections due next March, we will face very active and consistent attempts by the U.S.A. and its NATO allies to influence the course of this election campaign,” said Konstantin Kosachev head of the Federation Council's Committee for International Relations.

Russia has long contended that the United States and its allies have improperly sought to influence the politics in those former Soviet and East Bloc nations that Moscow regards as within its sphere of influence, including Ukraine, Georgia, Poland and the Baltic countries.

In particular, Kremlin officials have pointed to the activities of U.S.-funded organizations such as the National Democratic Institute, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the International Republican Institute.

The United States and other Western nations have spent billions of dollars since the breakup of the Soviet Union, supporting democracy-building programs to support civil society, strengthen election processes, build political parties and promote independent media. While the West sees this as fostering democracy, Moscow has watched as these programs have indirectly given birth to anti-Kremlin movements in Russia's traditional sphere of influence.

The Kremlin — and, in particular, an increasingly authoritative Putin — viewed the pro-Western “color revolutions” in the former Soviet republics of Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004 as U.S.-funded and -organized street protests. Many of the groups that took to the streets during those revolutions were born out of Western-funded civil society, pro-democracy programs.

In 2014, when hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian protestors in Kiev's central streets led to the ouster of a Moscow-friendly government, the Kremlin's closest neighbor and former ally severed its ties with Russia and turned toward Europe. Washington and European capitals supported Ukrainian revolt against President Viktor Yanukovych, a strong Russia ally who was accused of bilking billions of dollars in government money.

The Kremlin labeled Ukraine's 2014 Maidan revolution a Western-backed coup. It retaliated by annexing Crimea and backing an armed separatist movement in eastern Ukraine.

One of Putin's current fears, analysts say, is that the West, and particular the U.S., now intends to quietly promote the same kind of street protests to overthrow the Kremlin in favor of a Washington-friendly Russian leader.

“Now there is one clear aggressor in Russia and it is the U.S., and the one clear defender is Russia,” said Sergei Markov, a political analyst who is seen as sympathetic to the Kremlin. “Russia is not interested to propose its own puppet in the United Sates government, but the U.S. wants to repeat exactly what they did in Ukraine.”

The Kremlin has accused the U.S. of supporting opposition politicians such as Alexei Navalny, whose Anti-corruption Foundation has organized two mass street protests this year. The protests were the largest social unrest Russia has had since 2012, when hundreds of thousands, claiming ballot-rigging and other election improprieties, demonstrated against Putin's re-election to a third term.

Putin has directly blamed the U.S. for its support of the 2012 anti-government protests, and said in particular the former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose election as president Russia was said to be attempting to thwart in hacking attacks last year that targeted the Democratic National Committee and other entities.

The Kremlin has reacted by cracking down on Western-funded nongovernmental organizations in Russia. The U.S. Agency for International Development was asked to leave in 2012 after spending nearly $3 billion on aid and democracy programs during two decades. Groups receiving funding from outside Russia must now register as foreign agents.

Independent media have been systematically closed, often through government pressure on landlords, or on advertisers who risk losing their businesses if they continue to advertise with unsanctioned media.

Roskomnadzor, Russia's telecom and information technology watchdog agency, announced Friday that it would block the messaging social media app Telegram if the company did not comply with a Russian law requiring IT companies that collect data on Russian citizens to register in the country.

Russia passed a law last year requiring social networks to store six months of user data on Russian servers, allowing the government access to any information contained there. Russia claims the law is a counterterrorism tactic. Human rights groups called the law draconian.

Telegram's developer, Pavel Durov, has so far refused the demands, prompting the Kremlin to accuse him of being “indifferent to terrorists and criminals.” Durov is also the creator of VKontakte, Russia's version of Facebook. He fled the country in 2014 after clashing with the Kremlin over control of his company.

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