The Russian Foreign Ministry has accused the U.S. State Department of trying to interfere in its upcoming election after the U.S. criticized the Kremlin for barring a Putin critic from entering the presidential race.
Alexey Navalny’s candidate registration for the upcoming election was rejected by Russia’s Central Election Commission (CEC) on Christmas Day. The CEC justified his suspension because of a series of spurious criminal convictions Mr. Navalny has received, but his supporters claim barring him from the election is politically motivated.
The State Department responded by criticizing the Kremlin’s “ongoing crackdown against independent voices” and urged Moscow to hold elections that are “transparent, fair, and free and that guarantee the free expression of the will of the people, consistent with its international human rights obligations.” Navalny is a known anti-corruption campaigner and has been involved in several street protests against Mr. Putin.
The Kremlin quickly shot back, claiming the U.S. was trying to interfere in the Russian election election.
“This State Department statement, which I’m sure will be repeated, is a direct interference in our electoral process and internal affairs,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said.
“The funniest thing is that these are the same people who just branded RT and Sputnik foreign agents, who are harassing Russian media around the world and who are investing huge amounts of money into ‘countering Russian propganda’ which is how they label anyone they disagree with,” Zakharova continued. “And these people expressed outrage over alleged Russian ‘interference’ in their electoral process for an entire year!?”
But Zakharova’s whataboutism is an obvious false equivalency. Russia is accused of running a sophisticated online propaganda campaign and potentially colluding with key figures in the president’s inner circle. The U.S. intelligence community has stated that they categorically believe Russians were attempting to interfere with the 2016 election. For the Kremlin, the U.S. equivalent of this is simply calling for free and fair elections and for Russia to respect its human rights obligations — a task made more difficult by the fact that the Kremlin has successfully blacklisted several Western Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), aimed at helping provide Russia with electoral transparency.
The Russian presidential election is scheduled for March 2018 with Putin the overwhelming favorite to win, continuing his reign as Russian premier until at least 2024. In a bizarre twist, one of Putin’s potential rivals is socialite and reality TV star Ksenia Sobchak, whose father helped mentor Putin. There is a widespread belief, however, that Ms Sobchak might be controlled opposition.
Meanwhile, Navalny has said his electoral disbarring was an attempt by the Kremlin to silence him from “speaking the truth.”
“Only Putin and the candidates that he personally chose, ones who don’t pose the slightest threat to him, are taking part [in the vote],” he said.
While the State Department criticizes Russia, Trump steadfastly refuses to. Even during his recent speech presenting his administration’s new National Security Strategy, Trump called out “rival powers” but stopped short of mentioning Russia, or election interference, by name.