How Far Did Russian Meddling Go?
For some time, I have been asking certain questions on Twitter. I could not expect that anyone would notice me. But I thought sooner or later these questions would raise themselves and I would see some reporting. I have found a little, though really little, and as far as I can see it is sketchy at best and misses what I think is the bigger picture.
The Kremlin has meddled in elections and in the politics of other countries for ages. In a way, there has been a continuity since Soviet times. Maybe in the 1990s that receded somewhat because the state apparatus was down for the count, but with the reign of Putin from 2000 on, it resumed, probably with a ramp-up in stages. 2004, 2008, 2011, and 2014 look like turningpoints.
The Soviet Union was locked in ideologically, the long-term strategy had to be some Communist takeover. By contrast, Putin’s Russia has no such commitments. The basic premise appears to be: If you can gain influence over the politics or even the governments in other countries or undermine them, do it. This can mean engagement on the right, at the center or on the left of the political spectrum. It could be mainstream parties or extreme fringes. Whatever works and is possible.
Since it is hard to control developments in larger countries, the main approach for a long time seems to have been to gain a foothold in mainstream parties that have a chance of ending up in the respective governments. Fringes were cultivated as a long-shot bet and as potential spoilers. They were more pliant and easier to direct, but also far-removed from power.
Unfortunately, societies in various countries have helped to change the calculus. Fringes have often reached a size that makes them players on the political scene and sometimes even likely to gain power or at least be a part of a coalition. Maybe also driven by a certain desperation with the dismal economic development in Russia over the past few years, Putin has become bolder. He has been encouraged by a certain appeasement and a lame response to transgressions. And it has been going on for many years.
Take France as an example: If you listened to the debates during the presidential elections, it could seem as if almost the whole political spectrum was in bed with Putin. The only exceptions were Emmanuel Macron and the Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon. Three major candidates and also further minor figures sounded like stooges.
With Marine Le Pen it was too obvious. Her party, the Front National, received a loan from Russia, and she had the gall to meet Putin himself during the campaign. The only upside was an embarrassing photo where she grins into the camera while Putin stands by and puts on his ugliest smirk. Her positions are 100% Kremlin.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the rising star on the extreme Left since he left the Socialist party in 2008, had a fighting chance to make it to the second round. He exudes the glamour of a stuffy teacher at a lycée. His grandiose plan if elected was not only to found a new Republic, but also to push for an international conference that was supposed to renegotiate all borders in Europe. What a great idea! How long do you want to wait until the first war?
But the main purpose was probably more specific. Mélenchon has echoed the Kremlin line for years, especially regarding Ukraine. All supposed internationalism was also gone when it came to attacking Germany and Angela Merkel in particular. At some points in the debates, he and Le Pen were unsure whether they should wholeheartedly agree or best the other. And hence it was no surprise that in the second round, Mélenchon could not bring himself to support a “neoliberal” like Macron against Le Pen, anti-Fascism be damned.
For a long time, it seemed as if the Republican candidate François Fillon was set to win. But he was then bogged down by a series of revelations about his corruption, which ill-fitted his own image as a defender of public morality. It also transpired that he had been paid to arrange meetings with Putin. While he deployed his formidable rhetoric to pose as a tough guy on everything else, once it came to questions surrounding Russia he was soft as butter. Sanctions should, of course, be reconsidered, and so forth.
So three out of the four main candidates, extreme Right, right Center, and extreme Left, were more or less openly pro-Putin. If Macron had not surprised everybody and if Fillon had not blown up, this would have been an election where nothing could have gone wrong for the Kremlin. The preferred candidate for a long time was probably Fillon because he could actually win. Only when his star began to fade did Putin go all in and threw himself behind Le Pen. Now, that was in 2017. But you can trace much of it back for years: Fillon’s connections, Le Pen’s collaboration, and Mélenchon’s ideological slant.
So if the Kremlin works in this way in France, and also in many other countries, the simple question is this: Why would they not approach the US in a similar way? And would they really have started with it in 2016 and only during the campaign for the general elections? The evident answer in my view: It didn’t start in 2016. And it was much broader than just anti-Clinton and pro-Trump. The electoral system in the US has a different dynamic than in other countries and that leads to constraints. But then the purpose, the promiscuity and the opportunism should be the same.
Here are the obvious questions:
The first is: Did it only start in mid-2016 during the campaign for the general elections? Would Putin wait until Trump had made it to the nomination and only then intervene? As far as we know by now, that was not the case. It began earlier, probably much earlier. Organizations and individuals of both parties were hacked in advance, the DNC from mid-2015 on. The only explanation in my view is that this was part of an influence campaign for the primaries.
Some attention has been paid to support for Bernie Sanders. Also Jill Stein has gotten some scrutiny. But on the whole, it has been rather limited. Simple example: Tad Devine was the chief strategist for Bernie Sander’s campaign and he once also worked on behalf of pro-Kremlin Yanukovich in Ukraine, just like Paul Manafort. Coincidence? Maybe, but also something where journalists could ask some tough questions. How about the massive social media campaign in favor of Sanders? Some reporting, but it mostly came out when Facebook supplied a small selection of Russian ads.
The second question is: Did it perhaps start already in 2012? Or in 2008? It is obvious that Putin would have hated a President McCain or a President Romney at least as much as a President Clinton. Is it really plausible that he would have stood by? I find that hard to believe.
What if Obama’s suprisingly successful campaign on social media was perhaps also helped along by Russian bots and trolls? I don’t mean to insinuate that Obama was aware of it or even colluded. But then he was an inexperienced and dovish candidate running against certified hawks. I find it also entirely plausible the Kremlin would try to undermine McCain and Romney.
Or look at it from the other side: What would Putin do in 2008, 2012, and 2016? Here is what I would do if I were Putin:
2008: Dennis Kucinich was a long-shot on the far Left, kind of a proto-Bernie Sanders. Low chance, but good as a spoiler. I would later support Obama against Clinton because he seemed more manageable. On the Right, I would find Ron Paul great as a spoiler and as a long-shot. Rudy Giuliani had the same excellent ties as Donald Trump, something to work with.
2012: Obama’s nomination was a done deal. He had turned out perhaps not as manageable as it had seemed in 2008, but still looked pretty good compared to Romney. I would support him once more, but I would also focus on the Republican primaries. Ron Paul would again be a good idea as a long-shot and spoiler. And surprise: Donald Trump tested the waters, but then messed the birth certificate thing up. Early in the campaign I would thwart Gary Johnson when he was in the Republican primaries because he was a spoiler for Ron Paul. Later I would support him when he ran as a Libertarian and was a spoiler for Romney.
2016: I would help Trump, of course, primaries and general election. I would try to derail Clinton’s nomination. So I would certainly support Bernie Sanders who persisted until the end. Jill Stein would also be a great spoiler for Clinton. As for the Republican primaries, it was not clear Trump could push the Republican establishment to the side. So with my good experience with Ron Paul, I would support his son Rand Paul now. Maybe I would also try to gain a foothold in the campaigns of Ted Cruz and Ben Carson. Note how many advisers moved on to Trump, the Mercers first supported Cruz.
When it was clear that Trump would be the nominee or that became likely, I would try to keep Gary Johnson from becoming the Libertarian nominee because he could have been a spoiler for Trump. I would hence help Austin Petersen and John McAfee in the Libertarian primaries who had next to no chance to gain traction. And later I would have subverted Gary Johnson’s campaign.
This all is no proof, and I make no claim that any of those candidates, apart perhaps from Donald Trump in 2012, were aware of support or even colluded. But then I see quite a few things that look suspicious. These are leads, questions that scream at you to be answered. But I can see almost no effort from the media to even look into them. Since noone else does, I will explore some points in further posts that I find particularly fishy.