Russia and the US: Who is undermining democracy?

Former top CIA agent John Sipher talks election meddling, and we debate Russia’s upcoming presidential election.

In this week’s UpFront, we ask 28-year veteran of the CIA‘s National Clandestine Service, John Sipher, about alleged Russian meddling in United States elections, possible collusion by Donald Trump, and the CIA’s own record of foreign interference.

And in the Arena, we debate the political climate within Russia, as questions about democracy and President Vladimir Putin‘s grip on power resurface ahead of March’s presidential election.

Trump and Russia: Collusion or coincidence?

The ongoing investigation into Russian meddling in US elections has so far led to the indictment of 13 Russian nationals and three Russian organisations. Four people, including Donald Trump’s campaign manager, have also been indicted, leading some to question if more figures from the Trump administration – or even the president himself – will be implicated.

“Mr Trump’s behaviour puts him in a position where he could be blackmailed,” says John Sipher, a former CIA Station Chief in Moscow, adding that Russia has “the best service in the world at blackmail”.

One year into his presidency, no hard evidence has yet emerged against Trump to suggest collusion with Russia

“These are espionage organisations, espionage activities,” says Sipher. “They’re meant to be kept secret … The bar for evidence is very high. However, the bar for what we’ve seen in terms of politically bad behaviour, and unethical behaviour, and unpatriotic behaviour has been met.”

When pressed on the behaviour of the CIA during their interventions around the world, including toppling governments in Iran, Chile and Haiti, Sipher says that, despite these actions, the checks and balances placed on the CIA set the organisation apart from Russian intelligence services.

“I will admit were mistakes, that presidents of the United States pushed the CIA to get involved in,” he says.

“However, there’s a system here by which those people are working on behalf of the Constitution; there’s congressional oversight, there’s advice and consent to the president and to the White House and people involved with these things.

“In Russia, those services are working on behalf of a single man. That single man makes those decisions for them.”

Russia elections: President Putin for life?

On March 18, Russians will vote to decide who will be their next president, with every indication that Vladimir Putin will win his fourth term.

“It is not difficult to win an election when your opponents are not actually on the ballot,” says Vladimir Kara-Murza, a leading Russian opposition figure and activist, based in Washington.

“Russian authorities have deliberately disenfranchised [opposition leader Alexei Navalny] with a politically motivated court conviction,” says Kara-Murza. Without Navalny and Boris Nemtsov, another key opposition figure who was murdered in 2015, Putin is now running effectively unopposed.

But some, such as Russian-American journalist Vladimir Pozner, believe Putin’s popularity at home cannot be ignored. “Putin has a very high percentage of support,” says Pozner. “And it’s not because people are stupid.”

In Russia’s highly-controlled media environment, dissenting voices have been suppressed. However Yevgenia Albats of The New Times, a Moscow-based magazine, says there is some freedom to criticise Putin.

“Russia is not a totalitarian state,” says Albats. “They allow for some opposition voices to exist.”

“Each week, on Monday and on Tuesday, I go out on Echo of Moscow [a national radio station] with an audience all across Russia, and I say precisely what I consider right to say.”

Editor’s note: Vladimir Pozner left during the interview, choosing not to further engage in the debate.

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