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Did Mueller's Indictments Curb Russian Activity In U.S. Elections?


The Justice Department says it will take weeks, not months, for Attorney General William Barr to make a version of special counsel Robert Mueller's report public. Barr's four-page summary of course noted Mueller did not find that President Trump or his aides conspired or coordinated with Russia in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. But it did conclude that there were at least two main Russian efforts to influence the race.


One focused on spreading false information on social media, the other on hacking Democratic operatives. The special counsel indicted a number of Russians in connection with those. As we head toward the 2020 election, we wanted to know; did those indictments curb Russian activity? I asked Alina Polyakova of the Brookings Institution. She studies disinformation campaigns and political warfare tools.

ALINA POLYAKOVA: The indictments from the special counsel investigation against 13 Russian actors I think were significant in helping us curb some of the activities. The U.S. Cyber Command, the agency that is responsible for tracking cyberattacks against the United States, reportedly sent very targeted messages to these specific individuals and said, we know who you are; we know what you're doing, and we're watching you; there'll be consequences if you try to do this again.

And I think potentially as a result of that, we didn't see a lot of these similar activities emanating from these particular individuals during the 2018 congressional elections. And so some of these we have been able to close, but it doesn't mean that we're in the safe zone because the Russian operations are of course evolving as we become better at understanding them and closing out those vulnerabilities.

CORNISH: Do you have a sense of how the news about the Mueller report has played out in Russia?

POLYAKOVA: Well, no surprise there, really - the Russian reaction - official Russian reaction has been ecstatic, you could say. One Russian senator by the name of Alexei Pushkov, quote, said that "it's a mountain that birthed a dead mouse" - so a whole lot of nothing out of a big mountain of something, basically. And we've seen similar reaction from other major state-controlled media outlets, saying, this confirms what we've been saying from the very beginning. There was no Russian involvement. Of course Putin and other Russian officials have consistently denied any involvement in election meddling in the United States.

CORNISH: Right. And I was going to say the summary from the attorney general doesn't say that there was no Russian interference in the election, right?

POLYAKOVA: Oh, no, exactly. If we read the summary closely, it confirms very clearly that there was significant Russian interference. The truth is the Russian government has pursued a foreign policy in which these kinds of information warfare operations, cyberattacks - what we generally call political warfare, sort of below military conventional warfare - these kinds of gray-zone operations is something that's been part and parcel of how the Russian government seeks to influence other countries.

Everything that we saw happen in the United States in 2016 and then that we saw happen in the French presidential elections, in the German national elections and now really all over the democratic West we had seen before in places like Georgia, Moldova, Belarus and Ukraine.

CORNISH: If you could see the full Mueller report, what would you be looking for?

POLYAKOVA: Well, I would be very interested in seeing even more information about how the Russians really designed, operated this entire campaign. The best research that we have so far on how the Russian government has sought to influence the United States and really undermine trust in our democratic institutions we've seen from the Mueller indictments that we've been talking about. It really got into the mechanics and the nuts and bolts of who did what when, where and how. It was really incredible to see that.

I would like to have the report be public so that at least those of us who are researching this area can better understand what we might expect in the future. And I think it's absolutely imperative that we're allowed to see that report for that reason.

CORNISH: Alina Polyakova is a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution. Thank you for speaking with us.

POLYAKOVA: Thank you so much for having me.

(SNOOP DOGGY DOGG'S "DEEP COVER (INSTRUMENTAL)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.