Back in 1983, a series of NATO wargames entitled Able Archer ’83 very nearly engulfed the world in a nuclear holocaust. While Western allies were diligently performing their drills and gaming out the reactions of OPFOR (opposing force), a seriously ill Andropov was surrounded by a handful of Soviet generals with the authorization codes ready to go at a moment’s notice.
Should Andropov chose to initiate a first strike in response to what appeared to the Soviets as NATO movements to initiate World War Three, you more than likely would not be reading this today.
Against the advice of his advisors and the criticism of the media, then-President Ronald Reagan took the steps to reach out, first to Andropov, and then to his successor — Mikhail Gorbachev. Slowly, but not smoothly, the two world leaders warmed up to one another. The next eight years of Gorbachev’s leadership would be catastrophic for the Soviet Union, but for the world stage it would inch us back from the perils of nuclear conflict.
Promises Made; Promises Broken
This week, President Donald Trump met with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin for a frank conversation about U.S.-Russian relations. In truth, the relationship is perhaps at its lowest point since the early-to-mid 1980s, with a 25-year span of broken promises made to Russia by the West culminating in the Maidan “coup” of late 2013 and early 2014.
Coup is a strong word. Yet that is precisely what occurred in the Ukraine in 2013 when a democratically elected (yet corrupt and pro-Russian) government was toppled in a “democratic uprising” similar to what was attempted in Libya, Egypt, Syria, and finally the Ukraine.
Clearly the Russians have an opinion on the matter. What is also clear is that the United States was actively involved in managing outcomes in the Ukraine as the Maidan coup was under way, to the point of high level Obama administration officials sounding off “F*ck the EU” on telephone calls recorded and then released by the Russian government.
Precisely how open was American support for the Maidan coup? U.S. Senator John McCain himself traveled to Kiev in December 2013 to announce to the Maidan protesters that the United States backed their “just cause” to rebel against the democratically elected pro-Russian government. Seumas Milne in the UK Guardian summarized the point nicely:
When the Ukrainian president was replaced by a US-selected administration, in an entirely unconstitutional takeover, politicians such as William Hague brazenly misled parliament about the legality of what had taken place: the imposition of a pro-western government on Russia’s most neuralgic and politically divided neighbour.
Putin bit back, taking a leaf out of the US street-protest playbook – even though, as in Kiev, the protests that spread from Crimea to eastern Ukraine evidently have mass support. But what had been a glorious cry for freedom in Kiev became infiltration and insatiable aggression in Sevastopol and Luhansk.
What has happened since 2014 has been one series of reactions after another. With the Russian government’s only warm water port at Tartus under threat by the Syrian Civil War — another Obama-led experiment in the use of “soft power” to instigate regime change — Russian tanks rolled into the Crimea just two months later in February 2014. By March, the rump state dubbed the Republic of the Crimea had merged with the Russian Federation much as Texas had declared independence and welded itself to the United States in the 1840s.
Yet the Russians were not done yet. After securing a second warm-water port at Sevastopol, the now-infamous “little green men” had begun to infiltrate the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, a portion that is heavily Russian and forms the old territory of “Novorossyia” taken from the Crimean Tartars and settled by the Russian Empire in the late 18th century.
Ukraine’s armed forces attempted to reassert order and were smashed at Zellenopillya by the Donbass rebels, most likely with the assistance of the Russian military. Two battalions were practically wiped out in 10 minutes. The Ukranians regrouped and tried again in January 2015, only to be smashed at Debaltseve with the remainder of the Ukrainian Army — about 6,000 to 8,000 men — straggling out of the pocket.
If this seems like a rather poor ROI on a $5bn investment in Ukrainian military infrastructure and hardware, it did not to unnoticed by the wider world. From Hamburg’s Die Zeit newspaper:
Victoria Nuland, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, spoke of $5 billion, or €4.5 billion, for Ukraine in a call to the American ambassador in Kiev on January 28, 2014 (see above). That was just a few weeks before Mr. Yanukovych was chased out of the country. Ms. Nuland also spoke of whom from the opposition could join the new government as if she could influence such things. That all came to light after the conversation was tapped and made public – apparently by a Ukrainian intelligence service officer still loyal to Mr. Yanukovych.
Of course, the United States continued to interfere in the elections of other countries even after the disastrous results of the so-called “Arab Spring” and the Maidan coup — where Egypt saw the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power, Syria engulfed itself in civil war and kicked off a European migration crisis, and the Ukraine self-immolating its industrial base in a series of poorly-executed offensives to reclaim the Donbass region. As outlined in The American Spectator:
[A] group of Senators led by Mike Lee (R-Utah) has sent a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, demanding that he conduct a full scale investigation into the use of taxpayer funds to support leftist political movements around the world. As reported in the Washington Free Beacon, Senator Lee said the letter was written because “over the past few months, elected officials and political leaders of foreign nations have been coming to me with disappointing news and reports of U.S. activity in their respective countries” which included “diplomats playing political favorites, USAID funds supporting extreme and sometimes violent political activity, and the U.S. Government working to marginalize the moderates and conservatives in leadership roles.”
Kenya, Macedonia, Honduras, Egypt, and Libya were all the victims of “democratic uprisings” or direct interference in their electoral processes sponsored by the Obama administration. None of these were as egregious as the Obama administration’s direct interest in the 2015 Israeli elections, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — long a thorn in the side of the Obama administration after Secretary of State John Kerry’s bumbling of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in 2014.
Rather than repair the relationship with Netanyahu, the Obama administration decided upon a rather different course of action — simply replace Netanyahu.
Some $350,000 was sent to OneVoice, ostensibly to support the group’s efforts to back Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement negotiations. But OneVoice used the money to build a voter database, train activists and hire a political consulting firm with ties to President Obama’s campaign — all of which set the stage for an anti-Netanyahu campaign, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations said in a bipartisan staff report.
In one stunning finding, the subcommittee said OneVoice even told the State Department’s top diplomat in Jerusalem of its plans in an email, but the official, Consul General Michael Ratney, claims never to have seen them.
While the “special relationship” between the United States and Israel has long been assumed to be sacrosanct since the days of President Ronald Reagan, the very notion that the United States would drop $350,000 to influence the elections of a putative ally shocked many Israeli observers deeply.
Did we mention that 15-20% of Israelis hail from Russian descent after a wave of mass emigration from the former Soviet Union in the 1980s?
Puzzling the Pieces
Thus far, open source intelligence suggests that the Russian government spent about $241,000 on Twitter and about $100,000 on Facebook in order to interfere in the 2016 U.S. elections, a drop in the bucket considering that the total amount spent in the United States on cost a grand total of $6.5 billion on the presidential and congressional campaigns combined.
Fact of the matter is, the United States has been embroiled in this sort of “meddling” in elections since we inherited the British Empire in the aftermath of the Second World War. To wit? An incredibly insightful article from The New York Times giving a window on how the sausage really gets made:
Most Americans are understandably shocked by what they view as an unprecedented attack on our political system. But intelligence veterans, and scholars who have studied covert operations, have a different, and quite revealing, view.
“If you ask an intelligence officer, did the Russians break the rules or do something bizarre, the answer is no, not at all,” said Steven L. Hall, who retired in 2015 after 30 years at the C.I.A., where he was the chief of Russian operations. The United States “absolutely” has carried out such election influence operations historically, he said, “and I hope we keep doing it.”
Loch K. Johnson, the dean of American intelligence scholars, who began his career in the 1970s investigating the C.I.A. as a staff member of the Senate’s Church Committee, says Russia’s 2016 operation was simply the cyber-age version of standard United States practice for decades, whenever American officials were worried about a foreign vote.
“We’ve been doing this kind of thing since the C.I.A. was created in 1947,” said Mr. Johnson, now at the University of Georgia. “We’ve used posters, pamphlets, mailers, banners — you name it. We’ve planted false information in foreign newspapers. We’ve used what the British call ‘King George’s cavalry’: suitcases of cash.”
So what’s the difference between when we do it and when they do it? Quite simply, the United States and the Russians share two very different worldviews.
The United States believes in and defends the interests of liberal democracies around the world, and seeks to promote leaders and governments who share our values and our perspectives. The Russian Federation in turn believes in and defends the interests of those who assert a certain “geopolitical” (a buzzword one should incorporate) perspective that operates from an autocratic method that allows for strong leaders to interfere with the rule of law — a concept known as the “conscience of law” according to one of Putin’s favorite philosophers, the late Ivan Illyn.
Our friends at the NYT continue:
Russian and American interferences in elections have not been morally equivalent. American interventions have generally been aimed at helping non-authoritarian candidates challenge dictators or otherwise promoting democracy. Russia has more often intervened to disrupt democracy or promote authoritarian rule, they said.
Equating the two, Mr. Hall says, “is like saying cops and bad guys are the same because they both have guns — the motivation matters.”
This broader history of election meddling has largely been missing from the flood of reporting on the Russian intervention and the investigation of whether the Trump campaign was involved. It is a reminder that the Russian campaign in 2016 was fundamentally old-school espionage, even if it exploited new technologies. And it illuminates the larger currents of history that drove American electoral interventions during the Cold War and motivate Russia’s actions today.
From the perspective of the Russian government, this “visible hand” has been extended into Russian politics as recently as 20 years ago:
At least once the hand of the United States reached boldly into a Russian election. American fears that Boris Yeltsin would be defeated for re-election as president in 1996 by an old-fashioned Communist led to an overt and covert effort to help him, urged on by President Bill Clinton. It included an American push for a $10 billion International Monetary Fund loan to Russia four months before the voting and a team of American political consultants (though some Russians scoffed when they took credit for the Yeltsin win).
That heavy-handed intervention made some Americans uneasy. Thomas Carothers, a scholar at the Carnegie Institute for International Peace, recalls arguing with a State Department official who told him at the time, “Yeltsin is democracy in Russia,” to which Mr. Carothers said he replied, “That’s not what democracy means.”
Thus one is given today’s conditions writ large. Putin sees Russian interference as fair play — what is good for the Russian goose should be good for the American gander. Not only this, Putin is playing on a certain American naivete when it comes to how American soft power is exerted overseas, whether one calls that “the deep state” or the intelligence community. Simply put, it is the inheritance of empire and the enforcement of the Pax Americana that keeps repeats of the Iraq War or Afghanistan — or worse, a regional or global conflagration — from re-occurring.
Trump Has To Meet Putin
The Wall Street Journal offered what had to be the mildest of the rebukes from Trump’s Helsinki press conference:
“I have—I have confidence in both parties,” Mr. Trump said. “So I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.” Denials from liars usually are strong and powerful.
The charitable explanation for this kowtow to the Kremlin is that Mr. Trump can’t get past his fury that critics claim his election was tainted by Russian interference. And so he couldn’t resist, in front of the world, going off on a solipsistic ramble about “ Hillary Clinton’s emails” and Democratic “servers.” He can’t seem to figure out that the more he indulges his ego in this fashion, and the more he seems to indulge Mr. Putin, the more ammunition he gives to his opponents.
David French over at NRO offers similar words of counsel. This is the voice of those whose concerns with the Russian Federation are rooted in diplomacy and America’s national interest. The wailing and screaming from those with a much more narrow and partisan view are perhaps more damaging than the act itself, with the op-ed writers in Politico claiming the press conference — two questions from Reuters and the Associated Press — will go down in history as comparable to Pearl Harbor or the terror attacks of September 11th, 2001:
Trump may think of the European Union as America’s primary foe, but the Kremlin identifies the United States as its primary adversary. It is using asymmetric means to attack our society and our alliances, and to attack the citizens of the West. More details of this are being exposed daily, and our intelligence, military and national security communities are getting louder and louder in signaling their alarm. For now, our civilian leadership is shrugging this off, even acquiescing, which leaves every individual to defend themselves against the assault of information levied by a foreign attacker. This should not be the way we defend our people and our homeland.
This is our Pearl Harbor, our 9/11. In the past, we have risen to the defense of our values, our ideologies and our institutions. It’s time for another fight. The ball — as Putin said — is in our court.
Just in case one is confused, no — this is not the equivalent of a sneak attack on an American naval base where the U.S. Pacific Fleet is destroyed within minutes and thousands of American servicemen are dead. And no — this is not the equivalent of 19 terrorists plowing planes into the Pentagon and World Trade Center, killing thousands and altering the moral worldview of Americans for a generation.
This is not our Kristallnacht nor is it treason. In fact, the questions asked were nothing more than the same worn out talking point about whether or not Trump trusts our 17 intelligence agencies (it is actually 4) or Putin — and Reuters and the AP simply rose to the bait and acted, not out of patriotism, but out of sheer partisan advantage.
What should concern folks is whether or not the Trump-Putin press conference solidifies the grand alliance of the free people’s of Europe? Whether NATO will remain a fixture of the American defense apparatus? Whether the European Union will remain a viable entity (even if it is in serious and dire need of reform)? Whether Brexit will see a strengthening of the US-UK special relationship? These are far more serious questions to discuss rather than rehashing Clinton’s failure to win — which given the amounts spent in 2016 by both parties, Russian “interference” isn’t merely a drop in a bucket, but a teardrop in an tsunami.
What the Democrats (and their neoconservative cousins) would prefer is a “muscular” foreign policy that continues to antagonize the Russian Federation, a 25-year run that has seen the 1991 “Chicken Kiev” promise not to pry the Ukraine out from the Russian orbit broken, has seen verbal promises from Bush 41 to Gorbachev not to expand NATO broken, has seen Russia’s experiment in liberal democracy used to fuel oligarchs and send their economy into a death spiral that makes the Great Recession look like a trip to Disneyland, has seen the Russian “near abroad” gobbled up by the EU, has seen former Soviet republics such as Georgia force the inclusion of autonomous regions such as South Ossetia into a pro-Western and anti-Russian government, has seen “Arab Springs” wreck the pro-Russian Middle East, has seen Israel the victim of US interference, and is currently embroiled not only in Syria but in eastern Ukraine.
Trump’s alternatives were as stark as Reagan’s back in 1983.
One can either allow the current worsening of US-Russian relations to simmer, or one can reach out to the Russian government and attempt to find pathways to some sort of understanding — or if not this, then the paths to those pathways. As David Goldman writes for PJ Media:
I’m no Russophile. I’m an old Cold Warrior. I don’t like Putin. I don’t even like Dostoevsky (he invents improbable characters to suit his theological agenda) or Tolstoy (Pierre Bezukhov and Anna Karenina bore me). I don’t especially like Tchaikovsky or Mussorgsky. I don’t like drinking Russian-style (get as drunk as you can as fast as you can). I like a lot of individual Russians — they have guts, and tell you what they think. I’m so leery of Putin’s machinations in Europe that I prefer Angela Merkel to the Putin-friendly German right wing.
Nonetheless, it was America that made a mess of relations with Russia, and President Trump’s tweet this morning was right on the mark. You can usually gauge the merits of this president’s public statements by the decibel level of the protests.
Thus Trump’s answer to the question posed — whom do you trust? — was an answer to a question that Trump wished he was asked. Are both sides to blame for the worsening of US-Russian relations? Just as surely as both sides were to blame in 1983 with Reagan and Gorbachev, surely both sides are to blame for the tit-for-tat interference we saw in 2016.
This interference in the 2016 presidential elections (and the 2014 congressional elections, for that matter) did not and does not happen in a vacuum. Nor is this a longform argument for moral equivalency between Russian interference and American interference abroad — clearly from a purely patriotic (is that an old term nowadays?) perspective, America’s interests are eternal and perpetual.
Yet we would be foolish — and in fact, have been foolish — to believe that either the Russian Federation would not do likewise at some point, or believe that the Russian Federation is the only government that takes an interest in American leadership.
The best way to ameliorate these conditions? Is through diplomacy — the calm, cool, slow and dispassionate lines of communication that operate on a daily basis between power brokers. What is the most destructive means of eroding out ability to repair these relations? To position — dare we say, meddle? — and orchestrate outcomes in favor of one political party or the other.
To that point, for those who are so inclined to watch the 46-minute back and forth between Reuters and the Associated Press, it is worth your time if you are even the slightest bit serious of understanding what is truly going on between the United States and the Russian Federation (and by extension, the European Union).
Trump was — insofar as he addressed US-Russian relations — technically correct. Both sides are inherently to blame.
Where Trump faltered is where Reuters and the Associated Press faltered — rather than keep American interests in plain view, Reuters and the AP chose to go partisan, and Trump (true to his nature) responded in a partisan manner.
Of course, very little of this nuance will matter to the snipers on the left or the right, which is dangerous indeed. Perhaps it is an indictment of our political systems that advantage thru chaos is a perennial problem that American democracy can never truly eradicate. Certainly this is Putin’s view, which is all the more reason why the adults in the room — both parties — need to ask themselves whether this truly was a low-water mark and whether we have had enough of partisans cashing out trust from our political institutions.