When Vladimir Putin looked ahead after the 2012 election to who might succeed Barack Obama, he faced the unpalatable prospect of a President Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio. Putin knew Clinton well, of course. As Secretary of State she had aggressively supported the Ukrainian pro-democracy movement that had ousted the Putin-controlled government in 2011. Putin saw both Bush and Rubio as traditional anti-Putin, pro-democracy, Republican hawks. He knew he needed to change the American political landscape; and he has.
Putin’s ensuing plan was not about Donald Trump; it was not even primarily focused on the 2016 presidential election. This is a point that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein sought to emphasize at a press conference this week, where he laid out the range of Russian intelligence strategies targeting our political system. Rather, Putin’s plan was — and continues to be — about Russian sovereignty over Ukraine and Crimea, and Putin’s longstanding determination to break down the post-World War II international order and reassert Russia’s authority over territory it lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union. And it is about the United States’ long-standing opposition to his ambitions.
Buried among all the sturm und drang this week among Republicans, particularly in the U.S. Senate, about whether Donald Trump could be forced to utter the magic words “Russia meddled in our election,” was the criminal complaint filed by the Department of Justice against Russian spy Maria Butina. Together with the indictment a week ago of twelve Russian intelligence officers by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the documents filed in Federal Court continue to flesh out the breadth of Russian intelligence operations targeting the United States. Those filings also illustrate the extent of electronic evidence — online activities, emails, texts, etc. — that is available to FBI counterintelligence investigators as they seek to track what has been going on.
In marked contrast to Trump’s continuing efforts to deny or downplay accusations of Russian election meddling, Rod Rosenstein emphasized that while Putin’s intelligence operations targeted the 2016 election, the scope was far broader. “Focusing merely on a single election misses the point.” Rosenstein argued this week. “These actions are persistent, they are pervasive, and they are meant to undermine America’s democracy on a daily basis, regardless of whether it is election time or not.” An FBI affidavit filed in the Butina case fleshed out Rosenstein’s warning: “Moscow seeks to create wedges that reduce trust and confidence in democratic processes, degrade democratization efforts, weaken U.S. partnerships with European allies, undermine Western sanctions, encourage anti-U.S. political views, and counter efforts to bring Ukraine and other former Soviet states into European institutions.”
The cunning irony of the Putin’s mix of strategies targeted against the U.S., as well as against several European countries, is that those strategies mirror the pro-democracy efforts that the U.S. and its allies have been pursuing in the states of the former Soviet Union since the end of the Cold War. The efforts of the U.S. and its allies to transform the autocratic norms and political culture of the former Soviet bloc focused on building institutions of civil society. Building the infrastructure of civil society was seen to be a critical step in developing the social trust necessary to allow those countries to successfully migrate toward liberal democracy. In contrast, a central objective of Putin’s intelligence operations against the U.S. and western democracies has been to break down institutions of civil society and undermine trust across social groups, and in so doing sever the ties that bind democratic societies together.
As Rod Rosenstein laid them out this week, Putin’s efforts are wide ranging, and several have proven to be highly effective. Russia’s use of Facebook and other social media platforms to instigate social distrust, propagate conspiracy theories, and exacerbate sectarian, racial and other divisions, has been widely recognized. Another approach, described in Mueller’s recent indictment, involved stealing internal Democratic Party electronic communications and using information found there to sow discord and exacerbate divisions between Clinton and Sanders supporters, and ultimately push Sanders supporters away from Clinton on Election Day. Both strategies met with some degree of success. As Russian cyber operatives anticipated, we eagerly take the bait on social media, where we have learned to turn on each other with a vengeance. And one factor in Clinton’s electoral defeat in 2016 is the number of Sanders supporters in critical states who either voted for Trump or declined to vote at all.
Maria Butina: One Part The Americans, One Part Red SparrowThe intelligence operation with Maria Butina at its center represents a third kind of strategy. Dating back to at least to 2013, the operation described in the criminal complaint filed this week reads like one part The Americans and one part Red Sparrow. Posing as a gun-lover, Butina’s marching orders from Moscow Center were to cultivate relationships with key pro-Republican operatives and groups and promote pro-Russian views. The operational objective was to use those groups as inroads to the Republican Party, to soften the GOP party platform and attitudes toward Russia. As described in the court filing, Butina successfully seduced — both literally and figuratively — key Republican operatives, and gained access to and influence with leaders of the National Rifle Association, the former conservative — now Trumpian — activist group CPAC, as well as religious groups that sponsor the National Prayer Breakfast. Those pro-Republican advocacy groups, in turn, became assets of Russian intelligence in its efforts to push the national Republican Party toward a more pro-Russia stance. Shortly after Election Day, in what could have been a culminating moment for the operation, Butina apparently helped to kill the looming appointment of Mitt Romney — who was noted for his anti-Russian views — as Secretary of State.
As with the strategies described above, this approach appears to have been effective. The Republican Party platform committee did remove anti-Russia, pro-Ukraine language, and both the NRA and a number of prominent religious leaders became publicly engaged with Russia. Whatever the combination of factors might have been, Pew Research data suggests that over the past several years the percent of Republicans who view Russia as a threat to the United States declined significantly, from 58% to 38%. Of course, attitudes among Democrats have moved in the opposite direction.
It is too soon to know how enduring Putin’s efforts will prove to be in destabilizing our democracy. Perhaps, in time, it could have the opposite effect; public blowback against Trumpism and the exposure of Putin’s strategies could actually strengthen our democracy.
Whether or not Russia’s intelligence operations turn out to have an enduring impact on our politics, it is increasingly clear that they did impact results in 2016. In his new memoir, Facts and Fears: Hard Truths from a Life in Intelligence, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper makes the case that Russia’s efforts did affect the results in 2016. “Of course the Russian efforts affected the outcome. Surprising even themselves, they swung the election to a Trump win. To conclude otherwise stretches logic, common sense, and credulity to the breaking point. Less than eighty thousand votes in three key states swung the election. I have no doubt that more votes than that were influenced by this massive effort by the Russians.”
Clapper’s assessment flies in the face of the stock Republican talking points, which Paul Ryan reiterated this week. “Russia meddled,” Ryan conceded, but then quickly added the standard Republican codicil that “it’s also clear that it did not have a material effect on our elections.” But as more information is being made public about the range of Russian operations affecting the 2016 election, Ryan’s stock assertion is becoming less and less credible.
This does not mean that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia’s efforts. Whether Russian intelligence operatives penetrated the Trump campaign, or whether Trump and others otherwise actively colluded with them, remains to be seen. However, based on the extensive electronic surveillance data presented in the court filings over the past two weeks, it is becoming increasingly evident that if the Trump campaign colluded with Russian intelligence, Robert Mueller will have access to that information.
Either way, as Trump rampaged across Europe this week — alienating our friends, undermining our alliances, and lending tacit support to Russia’s occupation of Crimea — at each stop along the way, he seemed to do something that supported Putin’s goals, as summed up in the FBI affidavit. Putin’s plans may have predated Trump’s arrival on the scene, but — knowingly or otherwise, blackmail or no blackmail — Donald Trump is proving to be the greatest gift that Vladimir Putin could have hoped for.
Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of “FedExit: Why Federalism is Not Just For Racists Anymore.”
Artwork by Jay Duret. Check out his political cartooning at www.jayduret.com. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.