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Putin likely directed 2020 US election meddling, US intelligence finds

WASHINGTON — Russian President Vladimir Putin likely directed efforts to try to swing the 2020 US presidential election to Donald J. Trump, according to an American intelligence report released on Tuesday that sources said would likely trigger US sanctions on Moscow.

The 15-page report, released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, added heft to longstanding allegations that some of Mr. Trump’s top lieutenants were playing into Moscow’s hands by amplifying claims made against then-candidate Joseph R. Biden, Jr., by Russian-linked Ukrainian figures in the run-up to the Nov. 3 election. It also added new findings that Mr. Putin either oversaw or at least approved of the election meddling to benefit Mr. Trump.

Washington is expected to impose sanctions on Moscow as soon as next week because of the allegations, three sources said on condition of anonymity.

The findings about Mr. Putin’s role are likely to receive particular attention given the report’s conclusions that Russia-backed figures such as Ukrainian parliamentarian Andriy Derkach enlisted unnamed US political figures in their campaign to smear Mr. Biden and his son Hunter.

The report named Mr. Derkach, who met Mr. Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani in 2019, as someone whose movements were tracked, if not directed, by Mr. Putin.

“Putin had purview over the activities of Andriy Derkach,” the report said. “Other senior officials also participated in Russia’s election influence efforts—including senior national security and intelligence officials who we assess would not act without receiving at least Putin’s tacit approval.”

Mr. Biden, a Democrat, defeated Mr. Trump, a Republican, and became president in January.

US intelligence agencies and former Special Counsel Robert Mueller previously concluded that Russia also interfered in the 2016 US election to boost Mr. Trump’s candidacy with a campaign of propaganda aimed at harming his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.

Mr. Mueller found extensive contacts between Mr. Trump’s campaign and Russia. Mr. Trump while president also faced questions about ties by his associates with Russia and Russia-linked figures in Ukraine. The US House of Representatives impeached Mr. Trump in 2019—the first of two times—on charges arising from his request that Ukraine investigate the Bidens.

The US intelligence report also found other foreign attempts to sway American voters in 2020 including a “multi-pronged covert influence campaign” by Iran intended to undercut Mr. Trump. As president, Mr. Trump pulled the United States out of a multilateral nuclear deal with Iran and imposed fresh sanctions.

CHINA COUNTER-NARRATIVE
The report also punctured a counter-narrative pushed by Mr. Trump’s allies that China was interfering on Mr. Biden’s behalf, concluding that Beijing “did not deploy interference efforts.”

“China sought stability in its relationship with the United States and did not view either election outcome as being advantageous enough for China to risk blowback if caught,” the report said.

US officials said they also saw efforts by Cuba, Venezuela, and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah to influence the election, although “in general, we assess that they were smaller in scale than those conducted by Russia and Iran.”

The Russian, Chinese, and Cuban Embassies in Washington did not immediately return messages seeking comment. The Iranian mission to the United Nations and the Venezuelan Ministry of Information also did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran routinely deny allegations of cyberespionage and election interference.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment on whether sanctions would be imposed on Russia as early as next week, which was first reported by CNN.

Asked about CNN’s report, a US official said Mr. Biden had “been clear” Washington would respond to destabilizing Russian actions and noted US steps to respond to Russia’s alleged use of a chemical weapon against Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.

“There will be more soon,” said the official on condition of anonymity.

Two sources told Reuters the sanctions could address the cyber hack blamed on Russia that used US company SolarWinds Corp. to penetrate US government networks as well as reports Russia offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill coalition forces in Afghanistan.

Moscow has denied involvement in the hack and brushed off the bounties allegations.

The intelligence report assessed with high confidence that Russian leaders “preferred that former President Trump win re-election despite perceiving some of his administration’s policies as anti-Russia.”

A key role was played by another man with Russian intelligence ties, Konstantin Kilimnik, according to the report. It said Messrs. Kilimnik and Derkach met and gave materials to Trump-linked people to push for formal investigations, and Mr. Derkach released four audio recordings seeking to suggest Mr. Biden tried to protect his son Hunter from a corruption probe in Ukraine. Mr. Giuliani was among those promoting such claims.

Mr. Kilimnik was an associate of Paul Manafort, who served as Trump’s 2016 campaign chairman. Trump pardoned Manafort last year for a criminal conviction stemming from Mueller’s investigation.

Russian agents also tried to hack subsidiaries of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma, “likely in an attempt to gather information related to President Biden’s family,” it said. Hunter Biden had served on Burisma’s board. — Christopher Bing, Joseph Menn, and Raphael Satter/Reuters

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