The writer is fellow for malign finance at the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States
Allegations this week that the husband of a big UK Conservative party donor was secretly funded by an oligarch with close ties to Vladimir Putin are the latest example of covert Russian money potentially interfering in European democracies. Other recent examples include alleged Russian attempts to funnel money to rightwing Italian, German and Dutch politicians, as well as Swedish news sites.
Until recently, US intelligence officials saw this as a European problem. Russian operations against the US were mainly just disinformation and cyber attacks. But not any more. The FBI has warned that Russian interference in November’s election could include campaign funding, some of it channelled via countries with “loopholes in laws preventing foreign campaign assistance”.
If so, this would be nothing new. During the past decade, Russia, China and other authoritarian regimes have legally funnelled more than an estimated $300m into 33 countries to interfere in democratic processes over a hundred times. These financial forays accelerated from around three annually before 2014 to more than 15 a year since 2016, my research shows. The most common target is the US.
How does it work? The first legal opening is often the limited scope of bans on in-kind donations. As a result, Russia has allegedly provided loans to French politicians, lavish gifts to a Swiss law enforcement official, and media services around the world. The US justice department’s narrow reading of the prohibition against foreign nationals contributing anything of value allowed Donald Trump allegedly to ask Ukraine to investigate the son of a political opponent, leading to the US president facing impeachment.
A second channel involves foreign powers sending intermediaries on secret missions to enrich favoured donors, politicians, or parties. The Chinese Communist party has funded alleged straw donor schemes in Australia and New Zealand. And the biggest known case of foreign money in the 2016 US election involved allegations that the United Arab Emirates funded a clandestine operation to buy potential influence with Hillary Clinton. The case is ongoing and campaigns are under no obligation to disclose foreign contacts.
Then there are the donor vehicles themselves. Anonymous shell companies can be used to obscure donation sources. Non-profits can also spend on politics without disclosing their donors. Kremlin lobbying against US sanctions was allegedly disguised as adoption advocacy and organised as a Delaware foundation. Russia has also been accused of using non-profits to mimic environmental groups opposed to fracking.
These channels represent only some of the most obvious vulnerabilities. Foreign governments also buy online political ads, fund fringe news sites and employ Ghanaian trolls to pretend to be African Americans.
The accumulated risk of all this is clear. Covert foreign money transforms the civic infrastructure of open societies into an asymmetric weapon, converting freedoms into methods of attack. It is a bloodless version of aeroplanes flying into buildings.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 led to swift action by US policymakers, who had previously investigated how foreign financial institutions exploit legal gaps. The US government enacted the most sweeping anti-money laundering overhaul in a generation, prioritised the fight against terrorist financing, and got other countries to impose similar financial protections.
But the US has failed to fortify its financial defences similarly today. Multiple legal loopholes remain despite abundant evidence that covert foreign money is increasing. The system is blinking red about incoming Russian roubles and Chinese yuan.
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