A few observations, followed by a few thoughts:
- Russia is governed by a right-wing, quasi-authoritarian petro-state which has increasingly taken an assertive approach to managing perceived threats, including militarizing disputes with neighbors, aggressively supporting clients, and using intelligence assets to disrupt political and social developments in perceived adversaries.
- Russia media and intelligence services seem to be actively supporting a right-wing, quasi-authoritarian, human-equivalent-of-a-petro-state in the US Presidential election. Thus far this support has been ineffectual, and perhaps even counter-productive, although it probably has had the marginal effect of delegitimizing the election in the eyes of some Americans.
- Pointing out either or both of the above does not constitute either “McCarthyism,” or an effort to start “a New Cold War.”
It’s worth ruminating for a bit just how odd of a situation we find ourselves in. The Democrats are unquestionably to the right of the Republicans on the Russian question in 2016, something which has arguably only happened one other time (1960) since the beginning of the Cold War. This is a dramatic shift from recent elections; the GOP was somewhat to the right of the Democrats on Russia in 2008, and was far to the right of the Democrats in 2012.
What makes it all the more remarkable is that, as of one year ago, the GOP gave every indication that it would try to get even farther to the right of the Democrats on Russia than it was in 2012. Not without some justification, the Republicans were prepared to claim that events had vindicated Mitt Romney’s appraisal of Russia in 2012, and that the Obama (and by extension, Clinton) efforts to reset relations with Russia had failed utterly. Of the several dozen individuals to compete in the 2016 GOP Presidential primary, all but two (Donald Trump and perhaps Rand Paul) would have pursued an aggressive strategy of linking Clinton to Obama’s Russia policy. This would undoubtedly have included ads featuring Clinton’s 2009 meeting with Sergei Lavrov playing on a continuous loop in swing states.
To be sure, Russia has some particular reasons to dislike Hillary Clinton. The Russian political establishment is probably correct to believe that Clinton will pursue a more hawkish foreign policy than Obama, although she was likely to pursue a less aggressive Russia policy than any GOP candidates other than Trump or Paul. Reportedly, Putin remains resentful of Clinton’s decision to (accurately) point out fraud in the 2011 Russian legislative elections. And it’s surely worth noting that the United States and Russia have real foreign policy disagreements, including most notably the long-term nature of the governments in Damascus and Kiev, as well as the extent of security guarantees to former Soviet bloc states in Central and Eastern Europe.
Nonetheless, as of mid-2015, it looked very much like the Russia issue would play out in the 2016 election very much in the way it had played out in 2012, only more so. The Republican candidate would aggressively challenge Clinton on the failure of Obama’s policy of “appeasement,” and would link her directly to Russia’s occupation of Crimea and intervention in Syria. Clinton would respond by a) distancing herself from Obama, and b) claiming that an aggressive response to Russia would be irresponsible, notwithstanding Moscow’s provocations. On balance, this would work less well for Democrats in 2016 than it did in 2012. Mike Pence essentially played out this script in the VP debate.
And then Trump happened, and suddenly a massive vulnerability of the Democratic candidate became a significant asset. Just as suddenly, the Russian state suddenly had an ideologically sympathetic candidate to support. Crazy. To all appearances, this opportunity seems to have just dropped into Russia’s lap; to my mind, there’s little plausible evidence to indicate that Russia played any significant role in inspiring Trump to run, or in helping him prevail in the GOP primary. But given such an opportunity, the Russian intelligence services are running with it. Allies such as Wikileaks (I still think it’s wrong to refer to Assange as a Russian proxy; he has his own reasons, personal and ideological, for disliking Clinton) have actively supported this effort.
As an aside, it’s worth discussing against this backdrop the still-puzzling affinity that some leftish outfits (the Nation, obviously, but others) still have for Russian state propaganda. The reluctance in these quarters to grant that Russia has preferences regarding the 2016 US presidential election, and that it is actively pursuing those preferences, is genuinely odd. Part of this (paging Stephen Cohen) can be ascribed to the long-term habits of the Cold War, and a failure to notice that Russia had ceased to be even a rump revolutionary state, and had become an activist reactionary power. Some undoubtedly results from the fact that Putin was, indeed, on the correct side of the Iraq War debate, and that Russian media outlets in the United States (RT most notably) actively took an antagonistic stance towards the Bush administration. Some surely stems from residual gratitude for Russia’s role in promoting Julian Assange and harboring Edward Snowden, even as it has become apparent that Assange, at least, is more reactionary crank than progressive force. And related to this, there seems to be an implicit, undercurrent belief in some quarters that any political actor capable of resisting US foreign policy, even one which has become as actively pernicious and anti-progressive as Russia, is worth offering at least measured support. In any case, it sure would be nice if one of the flagship magazines of the American left was capable of noticing what the Russian state has become.
In any case, at this point it looks as if Russia’s effort to disrupt the 2016 US will fail utterly. Unless the polls change dramatically, Trump is going to get crushed. Clinton will undoubtedly remember Russia’s stance on the election, making it unlikely that we’ll see yet another “reset” effort with Moscow. A significant portion of the US electorate will believe that the election is illegitimate, but that’s hardly new. The really interesting developments will come in 2020; will the next GOP candidate pursue a traditional anti-Russian stance, or will the reactionary ideological affinity on display in this election have a long-term impact on the foreign policy debate in the US?