The White House read Russian President Vladimir Putin’s appeal on Friday for Russia and the US to agree on banning meddling in each other’s elections and made one of its own: Stop your meddling first.
“A good starting point for discussion would be Russia discontinuing its ongoing meddling with the US election,” a White House senior administration official told BuzzFeed News.
In a surprising and somewhat cryptic statement posted to the Kremlin’s site, Putin extended an offer to President Donald Trump for the adversarial nations to reset relations and agree not to meddle in each other’s internal affairs, including elections.
“One of today’s major strategic challenges is the risk of a large-scale confrontation in the digital field,” Putin wrote. “We would like to once again address the US with a suggestion to agree on a comprehensive program of practical measures to reboot our relations in the field of security in the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs).
“[I propose] to exchange, in a mutually acceptable format, guarantees of non-intervention into internal affairs of each other, including into electoral processes.”
Putin’s appeal came less than six weeks before the US presidential election. US intelligence agencies have determined that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election with the aim of helping Trump, including by hacking into Hillary Clinton's Democratic campaign, and that it continues to interfere in the 2020 election. The Kremlin denies the accusations.
A recent CIA analysis concluded that Putin is most likely continuing to approve and direct interference operations aimed at raising Trump’s reelection chances, the New York Times reported Tuesday. And last week, FBI Director Christopher Wray said Russia was conducting a “very active” campaign to denigrate Joe Biden and sow chaos in the US political scene, Politico reported.
That assessment was apparently made to support sanctions imposed by the US Treasury this month on Andriy Derkach, a Ukrainian lawmaker deemed to be an “active Russian agent” who has embarked on a monthslong campaign to smear Biden, the former vice president and Democratic presidential nominee.
“Dialogue like this is obviously hard to take seriously with Russia, China, Iran, or any other party that continues to interfere in our election process,” the senior White House official said of Putin’s statement.
“According to Microsoft, Russian groups have attacked more than 200 organizations including political campaigns, advocacy groups, parties, and political consultants,” the official continued. They also pointed to a Washington Post article published Thursday that said Facebook had removed additional Russian disinformation networks with ties to the country’s intelligence services.
It is also not the first time Russia has made this kind of pitch, as US political operatives were quick to point out.
“Various versions of this idea were floated before and it’s come up repeatedly in track 2 dialogues. Recall the ‘cyber unit’ Putin proposed to Trump at the Hamburg G20, which Trump touted as an accomplishment until his staff walked it back,” tweeted Mike Carpenter, a close Biden ally who served as the director for Russia on the National Security Council under then-president Barack Obama.
Laura Rosenberger, director of the bipartisan group Alliance for Securing Democracy, also noted the similarity to previous overtures made by Putin and said the Russian president’s message was also directed at Washington’s support for opponents of the Kremlin.
“Read carefully. He called for non-intervention — as in the US should also stop supporting democratic activists. Not dissimilar to the dialogue he proposed creating early in Trump admin. Total trap,” she tweeted.
Some analysts and pundits questioned why Putin is extending the offer now. A Bloomberg report on Friday provided some clues. It cited US officials and a former Kremlin insider saying Putin is growing increasingly worried that Trump may lose to Biden.