Interference in Russo-American Relations and the Indictment of Internet Research Agency LLC

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By Bola A. Akinterinwa

‘Interference’ is an important concept in international relations. Although many observers and analysts often wrongly use it to imply ‘intervention,’ and therefore to mean the same, it is useful to differentiate between the two. When ‘interference’ is used, it implies that the act of interfering involves the use of diplomacy, and particularly pacific means of conflict settlement. ‘Intervention,’ on the contrary, implies the use of force.

Without scintilla of doubt, there is always an act of interference in every interpersonal or inter-state relationship. When people discuss an issue, they consciously or otherwise refer to a third person. They condemn or commend foreign statesmen when they make their comments. Such condemnation or commendation necessarily constitutes an act of interference. In a conscious attempt to differentiate between intervention and interference, Article 2, paragraph 7 of the United Nations Charter uses the word, ‘non-intervention,’ and not ‘non-interference.’

As provided in Article 2(7), ‘Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state or shall require the Members to submit such matters to settlement under the present Charter; but this principle shall not prejudice the application of enforcement measures under Chapter Vll.’

If the article says nothing ‘shall authorise the United Nations to intervene in matters…’, this simply means that the United Nations, either acting as a corporate body, or its members acting severally, any act of ‘intervention’ is not acceptable in all matters that fall under the internal competence of Member States. Interference is not outlawed, but it is also useful to distinguish between permissible and non-permissible interference.

Put differently, even if intelligence gathering may take the form of an interference or intervention, no country condones spying. It is allowed only to the extent that the spy is not cut. In many cases, diplomats do engage in activities that are not generally compatible with the status of a diplomat. In the same vein, no country wants any foreign interference or intervention in its political governance processes, such as electoral politics. However, this was precisely the case with the 2016 US elections in which Russia is now being accused of interfering in them. In this regard, how did Russia, as a government or as a people, interfere in the 2016 US elections in order to influence the presidential election result to the detriment of Hilary Clinton and in favour of Donald Trump?

At the epicentre of the indictment is the belief that there was a conspiracy to defraud the United States ‘by impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful functions of the government through fraud and deceit for the purpose of interfering with the US political and electoral processes, including the presidential election of 2016.’ In this regard, the accused received funding for its operations, pose as US nationals and create ‘false personas,, operated social media pages and groups designed to attract US audiences… [T]hese groups and pages, which addressed divisive US political and social issues, falsely claimed to be controlled by US activists when, in fact, they were controlled by Defendants.’

More interestingly, the accused Russians allegedly travelled to the US ‘under false pretences for the purpose of collecting intelligence to inform Defendants’ operations.’ They also ‘procured and used computer infrastructure, based partly in the US, to hide the Russian origin of their activities and to avoid detection by US regulators and law enforcement.’ (vide the indictment by the Grand Jury for the District of Columbia)

The Indictment

On Tuesday, 23rd May, 2017, Mr. Brennan told the House Intelligence Committee that Russia had brazenly interfered in the 2016 US presidential elections. The briefing of the Committee was prompted by many controversies surrounding the election of Mr. Donald Trump as President of the United States. His election was generally not expected. Most people expected, with ease, the election of Hilary Clinton. Since this was not so, public attention was drawn to Russian meddling in the United States domestic electoral affairs. And true enough, suggestions were made and questions were also raised as to whether Donald Trump would have been elected without the support or meddling of Russia in the election.

Whatever is the case, in reaction to public concerns, the United States Justice Department appointed a Special Counsel, Mr. Robert Mueller, to investigate the alleged Russian meddling in the US elections, which he did and to which he also provided his findings. On Friday, 16th February, 2018, the Deputy Attorney-General, Rod Rosenstein, announced the indictment of the Internet Research Agency LLC, a Russian agency based in Saint Petersburg, and thirteen other Russian Nationals. As noted by Rosenstein, the accused Russians ‘set up a virtual private network in the United States – making it appear that the social media accounts they were using were controlled by people in the United States.’

The Grand Jury for the District of Columbia charged the Internet Research Agency LLC (IRA-LLC) and many others (Mikhail Ivanovich Bystrov, Mikhail Leonidovich Burchik, Aleksandra Yuryevna Krylova, Anna Vladislavovna Bogacheva, Sergey Pavilovich Polozov, Maria Anatolyevna Bovda, Robert Sergeyevich Bovda, Dzheykhun Nasimi Ogly Aslanov, Vadim Vladimirovich Podkopaev, Gleb Igorevich Vasilchenko, Irina Viktorovna Kaverzina, and Vladimir Venkov) for working ”in various capacities to carry out Defendant Organisation (the IRA-LLC) interference operations targeting the United States.

According to the Grand Jury, ‘from in or around 2014 to the present, Defendants knowingly and intentionally conspired with each other (and with persons known and unknown to the Grand Jury) to defraud the United States by impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful functions of the government through fraud and deceit for the purpose of interfering with the US political and electoral processes, including the presidential election of 2016.’

In fact, of the eight-count charge brought against the accused Russians, the first three were noteworthy: conspiracy to defraud the United States; conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud; and aggravated identity theft (using unlawfully the identification cards of other people). On the basis of these charges, and particularly count charge number 2, the Grand Jury is asking that, in the event of conviction of the accused, it intends to seek the ‘forfeiture allegation’ ‘as part of any sentence in accordance with Title 18, United States Code, Sections 981 (a)(1)(C) and 982(a)(2), and Title 28, Section 2461(c).’

The Grand Jury is also seeking substitution of assets if any property subject to forfeiture as a result of any act or omission of any defendant ‘cannot be located upon the exercise of due diligence; has been transferred or sold to, or deposited with, a third party; has been placed beyond the jurisdiction of the court; has been substantially diminished in value; or has been commingled with other property that cannot be subdivided without difficulty.’

The foregoing is the American side of the charges against the Russians but which the Government of Russia has not taken lightly, and which have also been subject of deeper analyses by academic lawyers in the United States. For instance, many observers have considered that the alleged Russian meddling has not directly implicated anyone in the Trump Campaign or in his inner circle and that the indictment is nothing more than a picture.

As argued by Diane Marie Amann, Law Professor at the University of Georgia, ‘while resistance to international extradition may shield indicted Russians from US prosecution, it seems likely that some of the alleged co-conspirators will be Americans, fully subject to trial in the US.’ In the view of Miriam Baer, Law Professor at the Brooklyn Law School, ‘there are two types of conspiracies a prosecutor can charge. The more common one occurs when two or more individuals have conspired to violate some other crimes, such as computer fraud or bribery… The less common usage, which is the one we see in Robert Mueller’s latest indictment, is the so-called “conspiracy to defraud the US.” For this kind of conspiracy, the government must show that the conspirators agreed to interfere with one of the federal government’s lawful functions.’

Two other Law Professors from Ohio State University do not see the indictment as a big deal for now. For instance, while Ric Simons argued that ‘these indictments say nothing about intentional collusion between the Trump Campaign and Russian interference in the election and that they do not implicate nor exonerate anyone in the Trump Campaign’, Joshua Dressler posited that ‘the investigations are not over yet, so we still remain uncertain regarding the extent of potential criminality.’

The position of Jessica Levinson, Law Professor at the Loyola Law School, is not different. He submitted that ‘Mueller has not yet come forward with evidence that Trump’s Campaign or administration attempted to aid Russian nationals,’ and therefore, ‘that evidence may never materialise, but the indictment does not close the door on this issue.’

Perhaps more interestingly, while Ric Simmons argued further that, ‘to win a conspiracy case, a prosecutor need only prove that the defendants agreed to commit an illegal act to further that agreement,’ Susan Bloch, a Law Professor at the Georgetown University, believes that the determination of guilt of collusion or conspiracy to interfere with the US election requires ‘knowledge’ and ‘intent.’ But in this case, Joshua Dressler simply asked why the Russians ‘so desperately want to elect Trump.’

Whatever may be the rationale for Russia’s interest in the election of Donald Trump and not in that of Hilary Clinton, what should be noted about the indictment is the politics of it at the domestic level and the critical question of ‘interference’ not only in international relations, but particularly in Russo-American bilateral relations. President Trump has to be specially briefed that the indictment did not taint the Trump Campaign to prevent him from openly creating new diplomatic frictions in the relationship.

Impact on Russo American Ties

The Government of Russia does not in any way feel comfortable with the indictment and so does some of the accused. For instance, Prigozhin, one of the accused, declared that ‘the Americans are very emotional people, they see what they want to see. I have great respect for them. I am not at all upset that I am on the list. If they want to see the devil, let them.’

What does Progozhin mean with seeing ‘the devil’ in this case? Is Russia the devil? Is devil synonymous with trouble or problem? Does it not mean that the Americans are yet to see any problem yet and that the real and greater problem is yet to come? The long term implication of ‘if the Americans want to see devil, let them see it’ is simple: let the Americans prosecute the accused, and they will see more than they would have bargained for.

Maria Zakha, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, has it that, ‘turns out, there’ve been 13 people, in the opinion of the United States Justice Department. 13 people interfered in the United States elections? 13 against billions budgets of special agencies? Absurd? Yes (see her face book post). Again, how do we interpret the word, ‘absurd’? Undoubtedly in the mind of Maria Zakha, is it not only 13 Russians that are troubling the whole of the United States, a super power for that matter? Is it not only 13 people that are against special agencies with budgets running into billions? True enough, the word absurd is nothing more than a mockery of the indictment.

Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, Dmitry Peskov, the spokesperson for the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, has it that ‘there were no indications that the Russian State could have been involved. We didn’t see any substantial evidence of someone interfering in the domestic affairs. Two points are noteworthy in this observation: non-involvement of the Russian State and non-substantial evidence.

In this regard, the Russian agencies that were indicted (Internet Research Agency LLC; A/K/A Mediasintez LLC;/a/k/a glavset LLC; A/K/A Mixinfo LLC; A/K/A Azimut LLC; and A/K/A Novinfo LLC), are said to have privileged relationship with President Putin. If this is so, in which way can it be rightly argued that the accused Russian agencies are not acting on behalf of the Russian State and particularly President Putin? In the same vein, if the allegations levied against them are tenable, why their engagement in acts of illegality in the United States?

Regarding the question of non-substantial evidence, why should an evidence be substantial to determine guilt? If one point of evidence is convincing enough to indict, that should be. To accept the inadequacy of an evidence is also to accept guilt in part. As it is now, the indictment of the accused Russians has the great potential to further damage the Russian-American relations.

The Euronews was informed, with regrets, on Friday, 16th February, 2018 by the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, that the Russian-US ties are deteriorating and the trend of the relationship is not helpful. As he put it: ‘it’s a pity that under Donald Trump, for more than a year of his presidency, our relations have not improved compared to the period of the Democratic administration. Even worsened to a certain extent.’ If as at now, the question of interference is still simply at the indictment and prosecutorial levels, what will the relationship look like if the accused persons are eventually tried and found guilty?

The future can be gleaned from what the deputy Foreign Minister of Russia, Sergei Ryabkov, said: ‘if the United States side decides to move further towards …deterioration, we will answer, We will respond in kind. We will retaliate.’ The deputy Foreign Minister appeared to have spoken the mind of President Putin who said ‘it was the time to show that we’re not going to leave that without an answer.’

And most importantly, President Putin expressed his disappointment with the relationship when he said ‘we were waiting for quite a long time that maybe something would change for the better, were holding out hope that the situation would change somehow. But it appears that even if it changes someday, it will not change soon.’ This is what the relationship is, as at today. Will it improve in the foreseeable future?

Prospects and Lesson for Nigeria

The prospects of improvement in the Russo-American relationship are not bright simply because of the fundamental contradictions in the relationship: Russia is questioning the aftermath of former Soviet Union’s glasnost and perestroika; Russia is directly responding to the various sanctionary measures meted out to her following her annexation of Crimea in 2014; Russia is also contesting the declaration of some of her accredited diplomats as personae non grata following US discovery of Russia’s meddlesomeness in the 2016 US elections. And most importantly, Russia is not only also reclaiming its global status of superpower, but also wants to be the primus inter pares, even within the framework of the emerging new Cold War.

With this development, if Russia can successfully undermine electoral objectivity in the United States, an acknowledged world leader, elections in Nigeria can also be easily bastardised, even by lesser powers. Nigeria’s foreign policy must therefore begin to reflect on the multidimensional aspects of the US indictment of the Russian agencies, their prosecution and eventual policy outcome. Russia and the United States are simply in a new Cold War. The proxy theatres of the war are yet to made clear but Nigeria must not be one of them.