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US assesses Putin may increase efforts to interfere with US elections

By Natasha Bertrand, Zachary Cohen, Katie Bo Lillis and Sean Lyngaas, CNN

The United States believes Russian President Vladimir Putin may be willing to take more aggressive action against the US, including dialing up his attempts to interfere with American elections in response to its support for Ukraine, according to four sources familiar with recent US intelligence assessments.

That could include direct attacks on US election infrastructure, among a broad range of options, the sources said.

There is no evidence that Putin has made a decision to interfere in upcoming elections or that he has preferred candidates, the sources said. Attempted hacks on voting infrastructure would also not be easy, because voting systems in the US are so diffuse and decentralized.

But whereas previously Putin was less willing to try to directly interfere in states’ voting systems — opting instead to order scans of voter registration databases and conduct influence campaigns to sow doubt in the legitimacy of elections — intelligence officials believe Putin may now be willing to go further than in previous interference efforts.

“As we apply pressure and as Ukraine applies pressure, he’s certainly going to expand the options he would consider,” said one source briefed on the intelligence community’s assessments. “So what might he do? I don’t think there was any real conclusion to that. Just a consideration of a broad range of things.”

Another source familiar with the intelligence said that one of the options could be “directly attacking election infrastructure,” reflecting “a change in Putin’s risk tolerance, as we have seen with his invasion of Ukraine.”

A US official made clear the assessments were not based on direct intelligence.

“We do not have any direct intelligence that Russia is looking to target state, local, or election systems more directly than before, but we are certainly anticipating the possibility. We will continue to actively share any intelligence about increased threats with state and local officials as we receive it,” the official told CNN.

Putin more willing to take risks

The intelligence community has made understanding Putin’s mindset a priority since early in the invasion, sources familiar with internal deliberations told CNN. Raw assessments have pointed to his increasingly unpredictable behavior, and US officials believe Putin is more willing to consider taking risks due to his anger over Russia’s failures in Ukraine — something his advisers, who officials say have not been telling him the full truth, did not prepare him for.

The Associated Press reported on Saturday that Putin may use US support for Ukraine as a pretext to interfere in US elections.

Lawmakers were briefed by intelligence officials last week on Putin’s calculus on potential influence operations, according to another US official familiar with the briefing.

The briefing acknowledged that, should Putin shift his focus to inflicting harm outside of Ukraine, US midterm elections this year present one possible target for Russian operatives, according to the US official. Russian actors also attempted to influence the 2016 and 2020 elections.

The briefing did not suggest there was specific intelligence saying that the Kremlin would target US elections, according to the official, but rather that elections are one of multiple areas that the Russian government could target for influence operations in response to the war in Ukraine.

“If Putin feels backed into a corner he may turn his cyber forces in any number of directions,” the US official said, adding that officials are on heightened alert given US midterm elections this year.

While it would be difficult for Russia to tamper with voter tallies, another source noted that Russia would not need to change many, if any, votes “to throw the security of the entire voting enterprise into question.”

Even if Russian hacking efforts did not affect the outcome at all, sowing chaos and distrust in the voting systems could be enough of a victory, another source said.

When asked about the assessments, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment.

“Our Election Threats Executive continues to lead the Intelligence Community’s efforts against foreign threats to US elections,” ODNI spokesman Nicole de Haay said in a statement to CNN.

Elections are not the only target Russia could have in mind. The US government has begun warning about the possibility that Russia could try to attack US critical infrastructure, urging private sector owners and operators to be prepared.

“All businesses, all critical infrastructure owners and operators need to assume that disruptive cyber activity is something that the Russians are thinking about, that are preparing for, that are exploring options, as the President said,” Jen Easterly, director of the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, told CNN late last month.

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