By John Feffer*
The email trove that WikiLeaks released on the eve of the Democratic National Convention has all the hallmarks of a dirty tricks campaign.
The messages reveal, among other things, that the Democratic National Committee tried its best to tilt the electoral playing field in favor of Hillary Clinton. For anyone who has had even the slightest interaction with the Democratic Party — or mainstream politics at all in America — such politicking is nauseating but routine.
More unusual about the revelations is who acquired the information. The proximate source for the WikiLeaks dump is a hacker named Guccifer 2 — not to be confused with the original Guccifer, a Romanian hacker who broke into Hillary Clinton’s email account and is now in a U.S. jail. Guccifer 2 also claims to be Romanian, but his command of the language is weak to non-existent.
Despite Guccifer’s professed hatred of Russian foreign policy, all signs so far point to Russian hands behind this latest hacking scandal. Russian intelligence agencies had apparently been vacuuming up material from within the DNC for a year or so and only went public with the info when they were shut out of the system last month. They created the Guccifer persona to cover their tracks and used WikiLeaks as their messenger.
It’s big news for a foreign entity to try to manipulate U.S. elections. Of course, you could argue that turnaround is fair play. The United States has manipulated many a foreign election in the past.
The problem with this argument is three-fold. First, U.S. meddling in overseas politics is inexcusable. But we need a moratorium on such activities, not acceptance of other countries following suit in a veritable arms race of democratic tampering. Second, if it is indeed behind the latest attack — and no definitive proof has yet emerged — Russia is backing not just a particular political candidate but the first authentic fascist to have a fighting chance of getting to the White House (“fascist” is not used here as an epithet but as the only political science term that accurately captures Trump’s combination of authoritarianism, nationalism, racism, and economic populism).
Third, the hacking scandal is only one of many ways that Russia is rewriting the rules of international engagement. As a failed superpower that retains its membership card in the nuclear club, Russia has affected an outlaw style, like Anonymous or Julian Assange. Instead of direct confrontation, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his team have thrown on masks and skulked in the shadows: “little green men” in Ukraine, an army of Internet trolls posting Kremlin disinformation on websites, implausibly deniable assassinations of critics. It all makes The Americans, the current FX series about KGB sleeper cells in the 1980s, seem all too current.
What complicates the story, of course, is the risk of a new cold war — strike that, a new hot war — between the United States and Russia. The fault line running through Central Europe is extraordinarily dangerous, not to mention superpower competition elsewhere in the world like Syria and the face-off between two nuclear arsenals on hair-trigger alert. The last thing the world needs now, with new terrorist attacks happening every day in a different country, is a cage match between the bear and the bald eagle.
So, here’s the triple challenge: counter Russia’s hactivism, reduce tensions between Washington and Moscow, and prevent the election of America’s homegrown Putin. It’s a tall order. But no one ever said that geopolitics is easy.
The Russian Exception
The Chinese government asserts outrageous claims to the entire South China Sea, cracks down on domestic political dissent, and twists arms in Tibet and Xinjiang. But you won’t find many American commentators — left, right, or center — who try to justify this behavior. Similarly, there are only a few nostalgic revolutionaries who bend over backwards to explain away the defects of Cuban socialism or Venezuelan Chavismo.
But Russia is in a category all its own when it comes to defenders in the United States. Vladimir Putin, a right-wing, homophobic nationalist, has attracted support from the usual like-minded crazies, such as Lyndon LaRouche and Franklin Graham. More unusually, an ideologically diverse and highly credentialed group of Americans has leapt to Putin’s defense, including former DIA head Michael Flynn, former U.S. ambassador to Russia Jim Matlock, and Russia specialist Stephen F. Cohen.
For someone like Matlock to stick up for Putin reflects a thorough disenchantment with Washington’s Russia policy. During the Clinton era, the United States resurrected a containment strategy toward the country when a more cooperative arrangement was both possible and feasible. As one of the first people to document what I called “containment lite,” I am angry as well. But this anger has not blinded me to Putin’s obvious defects.
Other authoritarian symps are more persuaded by the “hegemonic counterforce.” During the Cold War, some anti-imperialists supported the Soviet Union not for ideological reasons but because it was the only geopolitical force strong enough to prevent the United States from running roughshod across the globe. For those today who believe that the United States alone is responsible for all the world’s evils, any country that stands up to the global bully deserves a measure of support.
In this regard, Putin’s brutality is a plus. He has no qualms about adopting the very worst traits of U.S. foreign policy and adding some nefarious innovations of his own.
Russian Foreign Policy
Russian involvement in the politics of other countries doesn’t stop with its recent efforts to tilt the U.S. election away from the woman Putin thinks tried to dislodge him from power back in 2011. Investigations into Russian interference in France, Bulgaria, and Hungary are ongoing. The Kremlin has specifically supported efforts to undermine the cohesion of the European Union, which puts Putin in the company of various far-right Euroskeptic parties like Golden Dawn in Greece, the National Front in France, and Jobbik in Hungary.
Political hacking is only the tip of the tundra. There’s also:
Targeted assassinations: While the United States conducts drone strikes to take out its foreign opponents, the Putin team employs different methods against its domestic foes. Two former KGB agents slipped polonium into the tea of Alexander Litvinenko, a renegade intelligence officer, leading to his painful death by poisoning. Prison guards beat to death Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who stood up to massive Russian tax fraud.
Other critics who have died under mysterious circumstances include opposition politicians Boris Nemtsov and Sergei Yushenkov and journalists Anna Politkovskaya and Paul Klebnikov. Russian officials have routinely pointed to other culprits, particularly Chechens.
Moreover, it has been devilishly difficult to trace culpability to Putin himself. Suffice it to say that standing up to Putinism is a very dangerous occupation.
Cross-border incursions: Russia has long claimed a kind of Monroe Doctrine approach to its “near abroad” — particularly those areas with large numbers of Russian speakers. The Russian government has supported breakaway attempts by such communities in Moldova and Georgia. The case of Ukraine, however, is much more significant because Russian troops have helped to annex part of Ukrainian territory (Crimea) and worked with separatists in the Donbas region to carve off another hunk of the country.
Even if, as critics argue, the United States helped orchestrate a coup in Kiev to oust Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and fascists then took over the government, Russian actions would be suspect (Ukraine, after all, did not declare war on Russia or attack the country). In fact, however, Yanukovych was dislodged by a popular uprising and not a coup, U.S. involvement in this uprising was minimal, and fascists have had only marginal influence on the Ukrainian government (and even less today).
Sure, the country is corrupt, and Ukrainian oligarchs enjoy a great deal of power. But that’s no justification for invasion, any more than leftist orientation justified the Bay of Pigs operation or U.S. efforts to oust the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.
Aerial bombing campaigns: The United States has pioneered the post-Cold War use of aerial bombing to achieve military and political goals on the ground. Russia was relatively new to this game when it started its own bombing campaign in Syria to back the Bashar al-Assad regime and weaken its armed opponents.
Not surprisingly, the Russian campaign has led to the same kind of “collateral damage” as U.S. air strikes. In six months of strikes on such targets as schools, hospitals, and markets, Russian bombers killed as many as 2,000 civilians in Syria in the first six months of the campaign. Despite a pledge to draw down its air strikes, Russian bombing continues, most recently leading to dozens of civilian deaths in the campaign to retake Aleppo.
Expanded military capabilities: Russian military spending has jumped considerably since 2011, when Putin introduced a $700 billion modernization program. The Russian military budget remains a far cry from the Pentagon’s annual allocation — roughly a tenth. Moreover, falling oil prices and sanctions over Ukraine have constrained Russian spending, leading to a 5 percent cut in 2016.
Still, Russia has tried to keep up in asymmetric ways — upgrading its nuclear arsenal and investing in cyberwarfare. Meanwhile, Russia is second only to the United States in its arms sales, and the wars in Ukraine and Syria will boost those exports even more.
Still, the view from Moscow can’t be very reassuring for the Putin team.
NATO has expanded to the very borders of the country. At the most recent summit in Warsaw in July, NATO members agreed to bulk up on the eastern flank with four multinational battalions. The United States will send 1,000 soldiers to Poland, while the UK, Canada, and Germany will send troops to the Baltic countries. The Anakonda 2016 military exercises — which involved 31,000 troops, half of them Americans — no doubt ruffled feathers in the Kremlin. So too did the activation of an anti-missile system in Romania in May (with something similar to go one line in Poland in 2020).
Russia hasn’t simply watched these developments. It has moved troops into its western regions and is preparing to put nuclear-capable missiles in Kaliningrad by 2019. The nuclear weapons of both countries, meanwhile, remain on hair-trigger alert. Neither side has made any commitments to future arms control measures, including de-alerting of nukes.
This buildup of forces and tension in Central Europe is somewhat mitigated by U.S.-Russian cooperation elsewhere in the world. Both countries were involved in negotiating the nuclear deal with Iran. Both countries have negotiated an albeit fragile and frequently violated ceasefire in Ukraine. Secretary of State John Kerry unveiled a recent plan to increase the coordination of intelligence and air strikes in Syria, which hasn’t been particularly popular among European allies. This nascent coordination in fighting terrorism has prompted some Russian experts to speculate about expanding cooperation to other issues.
The speculation isn’t just taking place in Moscow. In his last months in office, President Obama might try a “reset lite” with Russia. As reported in The Washington Post, the administration is considering a number of landmark moves before it leaves office, including a pledge of “no first use” of nuclear weapons, supporting a UN Security Council resolution on a comprehensive nuclear test ban, a scaling back of the nearly trillion-dollar nuclear modernization plan, and an offer to Moscow to extend New START limits for another five years.
The next U.S. president must go beyond arms control and negotiate a new Central European initiative with the countries of the region, Russia, and the European Union. The initiative would combine energy security with demilitarization and provide stability funds so that countries like Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia can substitute economic growth for civil conflict.
So, there is potential to deescalate the emerging cold war. The trick of it is to persuade European allies to go along. And the wild card is the U.S. presidential elections.
Donald Trump is well on his way to securing the endorsements of right-wing populists the world over. Noted Dutch Islamophobe Geert Wilders and Brexit engineer Nigel Farage both showed up at the Republican national convention. Hungary’s Viktor Orban has endorsed the Donald, confident that he “is the best for Europe and for Hungary.”
And then there’s Vladimir Putin. Donald Trump is “a really brilliant and talented person, without any doubt,” Putin told the press. “It’s not our job to judge his qualities, that’s a job for American voters, but he’s the absolute leader in the presidential race.”
For his part, Trump has shown Putin some love as well. He has promised to sit down and negotiate a deal with the Russian leader. He has been lukewarm on the NATO commitment to defend members that have been attacked. And the American oligarch has considerable ties to his Russian counterparts. According to The Washington Post:
Since the 1980s, Trump and his family members have made numerous trips to Moscow in search of business opportunities, and they have relied on Russian investors to buy their properties around the world.
“Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” Trump’s son, Donald Jr., told a real estate conference in 2008, according to an account posted on the website of eTurboNews, a trade publication. “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”
For those who see Trump as a vehicle for an even greater rapprochement with Russia if he gets elected, I caution skepticism. Trump negotiates hard bargains with potential business partners, forcing them to accept weak terms or face expensive lawsuits. Vladimir Putin is not a construction company, a real estate agent, or a would-be entrepreneur. He will not likely accede to Trump’s uninformed bullying.
If Putin stands up to the American behemoth as he has done in the past, but this time one presided over by Donald Trump, the new president will not likely take the slight in stride. “When people wrong you, go after those people, because it is a good feeling and because other people will see you doing it,” he wrote in The Art of the Deal. “I love getting even.”
This time around, Trump won’t just have lawsuits to throw at the recalcitrant. He’ll have nuclear weapons at his disposal.
So, to return to the triple challenge, deescalating U.S.-Russian tensions is not enough. Nor is simply countering Russia’s hacking of geopolitics to gain asymmetric advantages. Even defeating Trump is not sufficient. When it comes to the United States and Russia, it will require a package deal.
In 1975, the United States, the Soviet Union, and the countries of Europe negotiated a grand compromise on sovereignty, human rights, arms control, and educational exchanges. The Helsinki Accords proved that compromise was possible even during the Cold War.
We desperately need a Helsinki Accords of the 21st century.
*John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus.