Russia Is Neither Friend Nor Foe

Russia Is Neither Friend Nor Foe

There is no basis for any claims about a “stolen” presidential election.

There is no basis for any claims about a “stolen” presidential election. Nobody stole anything. No Russian operatives altered ballots or tampered with election machines, which is why the Obama administration itself has declared that state-by-state election results “reflect the will of the people.”  

Was Russia able to—or intent upon—ensuring the victory of Donald Trump by, among other things, hacking into the Democratic National Committee computers? Meddling is one thing. Questions of intent and culpability, however, are not as easy to answer as some of Trump’s detractors would have it. Congressional investigations to explore what did, and did not, happen are perfectly appropriate, as long as they proceed in a genuine spirit of inquiry rather than attempting to ratify preexisting beliefs.

Indeed, any investigation would have to take into account that Washington itself has in the past tried to influence foreign elections, including in Russia during the 1990s. This is not to posit a symmetry between America, a democracy, and Russian, an authoritarian state. But it is notable that nearly all of the discussion about Russian hacking—with the exception of some experts who had been warning about these trends developing over the last several years—is taking place with an attitude that the November 2016 election is the equivalent of Captain Renault in Casablanca who is "shocked" to discover that gambling is taking place in Rick's Café Americain.

The most basic question is this: why is anyone surprised that the government of the Russian Federation might have had an interest in the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election? This is basic International Relations 101—countries have interests in the choices other nations make in terms of their leadership and policies based on whether they think they will be good or bad for their own welfare. This is why President Barack Obama urged British voters to reject leaving the European Union and supported the referendum in Italy on constitutional reform backed by his political ally Prime Minister Matteo—because keeping the UK in the EU and strengthening the Italian central government were both important to U.S. efforts to stabilize European affairs. (In both cases, Obama’s preferred outcomes were defeated at the polls by British and Italian voters.) In the U.S. campaign, one candidate signaled an openness to searching for common ground with Moscow, while the other indicated that U.S. policy would take an even harder line against Russian interests.

Thus, former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul noted that it was “very rational” that Vladimir Putin might prefer to see Donald Trump become President of the United States in place of Hillary Clinton, on the expectation that a Trump administration might pursue U.S. polices more amenable to Russian interests. Similar calculations seem to have been made by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Israel, while, in a number of Central and East European countries, there was a strong preference for a Clinton victory.

The question becomes more problematic, however, when we move from the “interest” which another country may have in election outcomes to whether that country seeks to “influence” the outcome of the vote and the types of methods used to project that influence. When do steps taken beyond mere public statements of support for a candidate or policy position cross the line into illegitimate interference in the domestic political affairs of another country? While the United States does have laws on the books which address the question of direct financial support of U.S. candidates from overseas sources, what about support in the informational sector—particularly the use of media and cyber tools?

Much of the current discussion instead focuses on whether persons and entities either belonging to or working in the employ of the Russian government interfered in the campaign by intercepting and stealing private, confidential communications of U.S. officials and politicians and providing that material to media outlets, while simultaneously using other media organs under the control or patronage of the Russian state to disseminate a mix of fact and fiction into the overall international media bloodstream—all with the intent to damage the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton and boost the electoral chances of Donald Trump.

To what extent this occurred, and to what extent it was responsible for Trump’s narrow victory, is what is now under debate. Given that Secretary Clinton lost an election she was overwhelmingly favored to win, the narrative of foreign interference may be a welcome balm to assuage a sense of failure among her supporters, but it should also not detract from the many missteps of her campaign—including ignoring former President Bill Clinton’s prophetic advice not to ignore key Rust Belt constituencies and the white working-class vote. Quantifying the effect that leaked e-mails from the Democratic National Committee and senior campaign staff or that news stories calling into question Clinton’s health had on the overall vote is difficult to accomplish. As best as can be ascertained, alleged Russian assistance in obtaining and forwarding information helped to confirm pre-existing American voters’ concerns about Clinton, notably her reliability and honesty. Against another prospective Democratic nominee—Vice President Joe Biden, for instance—such efforts would have had much less impact. Nevertheless, the existence of evidence pointing to Russian efforts needs to be clarified and assessed, and to be part of the calculus about the future of U.S.-Russia relations—as well as on U.S. government policy about its own efforts to influence other countries’ political systems.

It is unfortunate, however, that so much of this discussion occurs in such an ahistorical context. If the United States national security establishment and the mainstream media had a series of serious conversations a few years back—when a clear warning shot was fired across the bow—we might not be in this position today with the credibility of both U.S. political and media institutions on the line—and with the possibility that the prediction of a second Cold War between Moscow and Washington has now become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In February 2014, a mobile telephone conversation between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, having been intercepted by entities unknown but largely assumed to be acting on behalf of Russian interests, was leaked to the media. The Nuland-Pyatt exchanges, which the State Department, when given the opportunity, declined to characterize as "inauthentic", revealed that, contrary to public U.S. statements, Washington was playing more of a role in trying to direct the course of events in Ukraine, and in particular to guide the leadership of the Maidan protest movement. This included by-name discussions about which Ukrainian politicians the United States wanted to see in any new government—including prospective prime ministerial candidates. As the BBC’s diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus commented, despite official proclamations that the United States would let the Ukrainian people decide their own future, the transcript demonstrated that “the US has very clear ideas about what the outcome should be and is striving to achieve these goals.”

The conversation was also personally embarrassing to Nuland, because it broadcast her use of colorful language to disparage the efforts of the European Union to bring about a peaceful settlement of the Ukraine crisis—and raised questions in both Brussels as well as many European capitals if there was indeed a gap between what the Assistant Secretary was saying publicly and to them versus what she really thought and was trying to achieve as a matter of policy. The leak even temporarily ruffled U.S.-European relations, with German chancellor Angela Merkel declaring that she found "these remarks totally unacceptable." It also suggested that the U.S. government was not going to let a Ukrainian political process work itself out but would play an active role in determining outcomes, and felt confident that it had levers at its disposal to ensure compliance.

In this incident, we saw several different factors coalesce. One was to put American officials on notice that it was foolhardy to place their trust in relatively flimsy cyber and digital defenses of their mobile and computing devices which could be overwhelmed by a determined party. The second was the effort to exposure the gap between public idealistic rhetoric and private, behind-the-scenes maneuvering. The Nuland disclosures would not have been found embarrassing or dishonorable by Prince Metternich or Talleyrand, who accepted as a matter of course that great powers should be able to move smaller states and their leaders around like pieces on a chessboard (after all, this is how the royal family of Greece was selected!)—but they posed problems precisely because they did not easily fit within a narrative of democracy promotion and American virtue. Finally, it was a warning—that Moscow was watching—and learning—from U.S. actions. After all, even prior to the Ukraine crisis of 2014, many Russians had had up front experience with how American operatives and media interventions (even if operating as private individuals and organizations) could sway elections in Russia, notably during the 1996 fight between Boris Yeltsin and Gennady Zyuganov. Moreover, the Russians—as well as many other countries around the world—do not recognize the niceties of a U.S. system where government grants are dispensed to quasi-non-governmental organizations (the various Institutes for democracy assistance or media outlets like the various “free radios”) but are inclined to view their activities as directed inspired by the U.S. government.