WASHINGTON — Republicans have sought for weeks to shift attention to President Trump’s demands that Ukraine investigate any 2016 election meddling, defending it as a legitimate concern while Democrats accuse Trump of pursuing fringe theories for his benefit.
But in a briefing, US intelligence officials informed senators and their aides in recent weeks that Russia had engaged in a yearslong campaign to essentially frame Ukraine as responsible for Moscow’s own hacking of the 2016 election, according to three US officials. The briefing came as Republicans stepped up their defenses of Trump in the Ukraine affair.
The revelations demonstrate Russia’s persistence in trying to sow discord among its adversaries — and show that the Kremlin apparently succeeded, as unfounded claims about Ukrainian interference seeped into Republican talking points.
During the impeachment hearings, Fiona Hill, a respected Russia scholar and former senior White House official, said that Russia has engaged in a “long pattern of deflection” to pin blame for its malevolent acts on other countries, not least Ukraine, a former Soviet republic. Since Ukraine won independence in 1991, Russia has tried to reassert influence there, meddling in its politics, maligning pro-Western leaders, and accusing Ukrainian critics of Moscow of fascist leanings.
“The Russians have a particular vested interest in putting Ukraine, Ukrainian leaders in a very bad light,” she told lawmakers.
The accusations of a Ukrainian influence campaign center on actions by a handful of Ukrainians who openly criticized or sought to damage Trump’s candidacy in 2016. They were scattershot efforts that were far from a replica of Moscow’s interference, when President Vladimir Putin ordered military and intelligence operatives to mount a broad campaign to sabotage the US election. Russians in 2016 conducted covert operations to hack Democratic computers and to use social media to exploit divisions among Americans.
This time, Russian intelligence operatives deployed a network of agents to blame Ukraine for its 2016 interference. Starting at least in 2017, operatives peddled a mixture of now-debunked conspiracy theories along with established facts to leave an impression that the government in Kyiv, not Moscow, was responsible for the hackings of Democrats and its other interference efforts in 2016, senior intelligence officials said.
Russian intelligence officers conveyed the information to prominent Russians and Ukrainians who then used a range of intermediaries, like oligarchs, businessmen, and their associates, to pass the material to US political figures and even some journalists, who were likely unaware of its origin, officials said.
That muddy brew worked its way into US information ecosystems, sloshing around until parts of it reached Trump, who has also spoken with Putin about allegations of Ukrainian interference. Trump also brought up the assertions of Ukrainian meddling in his July 25 call with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, which is at the heart of the impeachment inquiry.
Trump referred elliptically to allegations that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election and brought up a related conspiracy theory. Asking Zelensky to “do us a favor,” Trump added, “I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine.”
Trump repeated the baseless claim Friday in an interview with “Fox & Friends,” laying out the narrative and doubling down after a host gently pressed him on whether he was sure of one aspect of the debunked theory, that the FBI gave a Democratic server to what Trump had inaccurately described as a Ukrainian-owned company.
“That is what the word is,” Trump replied.
Putin began publicly pushing false theories of Ukrainian interference in the early months of 2017 to deflect responsibility from Russia, said Senator Angus King, Independent of Maine and a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who declined to answer questions about the briefing.
“These people are pros at this,” said King.
During a news conference in February 2017, Putin accused the Ukrainian government of supporting Hillary Clinton during the previous US election and funding her candidacy with friendly oligarchs.