Two different issues—Russian interference in the U.S. election of 2016, and overall U.S. policy toward Russia—too often have been conflated. Donald Trump’s questioning of the interference and his submission to Russian president Vladimir Putin have tainted what in other circumstances would be seen as reasonable and justified engagement with Moscow. Conversely, some observers firmly opposed to Cold War-type confrontation with Russia are so affected by the first type of conflation that they deny the reality of the interference. Both forms of distortion fail to recognize that there is nothing inconsistent, in terms of either logic or policy, in accepting the truth about the interference and its implications, while also accepting the need for constructive diplomacy with Moscow on many other matters.
Even before the special counsel’s most recent indictment, what journalists had uncovered about the cyber portion of the Russian interference effort should have convinced everyone that the subject was no fantasy or witch hunt. Now with this indictment—so remarkably detailed that the Russians must be wondering how much else the United States knows about Russia’s military intelligence activities—there can be no doubt about the hacking portion of the Russian interference program—though Department of Homeland Security chief Kirstjen Nielsen has created fresh controversy on Thursday with her bogus claim, “I haven’t seen any evidence that the attempt to interfere in our election infrastructure was to favor a particular political party.” Any remaining deniers are people who for whatever reason are committed to believing otherwise and refuse to acknowledge that their earlier skepticism was incorrect. Such refusal is found mostly on the political left, especially among those predisposed to doubt anything coming out of a supposed U.S. “deep state.”
The persistent conflation appears not only on the left. For example, the distinguished former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Jack Matlock, in an op-ed written before the most recent indictment, evidently was so distressed by how diplomacy toward Russia has been preempted by the mess involving Trump and the election that he, too, resorted to trying to knock down the intelligence community’s judgments about the interference campaign. An example of how far he stretches in endeavoring to do that is his response to the community’s disavowal of any attempt to assess the impact the Russian activities had on the outcome of the election.
Matlock writes, “Now, how can one judge whether activity ‘interfered’ with an election without assessing its impact? After all, if the activity had no impact on the outcome of the election, it could not be properly termed interference.” But interference is interference, regardless of how much of the intended effect it did or did not have. Even if the effect was significant, the outcome of the 2016 election rested, of course, on much more than just the Russian efforts—including voters’ malaise, Hillary Clinton’s mistakes, James Comey’s announcements, wealthy donors’ campaign contributions, and countless other aspects of domestic politics that the intelligence agencies have no business assessing and quite properly did not try to assess.
The first problem needing attention is overall U.S. policy toward Russia. This is surely one of the most important segments of U.S. foreign policy. There is plenty to talk about with the Russians, from Syria to arms control to Ukraine and much else. A prudent, well-designed, realist policy toward Russia would advance U.S. interests by carefully taking into account where those interests conflict with, and where they parallel, Russian interests, and would judiciously use carrots and sticks designed to induce Russian cooperation. High-level engagement would be part of such a policy but only a part. This is not the sort of policy that was implemented in the ill-prepared meeting in Helsinki. That meeting instead was another show in which Trump claimed that everything was handled horribly until he came along, and that thanks to his brilliance things are now hunky-dory. With nobody else except interpreters in the room, it is as plausible to assume the worst about what took place between the two presidents as to assume the best. It is especially plausible to assume that the interests motivating Trump were the interests of Donald Trump more than the interests of the United States. The meeting was a gift (or a payment) to Putin.
The second problem is Russian interference in the U.S. democratic process. Now that the extensive interference in 2016 is established as a fact, Americans need to reflect deeply on the implications. The further fact that, in my view, Trump has subcontracted his policies at least as much to certain Middle Eastern states as he has to Russia does not diminish the significance of what Russia has done. That much influence by any foreign power, over any U.S. election or any U.S. president, is a corruption of American democracy, as well as being a recipe for policies that are less in the interest of the United States than of the foreign state.