Russian Election Interference for Dummies

This article is not intended for those of us with at least half a functional brain.  Instead, it is intended for the more immature, intellectually-speaking, among us who believe that Russia and their leader, Vladimir Putin, actually preferred Donald Trump to be President over Hillary Clinton.  Their reason?  Trump made some flattering comments about Putin on the campaign trail.  Their entire narrative is based on the “Bromance theory of geopolitics.”

So…Once upon a time there was this country called Russia.  It was so large, it spread across two continents- Europe and Asia- just as it does today.  It was ruled over by people called “czars,” who were basically kings.  Some were better than others, but they all shared one thing in common: a strong sense of nationalism and when they believed their interests were threatened, they usually acted.  In fact, they usually interfered in the politics of foreign nations and empires.  When the Ottomans were defeated, they even negotiated a treaty where Russia can legally interfere in the policies of the Ottoman Empire under certain conditions.  Through marriage, war, treaties, alliances and other means, Russia interfered in the politics of other nations.  Some say that Russia interfering in foreign politics is in their DNA.

No one really cared that much since it was all “over there” across the Atlantic.  Then in 1917, the Bolsheviks chased the czars from power and thus began the Russian period under Communist rule.  In fact, they changed their name to the USSR.  Under the Commies, especially after World War II, they began to export their ideology around the world and interfere in political debates and elections.  They even managed to recruit Democratic icon, US Senator and secretary-killer Ted Kennedy into their fold.

But, like all bad things, the USSR began to crumble.  They lost all of the European countries they formerly controlled and countries long forgotten but part of “the USSR” began to pop up.  Of course, old ethnic tensions surfaced, especially in the Balkans.  Under Bill Clinton, the US intervened much to the chagrin of the Russians.  Then 9/11 happened and Russia was the first to call the US, express concern and offer support.  But, the Russians were all too aware that even though Communism had fallen, the US was not supportive of Russia in the Balkans.  This angered and upset and humiliated some Russians.

Then Bush invaded Iraq and refused to show reciprocal support for Russian initiatives in Chechnya, Georgia and the Ukraine.  It was around this time that an obscure former KGB dude named Vladimir Putin began emerged to the point he became the leader of the country.  Riding a wave of anti-American sentiment who they viewed as the source of their humiliation, he was elected to the top job in Russia on a promise of restoring Russian pride.  If there is anything that can get your average Russian’s blood pressure amped up, it an appeal to national Russian pride.  And boy did Putin do that.

Things were good for a while under Putin.  His country had huge reserves of energy and he exported them, even using energy exports as leverage against European countries.  Then, the bottom fell out on oil and natural gas prices.  Russia spun into recession.  Part of this was due to the fact the United States became one of the largest energy producing countries in the world.  You remember the United States- the country that humiliated Russia and slighted its pride?

Putin looked around and saw Russia humiliated at the hands of the US.  They were taking over Europe by stretching the bounds of NATO to Russia’s very doorstep.  That barrier between the heathen West and Russia- the Eastern bloc- was falling into Western hands.  He saw that he could not compete with the United States militarily or economically, but he can thwart Western designs on his doorstep.  First it was the Ukraine, then Georgia, then the Crimea and then Ukraine again.  Then Syria in the Middle East where the US was the only power player at the time.  Of course, this brought about condemnation from the world and sanctions and some bombastic rhetoric at the UN, but little else.

Because when you get down to brass tacks, no one really cares about the Ukraine, or Georgia or the Crimea except Russia.  And because Putin knows no one really cares, Russians are still in the Ukraine, the Crimea and Georgia.  All that talk and all those sanctions haven’t changed that reality.  So what’s a good Putin to do?  CORRECT- push the envelope, but how if he couldn’t compete economically or militarily with the West?  “I know,” he thought one day after reading some 19th century Russian poetry, “I’ll interfere in their elections and if I’m lucky, I’ll get someone elected who is more to my way of thinking.”

And so began the Russian foray into cyberspace.  First, they managed to hack an election reporting service in the Ukraine.  Thankfully, someone caught the misdeed, and the false returns while voting was going on were never reported.  Then they upped the ante by being mischievous and shutting down websites of those they didn’t like such as that of Gary Kasparov- a leading dissident.  They went after the site of investigative reporter David Satter.   The more they interfered, the more savvy they became.

So they began to selectively target certain political figures in foreign elections.  They managed to obtain some damaging German legislative documents that have yet to be published.  They went after officials in Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia even to the point of some pro-Russian people being elected.  It happened in Austria, the Netherlands, France and England.  But there was the granddaddy of them all in 2016- the United States.

Although the United States is rightfully considered the leader of the free world, it is our democratic institutions of which we are most proud.  There are no coups or riots after elections.  The peaceful transfer of power- sometimes between people and parties who represent policies and ideals at polar opposites- is what sets us apart from other countries.  It is what makes the United States great and unique among nations.

It is also a fact not lost on a devious mind like Putin.  What if he could sow the seeds of discord and attack that underlying faith in the democratic process that Americans place so much emphasis on?  After all, he had the tools- his army of Internet trolls and bots at his ready command.  What could it hurt?  And so he did.

Of course, this does not explain why Putin would want Trump to be President rather than Hillary Clinton.  The answer is simple: Putin cared a rat’s ass about who was President of the United States.  For all he cared, it could have been Bernie Sanders.

In fact, it would make greater logical and intuitive sense to want Clinton as President.  His economy is energy-dependent and as long as Trump was insisting to unleash the might of American domestic reserves, it served to the detriment of Russia.  Clinton, on the other hand, was a lackey of the environmental Left in America which would be to Putin’s advantage.  Trump was talking about building up and unleashing the military, something else he knew Clinton would never do and he knew Russia could ill-afford another costly arms race with the United States.

Thus on the two most important things to Russia- energy and the military- Clinton would have been the preferred candidate.  But, there was another reason: Putin was familiar with Hillary Clinton.  For four years as she trotted the globe as Secretary of State achieving nothing, Putin had moved in Europe and beyond.  He played Clinton like the proverbial fiddle and even managed to get 20% of American uranium reserves in Russian control…with Clinton’s blessing.  Throw in a few million here and there to the Clinton Foundation and it makes greater sense Putin and Russia would want Clinton to win.

There was, however, another motivation behind Putin’s actions: although Clinton could be manipulated, he despised her. He blamed her for the demonstrations against his rule in 2010 and 2011 and there is evidence her State Department sowed the seeds of those demonstrations.  A country humiliated often strikes out with revenge on those they believe did the humiliating.  In Putin, that humiliation was amplified as he twice saw his political ambitions thwarted by democratic processes- once under her husband as President.

So how does a leader like Putin in a country like Russia exact revenge?  You pull down faith in the democratic process while pulling down the prospective next leader of that country.  Everything out of Russia at the time showed they fully expected Clinton to win the Presidency.

Putin’s actions were not designed to get Trump elected.  The belief that a person like Putin would be swayed by the comments of Donald Trump on the campaign trail is the most infantile analysis on Russian motives out there.

We are constantly reminded that Russia is not our friend.  Let me amend that: Russia was never our friend.  History confirms this fact just as it confirms the fact that Russia has a long history of interference in foreign elections.  That historical fact is insignificant.  What is significant is the sophistication of their meddling in 2016.  In a few short years, they have gone from spoofing elections returns to targeting key officials in foreign countries.

There is a bigger question out there.  Knowing and realizing this, what are we going to do about it going forward?  Are we going to waste time with Special Counsels chasing ghosts, or are we going to retaliate as asymmetrically as the Russians attack?  Or are we, as Putin expects, going to condemn, make speeches and bring about ineffective sanctions?  We know what we would have gotten with Clinton.  Not knowing what you’ll get with Trump may be the best weapon out there.

And you know Putin will do it again.  Next year, he will win another six-year term as leader of Russia so we have to deal with him until 2024.  He’ll do it again, this time with even more sophistication, because 2016 played out beyond his wildest dreams.  The despised Hillary lost, an unpopular president sits in the White House having any agenda thwarted while the media perpetuates a false narrative of his motivations.  Because we are not addressing what to do about the next time, there is only one conclusion: Putin won round one- the 2016 election.

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