By Paul Goble
Many in Russia and the West who are now celebrating the appearance of the Mueller report on the activities of Russian trolls in the United States media space during the 2016 elections have failed to reflect how Moscow is certain to exploit this report to further repress its critics inside the Russian Federation.
This report, the US-based Russian historian says, precisely by limiting its indictments to 13 individuals and three organizations who exploited the possibilities of the Internet to try to influence the American election provides Moscow with a real opportunity to turn the tables on those who are praising it (ivpavlova.blogspot.com/2018/02/blog-post_18.html).
On the one hand, she suggests, Russian commentators will have every reason to play up the notion that “the most powerful country in the world” simply couldn’t cope with a small group of Internet trolls who simply made use of the possibilities for anonymity and duplicity which the Internet offers to many.
Moreover, Pavlova points out, the Mueller report appears to suggest that virtually unknown Russian trolls “even with 100,000 followers on Facebook could by their texts and advertisements” count the influence of Hollywood actors … who have not thousands but millions of followers” and who with rare exceptions opposed to the man the trolls supported.
This will give Moscow propagandists the opportunity to ask questions that will make the US look incompetent at best and pathetic at worst, incapable of dealing with the new virtual reality and apparently so weak that a baker’s dozen of trolls could determine the outcome of elections. Many Moscow mouthpieces have already started to do just that.
But on the other hand, the Russian historian continues, “the consequences of this step will be very serious for critics of the existing Russian regime who today, without reflecting very much, support with enthusiasm Mueller’s bill of indictment.” They will sooner than they can imagine have reason to regret their stance.
Now, in the wake of the Mueller report, “the Russian authorities on a legal basis, citing this document, have received the right to block any negative comments about Russia from the outside, presenting them as interference not only in their elections but in general in the internal affairs of the country, interference directed at undermining ‘Russian democracy.’”
And this is without mentioning “the additional problems that await those organizations which up to now the US finances to promote liberal values.”
Pavlova is right to warn about how Moscow may try to turn the tables on the US and on Russian critics by using the Mueller report. But there are three caveats to her argument that must be made.
First, throughout his career, Mueller has followed the time-tested model of pursuing a conspiracy, starting from the outside and working in. This is thus the first and not the last report he’ll be issuing. Others will involve the direct links between the Kremlin and the trolls and between Moscow and American political figures.
Because that is the case, if Moscow does try to exploit the report in the way Pavlova suggests, that effort may blow up in its face.
Second, Mueller is also almost certain to follow another time-tested model of researching this kind of criminal activity – by “following the money.” Someone paid for these trolls and their operation, and in Putin’s Russia, however murky the authorities may try to make it, the only plausible source of such funds is the Kremlin and its allies.
That too will come out, if not immediately than in the coming weeks and months.
And third, it is important to remember that in American law – and indeed, in the laws of most countries – those who attempt a crime are held responsible almost as much as those who succeed. The Russian trolls had some influence on Americans but likely far less than they claim or than others fear. But the key point is that they tried to undermine the American political system.
For that, they will be found guilty, just as those who try but fail to kill someone will be found guilty as well.