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US Hits Back at Russian Election Disinformation Ring


FILE - The U.S. Treasury Department building is seen from the Washington Monument, Sept. 18, 2019, in Washington.
FILE - The U.S. Treasury Department building is seen from the Washington Monument, Sept. 18, 2019, in Washington.

The United States is taking steps to punish members of a Russian-backed influence operation that sought to interfere with November’s election and damage the campaign of President-elect Joe Biden.

The Treasury Department on Monday announced sanctions against seven people and four companies, all connected to Ukrainian politician Andrii Derkach, previously identified by U.S. officials as a long-time Russian agent.

According to a Treasury Department statement, starting in 2019, the Derkach-led group “leveraged U.S. media, U.S.-based social media platforms, and influential U.S. persons to spread misleading and unsubstantiated allegations that current and former U.S. officials engaged in corruption, money laundering, and unlawful political influence in Ukraine.”

Perhaps the most visible part of the plot involved efforts to feed information to U.S. President Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.

Derkach met with Giuliani in December 2019 as the attorney sought to collect derogatory information on then-candidate Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, and was also featured in reports by pro-Trump news outlet One America News Network.

Treasury officials sanctioned Derkach this past September, a month after U.S. counterintelligence officials warned he was part of a Kremlin-linked effort to undermine Biden and the Democratic Party.

Officials said those sanctioned Monday include members of Derkach’s inner circle, such as Oleksandr Onyshchenko.

Onyshchenko, a former Ukrainian government official wanted on corruption charges, “provided edited audiotape copies of purported audio recordings of conversations between former Ukrainian and U.S. officials,” the Treasury statement said.

Those recordings, released between May and July 2020, were then used in an effort to discredit Biden and other officials.

Another of member of the Russian-backed ring, Andriy Telizhenko, is accused of facilitating meetings between Derkach and unnamed U.S. persons.

A third, Ukrainian Parliamentarian Oleksandr Dubinsky, appeared with Derkach at news conferences to further spread the false claims.

Treasury officials also sanctioned two media companies – Only News and Skeptik TOV – as well as members of Derkach’s media team and Derkach’s long-time assistant.

“Russian disinformation campaigns targeting American citizens are a threat to our democracy,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement. “The United States will continue to aggressively defend the integrity of our election systems and processes.”

Monday’s action is just the third time the United States has sanctioned individuals under outgoing President Donald Trump’s September 2018 executive order aimed at cracking down on foreign interference in U.S. elections.

Until now, the order has been used only to sanction Derkach himself and Yevgeniy Prigozhin, described as the financier behind Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA).

More sanctions, though, could be coming.

Last week, U.S. intelligence officials submitted a classified report on interference in the 2020 presidential election to the White House and other key administration officials that could allow the Treasury Department to take actions against other actors linked to Russia, as well as against those with ties to China and Iran.

So far, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has declined to comment publicly on the report’s findings.

But in a letter to lawmakers last week, obtained by The Washington Post, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe argued, contrary to the assessment of some U.S. intelligence agencies, China engaged in substantial efforts to influence the 2020 election.

U.S. intelligence officials, including Ratcliffe, also accused Iran of launching a voter intimidation campaign in the weeks leading up to the November presidential election, after actors linked to Tehran, and also Russia, managed to obtain voter registration information.

Other countries, as well, could be in line for election-related sanctions.

“We probably have 30 countries out there wanting to play in the influence game,” William Evanina, the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center told Hearst Television this past October.

Evanina said that list included U.S. allies like Saudi Arabi and Turkey as well as adversaries like Venezuela and Cuba.

Despite the various interference efforts, U.S. officials have said there are no indications any adversary was able to change any vote totals or prevent Americans from voting.