Russia Is Neither Friend Nor Foe

St. Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow. Flickr/Creative Commons/Sammy Six

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.)

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.

The Nuland affair demonstrated that Russia would be more inclined, in the future, to use these tools of shadowy interception and transmission against the United States—not only where America and Russia engaged in geopolitical competition in the former Soviet space, but ultimately in the West itself—including in both European and American politics. In other words, in the game of international political influence, Russia would no longer confine herself to the former Warsaw Pact and Soviet bloc nations.

Yet the Nuland leak was worth only a few days’ news stories, and then disappeared from consciousness. It apparently did not lead many in Washington to change their communication habits or to recognize that Russia might have an interest in finding more ways to publicize divergences between public statements and private realities of U.S. political figures in the hopes of generating embarrassment—in particular, in being able to expose to raw public view the private hypocrisy on which modern politics depends. It did not lead to any new appreciation for Russia’s ability to wield the tools of both cyber and soft power—based on a mix of dismissiveness of Russian capabilities and a misplaced faith that America was somehow an exceptional country in which such methods would somehow not work or bear influence.

Beyond that, this incident did not lead to any fundamental re-evaluation both of the utility of American efforts to influence the choice of leaders in other countries of the world or of the trajectory of U.S.-Russia relations. It is difficult to look at recent events in Ukraine, Iraq, Afghanistan, or even places like South Sudan—where U.S. diplomacy and pressure has been marshalled to encourage, cajole or prod the deposition or selection of leaders—and to see how precisely such efforts have benefited American strategic interests or even been successful in producing stable governments. Often, the long-term trajectory seems to be negative. Nor is there much assessment of the utility of U.S. support. Indeed, research released by Italy’s Banca Monte Dei Paschi suggests that Obama’s public statements of support for Renzi may in fact have contributed to the defeat of the recent referendum.

The Nuland incident should also have forced a serious conversation about U.S.-Russia strategic competition. That—along with Putin’s very revealing “spring” speech after the annexation of Crimea later that year—were very clear indications that the course of U.S. policy was at odds with Russian strategic preferences. If the clash was not desired, then a policy of recalibration was in order—including talks about new “rules of the road” for conduct in a variety of realms including cyberspace. If the clash was seen as unavoidable because of how U.S. interests were conceived, then actions taken afterwards were quite confusing. In Ukraine, the U.S. did enough to spoil relations with Russia but far too little to ensure the success of the Maidan movement. Efforts to combat Russian cyber and information operations were left unfunded or shut down. There were plenty of critiques about Russian behavior in Syria but nothing to change Moscow’s underlying calculus.

Similarly, the discussion today about how to respond lacks a certain strategic seriousness. Some political figures casually toss out grave consequences, up to even military strikes, to punish Russia for its supposed interference. Others continue to cling to fantasies that the U.S. can dispense sanctions on these matters yet retain complete Russian cooperation in other areas that are of importance to the United States.

Moving forward, the U.S. has several different options. After each major cyber incident over the past several years that is attributed to Russian sources, the Kremlin makes a call for codifying international practices that would restrict what countries can do in cyberspace. The U.S. has traditionally resisted such calls because preserving America’s freedom of action is more important for achieving U.S. interests and objectives. Accepting that Russia (and other countries) now have similar capabilities to influence U.S. developments may be one price to pay, just as the United States has had to accept the loss of its earlier monopoly on drone technologies. Alternatively, the United States could re-ramp up efforts to more effectively identify and combat such efforts at home, while enforcing stricter cyber and digital security and changing the habits of many Washingtonians who otherwise prefer to conduct their business via interceptable e-mails and mobile calls, to reduce vulnerabilities. The United States could make efforts by other government to influence U.S. elections in such fashion the central organizing principle of its relations—and to be prepared to pay the costs in other areas.

But in the end, the new Trump administration—as well as the U.S. Congress—need to come face to face with the difficult reality that Russia will not be a friend but does not need to be a foe. To repeat what I wrote in these pages two weeks ago, it requires an understanding of what areas of U.S.-Russia relations are essential to U.S. interests, and where such cooperation can be jettisoned because of Russian actions in other theaters. It also requires wrestling with difficult questions of where to seek compromises with Russia and where to stand firm. The review process can only be successful if the new team is willing to make these calls based on its assessment of U.S. values and interests, a sober assessment of Russian strengths and weaknesses and an understanding of where Moscow may be induced to show flexibility and where the Kremlin will stand firm. This requires, in the end, an understanding both of the costs America is willing to pay—and the limits of what can be demanded of Russia.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a contributing editor at the National Interest, is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. The views expressed here are his own personal assessments.

Image: St. Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow. Flickr/Creative Commons/Sammy Six

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