Russia interfered in U.S. election, likely at Putin's behest, intelligence report says

Russian President Vladimir Putin knew of and likely directed a Russian effort to manipulate the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign to benefit former president Donald Trump with "misleading or unsubstantiated allegations" against challenger Joe Biden, U.S. intelligence officials said on Tuesday.

Washington expected to impose sanctions on Moscow as soon as next week

U.S. President Joe Biden, left, spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Jan. 26. A new U.S. intelligence report found Russia meddled in last year's U.S. presidential election, which saw Biden defeat former president Donald Trump. (Jonathan Ernst, Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin/Reuters)

Russian President Vladimir Putin knew of and likely directed a Russian effort to manipulate the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign to benefit former president Donald Trump with "misleading or unsubstantiated allegations" against challenger Joe Biden, U.S. intelligence officials said on Tuesday.

The assessment was made in a 15-page declassified report into election interference released Tuesday by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence. It is the most detailed assessment of the array of foreign threats to the 2020 election. 

The report underscored allegations that Trump's allies played into Moscow's hands by amplifying claims made against Biden by Russian-linked Ukrainian figures in the run-up to the Nov. 3 election. Biden, a Democrat, defeated Trump, a Republican, and became president on Jan. 20.

The report says Putin authorized "influence operations aimed at denigrating President Biden's candidacy and the Democratic Party, supporting former president Trump, undermining public confidence in the electoral process and exacerbating sociopolitical divisions in the U.S."

Central to that effort was the reliance on proxies linked to Russian intelligence "to launder influence narratives" by using media organizations and people close to Trump to push "false" and "misleading" smear campaigns against Biden.

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

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 Biden administration official said the president had "been clear" that Washington would respond to destabilizing Russian actions and noted U.S. steps to respond to Russia's alleged use of a chemical weapon against Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.

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

U.S. intelligence agencies also found other attempts to sway voters, including a "multi-pronged covert influence campaign" by Iran intended to undercut Trump's support. Trump pulled the United States out of an international nuclear deal with Iran and imposed fresh sanctions.

Even so, intelligence officials found "no indications that any foreign actor attempted to interfere in the 2020 US elections by altering any technical aspect of the voting process, including voter registration, ballot casting, vote tabulation, or reporting results."

Putin 'probably directed' interference efforts

Moscow, Beijing and Tehran routinely deny allegations of cyber-espionage and subterfuge.

The findings about 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 U.S. political figures in their campaign to smear Biden and his son Hunter.

Putin attends a meeting with government members via a video link in Moscow on March 10. A new U.S. intelligence report says the Russian leader 'probably directed' his country's efforts to interfere with the U.S. presidential election last year. (Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via Reutsteurs)

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

The new report said Putin knew of and "probably directed" the election interference efforts. As an example, Putin "had purview over the activities of Andriy Derkach," a Ukrainian lawmaker who played a prominent role in the effort and has ties to Russian intelligence, the report said.

Biden speaks about the implementation of the American Rescue Plan at the White House on Monday. The report found China did not interfere in the presidential race. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

"We assess Russian leaders preferred that former president Trump win re-election despite perceiving some of his administration's policies as anti-Russia. We have high confidence in this assessment," the report stated.

A key role was also played by a second man with Russian intelligence ties, Konstantin Kilimnik, according to the report. Kilimnik and Derkach met with and gave materials to Trump-linked people to push for formal investigations, and Derkach released four audio recordings to try to implicated Biden in corruption, it said.

That refers to conversations that right-wing figures in the United States cited as evidence that Biden tried to protect his son Hunter from a probe in Ukraine.

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

Russian agents also tried to "phish" employees 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.

As in the 2016 election, the so-called Russian troll factory, formerly known as the Internet Research Agency, pushed disparaging stories on social media about Biden and Democrats and complained about censorship by the tech companies, the report said. It also sought to exacerbate U.S. divisions on racial justice issues, the report said.

Iran's 'highly targeted operation' in battleground states

One "highly targeted operation" — the subject of an October news conference by then-Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe and FBI Director Christopher Wray — involved a flurry of emails to Democratic voters in battleground states that falsely purported to be from the far-right group Proud Boys and threatened the recipients if they didn't vote for Trump.

WATCH | U.S. officials investigate attempts at election interference by Russia and Iran:

FBI identifies attempts at U.S. election interference by Russia and Iran

2 years ago
Duration 2:02
U.S. officials are investigating a series of threatening emails, sent to voters in several states, and have identified Iran and Russia as foreign actors attempting to influence public opinion.

Iran's efforts, which officials say were more aggressive than in past elections and continued even after the contest was over, were focused on sowing discord in the U.S., likely because Tehran believed that would hurt Trump's re-election chances.

Though Iran sought to exploit the vulnerabilities of state election websites, and did "compromise US entities associated with election infrastructure as a part of a broad targeting effort across multiple sectors worldwide," it did not attempt to manipulate votes or affect election infrastructure.

China did not interfere, report concludes

The report also punctured a counter-narrative pushed by Trump's allies that China was interfering on 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.

U.S. 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."

U.S. intelligence agencies and former special counsel Robert Mueller previously concluded that Russia also interfered in the 2016 U.S. election to boost Trump's candidacy with a campaign of propaganda aimed at harming his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.

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.

With files from CBC News and The Associated Press