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Russia Aims To Guard Against Foreign Influence In Its Presidential Election


Let's check in on the Senate. It's formed a special commission on foreign meddling in elections. Meanwhile, the intelligence chief is holding closed-door briefings for lawmakers on the subject. This will all sound awfully familiar if you have been following recent events in Washington. But these events are unfolding in Russia, where election interference is suddenly getting a lot of attention ahead of that country's presidential vote next year. NPR's Lucian Kim reports from Moscow.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: When Russian Senator Andrei Klimov looks out of his 13th-floor office, he sees Spaso House, the U.S. ambassador's stately residence in downtown Moscow. Klimov is the head of the Russian Senate's new commission to prevent foreign meddling.

ANDREI KLIMOV: This is not commission devoted to Mr. Trump or to Mr. Obama or to somebody else. This commission to prevent - to prevent interference from abroad in our internal affairs.

KIM: Klimov says that while U.S. lawmakers are obsessing over rumors and speculation about Russian meddling, his commission will deal with what he calls real interference, such as Western sanctions imposed on Moscow after the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

KLIMOV: They'd like to change our behavior, our visions, our soul, if you like, with the help of such kind of instruments. But it is useless, honestly.

KIM: What constitutes meddling may be in the eye of the beholder. But many Russians now object to U.S. efforts to promote democracy in Eastern Europe after the collapse of communism. One of the people involved in that process was Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow.

MICHAEL MCFAUL: It wasn't like we came under, you know, false passports and were handing money under the table. We were working closely with the Russian government officials.

KIM: McFaul says that during the 1990s, the Russian government viewed the Americans as partners. McFaul remembers first meeting Vladimir Putin, then a local official from St. Petersburg, during a conference sponsored by the Washington-based National Democratic Institute. While McFaul acknowledges that the U.S. has intervened in the elections of other countries, he says there was no attempt to influence elections in Russia when he was ambassador to Moscow from 2012 to 2014.

MCFAUL: That is false. We did not do that. We had nothing to do with that.

KIM: That's not what the Kremlin wants Russians to believe in the run-up to next year's presidential election.

VLADIMIR MILOV: I think Putin and his lieutenants - they are deeply invested with the idea that any opposition movements in Russia must have only one origin, come from abroad.

KIM: That's Vladimir Milov, an adviser to opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Milov says Russian politics is for Russians alone.

MILOV: I think we're on the Putin side in this regard. We are completely against any foreign interference. And this is our job to bring back democracy to Russia. So all this talk about international influence on whatever we do has been greatly exaggerated.

KIM: He says that Russians have heard all the stories about foreign meddling but are really interested in Russia's economic problems and widespread corruption. Milov says there's one thing the Russian opposition needs from the West, and that's moral support. He says Donald Trump has been a disappointment.

MILOV: For two years, he essentially never said a bad word about Putin's regime, about our dictatorship, about the way they brutalize people in Russia, have political prisoners - not a bad word.

KIM: The silver lining, Milov says, is the Kremlin will have a hard time portraying the opposition as foreign agents, since Putin is closer to Trump than his opponents are. Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.