An international commission has formed to try to end meddling in elections in Western democratic nations by Russia and other autocratic countries.
The Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity (TCEI), co-chaired by former NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and former U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, held a news conference Friday in Washington, D.C.
The commission’s “background is the Russian meddling into the U.S. election in 2016,” Rasmussen told VOA’s Russian service. “But it’s not just about America. It’s also on the European side.
‘Challenges’ in Europe
“We [Europe] have seen challenges, and this is the reason why it’s a transatlantic commission,” he said, adding that there are more than 20 elections scheduled in Western democratic countries before the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
“I consider it a matter of urgency to counter Russia’s and other autocrats’ interference with our democratic institutions, because their aim is to weaken the world’s democracies and we cannot allow that to happen,” Rasmussen said.
The U.S. intelligence community more than a year ago concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally directed a 2016 campaign to undermine U.S. democracy and help Donald Trump defeat his challenger, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Russia and the Trump campaign have denied the allegations.
But Rasmussen stressed that Putin has a global reach, which is another reason for a transatlantic body.
“Of course Russia is in particular interested in destabilizing the democracies in Europe,” he said, adding they use a “wide range of instruments” to sew discord.
“It’s not just about cybersecurity. It’s not just about so-called fake news. It’s much more sophisticated,” Rasmussen said. “It’s also about transfer of money to movements and political parties in Europe. It’s to stir up dissatisfaction and populism and nationalism in many countries. We have seen that all over Europe.”
Chertoff, who served during the George W. Bush administration, told VOA, “I think if you go back even seven, eight years, you can see the Russians becoming active in Eastern and Central Europe to try to influence the outcome of elections. Some of it was online, some of it involved contributing money. For example, Marie Le Pen [president of France’s National Front] got a loan from the Russians to keep her party afloat.
“Some involved using business investors as a wedge to get into a country, and to begin to develop attitudes that were pro-Russian,” he added.
“But I want to be clear, it’s [election meddling] not limited to Russia,” Chertoff said. “We’ve seen the president of Turkey, President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, take some steps to try to influence the activities of Turks overseas and to try to have some effect on the democratic process in other countries.”
A press release by the commission said the group would fill a void in transatlantic coordination regarding election meddling.
The commission “will look into the level of risk exposure across Western countries and ask how technology can address the problem,” the statement said. As part of their recently announced Defending Democracy Program, Microsoft is partnering with TCEI to provide funding and technical expertise.
The commission, which includes political, business and media leaders, will hold its first meeting June 21-22 in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Trump has often tweeted at critics of his continued outreach to Russia, but Chertoff said he thought the U.S. should maintain open communications.
“Even in the height of the Cold War, we had to have communication with what were then Soviets,” he said. “But I also think we need to take a very firm and strong line against the misbehavior by the Russians or anybody else, whether it’s military misbehavior or information operations.
“And part of the solution has to be a set of responses that is vigorous and measured in order to deter and push back against these illicit efforts,” Chertoff said.
Of past efforts by Moscow, Rasmussen said he considered Ukraine to be “ground zero when it comes to Russian meddling in elections.”
He said the commission would focus on the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections in Ukraine. “We expect Russia to meddle in those elections.”
“I think as regards [the] Donbass [region], and Eastern Ukraine, we should deploy a peacekeeping force with a robust mandate toward a controlled … border between Ukraine and Russia as an efficient instrument to achieve peace,” Rasmussen said. “They want to keep the government in Kyiv weak; they want to continue to destabilize the situation in Eastern Ukraine, in Donbass.”
The 14 members of the commission include former Vice President Joe Biden, former Mexico President Felipe Calderon, former U.K. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, and Tanit Koch, editor in chief of Bild newspaper.
Rafael Saakov of VOA’s Russian Service contributed to this report.