It could include direct attacks on U.S. electoral infrastructure among a wide range of options, the sources said.
There is no evidence that Putin has made a decision to interfere in the upcoming elections or that he has preferred candidates, the sources said. Attempting hacks on the voting infrastructure would also not be easy because voting systems in the US are so diffuse and decentralized.
But where Putin was previously less willing to try to interfere directly with state voting systems – instead choosing to order voter registration scans and conduct influence campaigns to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election – intelligence officials say Putin may now be willing. to go further than in previous interference efforts.
“When we exert pressure, and as Ukraine exerts pressure, he will certainly expand the options he would consider,” said a source who briefed on the intelligence community’s assessments. “So what could he do? I do not think there was any real conclusion to that. Just a consideration of a wide range of things.”
Another source familiar with the intelligence said one of the possibilities could be “direct attacks on electoral infrastructure”, reflecting “a change in Putin’s risk tolerance that we have seen with his invasion of Ukraine.”
A US official made it clear that the assessments were not based on direct intelligence.
“We have no direct intelligence that Russia seeks to target state, local or electoral systems more directly than before, but we certainly anticipate the possibility. We will continue to actively share any intelligence about increased threats with state and local officials we receive. that, “the official told CNN.
Putin is more willing to take risks
The intelligence community has made understanding Putin’s thinking a priority since early in the invasion, sources with knowledge of internal considerations told CNN. Raw assessments have pointed to his increasingly unpredictable behavior, and US officials believe Putin is more willing to consider taking risks because of his anger over Russia’s failures in Ukraine – something his advisers, officials say, have not told him. the full truth, did. do not prepare him for.
Lawmakers were briefed by intelligence officials last week on Putin’s calculation of potential influence operations, according to another U.S. official familiar with the briefing.
The briefing acknowledged that if Putin were to shift his focus to inflicting damage outside Ukraine, the US midterm elections this year are a possible target for Russian operators, according to the US official. Russian actors also tried to influence the elections in 2016 and 2020.
The briefing did not suggest that there was specific intelligence that said the Kremlin would target US elections, according to the official, but rather that elections are one of several areas the Russian government could target for influence operations in response to the war in Ukraine.
“If Putin feels backed into a corner, he can turn his cyber forces in any number of directions,” the U.S. official said, adding that officials are on alert due to U.S. midterm elections this year.
While it would be difficult for Russia to manipulate voter turnout, another source noted that Russia would not need to change many, if any, votes “to question the security of the entire voting system.”
Although Russian hacking efforts did not affect the outcome at all, it could be a victory enough to sow chaos and distrust of the voting systems, said another source.
On the question of the assessments, the office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment.
“Our election threats continue to lead the intelligence community’s efforts against foreign threats to US elections,” ODNI spokeswoman Nicole de Haay said in a statement to CNN.
Elections are not the only goal Russia could have in mind. The US government has begun warning of the possibility that Russia may try to attack US critical infrastructure, and urges private sector owners and operators to be prepared.