How the Russian influence campaign became shorthand for the crisis of political legitimacy in the West

An interview with Mark Galeotti, senior researcher on Russian geopolitics and Coordinator of the Centre of International Security at the Institute of International Relations in Prague

[This is part of a series of interviews with European security experts on the Russian influence campaign.]

Anti-Trump rally in New York (Credit: Rob Walsh/Flickr)

If the story on Russian influence has come to dominate the news, it is not only because it provides a growing constituency with the first real hope that Trump will be removed from office. It also provides the first comprehensive narrative on the changing political landscape in the West, as a centrist political establishment faces strong populist challenges on the left and the right — the first narrative, that is, for anybody who has ruled out the possibility that centrist parties are facing a crisis of their own making.

I recently spoke with Mark Galeotti, coordinator of the Centre of International Security at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, to ask how his research might help put the Russia story in perspective. Galeotti has spent much of his career studying post-Soviet Russia and the Kremlin’s “information wars” in the West, and is the author of numerous books on the subject.

While in basic agreement with the idea that Russia has tried to shape the outcome of elections in America and elsewhere, he believes the significance of the influence campaign has been dramatically overplayed in the American press. “The West is bleeding, but its wounds are self-inflicted. There is a generalized crisis of legitimacy, as complacent political elites fail to connect with communities feeling disenfranchised.”

The real problem, he argues, is a process of globalization that has moved at breakneck speed since the Reagan and Thatcher era. Like so many previous strategies for shifting blame beyond America’s borders, the story on Russia is only making the crisis worse (and compromising American security in some not-so-obvious ways).

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve said in the past that “hybrid wars” is not a very accurate way of describing the current situation. Can you explain?

The term hybrid war was originally coined to explain things like Iran’s capacity to use non-conventional measures in a war with America, or likewise Hezbollah versus Israel. And therefore it’s very much framed in the context of kinetic actions, like shooting and killing. Now it’s being repurposed to fit into a narrative that there’s some massive and terrifying new threat coming from Russia.

I think that’s problematic for two reasons. One, it puts too much emphasis on the war side of things, so that you inevitably believe the threat to be the same here as the one faced in Crimea or Donbas. Whether you are in Estonia, or Poland, or France, this term makes it seem like a question of how it reaches the military stage. Which, I don’t think it ever does.

The second thing is that it implies something new and radical and different about what’s going on, and I’m not so convinced there is. In the past, we’ve seen conflicts sublimated into all kinds of political, economic, diplomatic, social forms — that’s nothing new. What is new is that the world is a bit different, with its globalized finances and information sphere, and lack of any clear ideological boundaries, that kind of thing.

It’s a slightly different battlefield, but I don’t think that war itself is different. But because we need to call it something, I’ve been using the term “political war.” It’s still not a perfect term. To be honest, this is just how nation states contest. Once upon a time, it was through dynastic marriages and embargoes. Now it’s RT and economic penetration. This is simply how nations interact.

Your initial view concerning Trump and Brexit was that Moscow’s hand played a minimal role, if any, in these developments. Have you changed your mind since then?

Regarding Brexit, absolutely not. It’s quite ridiculous, the attempts now to find Russia’s hand in everything. In the case of Brexit, it comes down to RT Television in particular, which I think has something like a 0.05% viewership figure in Britain.

Now the Trump case is a little bit more complex. The hacks and the leaks, which I do feel absolutely involved Russia, clearly had an effect. However, I can’t help but feel the FBI relations were more important. Even more important was the fact that the Clinton campaign ran a very bad strategy. They neglected key states, and they reaped the rewards of that. It’s not that I think the Russians had no role. I just think that role has been dramatically overplayed.

Looking at some of your previous statements, it would seem that the danger America faces is not that of a Trump-Russia collusion, but of Trump’s generally permissive and de-institutionalized way of managing affairs of state, i.e. as a “deal-maker” rather than a statesman.

Yes, exactly. The Russia story is convenient because it posits an identifiable threat — most important of all an external threat — and there’s all kinds of reasons why people would rather concentrate on that. This story totally misses the point. The thing about someone like Trump is who would ever presume that once bought he stays bought?

The threat here is not that there is some kind of conspiracy. The threat is precisely that we now have a Commander in Chief who, insofar as he controls the administration (a bit of an open question), believes that the purpose of the administration is to further his own business interests, and that business is good regardless of whose business it is. This is a man who doesn’t recognize the practical, constitutional and ethical boundaries on which the American system relies.

I was in Moscow during the chemical attack in Syria, and then the cruise missile attack. It was striking talking to Russians in the Foreign Ministry and elsewhere. This was their nightmare come to life. And it is precisely what they feared when Trump was first elected.

Contrary to the suggestion that they were jubilant, the Russians have been worried about Trump right from the beginning, because they didn’t know what he stood for. They didn’t know what a Trump presidency meant to them. In a way, they still don’t. What has really emerged is a Trump presidency in which you never know what’s going to come next — it’s impossible to predict. The problem is that we are looking for a political narrative in a White House that is no longer political.

Isn’t that just an extreme version of an attitude in Washington that was already mainstream before Trump came along and presented us with its caricature — the market as an adequate substitute for government?

Of course, there’s no question. One can even look at the fairly credible allegations made about the Clinton Foundation and Clinton’s own relationship to the Saudis, and so forth. This is precisely what’s happened — we’ve seen the start of a slide down into a culture where foreign money is no longer regarded as taboo, but as an opportunity.

That sort of tipped us over the precipice, and Trump jumped enthusiastically the rest of the way.

You mention caricature. It’s fascinating that Trump’s inner circle is essentially made up of generals and businessmen. So now we have the surreal situation of a presidential cabinet looks like a 1970s Pravda cartoon.

Getting back to your thoughts on the causal logic that links Trump, Russia, and the crisis of legitimacy in the West, can you talk about why you think the crisis came first?

We now have a situation in America and the EU in which people essentially feel alienated from the political process. In part, that’s the consequence of great big macro-level trends, such as globalization. So that what may happen in your economy may have very little to do with decisions that are made in your own country.

But I also think that they reflect a general shift towards a sense that the world is becoming an incredibly complex place. With everything from the revolution in economies to technological changes, which are moving at a pace undreamt of in the past, through to the social impact of immigration and demographic shifts within Western countries — the list goes on and on.

The bottom line is that we have a political model which is largely rooted in the post-WWII order. A certain model of representative government has essentially broken down: the model which relied on a combination of deference from below and noblesse oblige from above. People no longer feel that their voice really matters. We no longer know what the big issues are. We don’t have any kind of grand ideological struggle to use as a benchmark telling us whether we are the good guys or the bad guys. Hence the desperate attempt to find new wars: the War on Terror, the War on Drugs, the War on Crime.

And at the same time, we have an increasingly encapsulated political class. Put all these together and it’s clear that the current system isn’t working.

For a long time there were distractions. The Cold War was a marvelous distraction. It’s only after the Soviet Union collapsed that Italy started to get to grips with the Mafia, and Japan finally started to get to grips with the Yakuza.

In a way, there was always the sense that, “Well, yes, it’s a problem. But at the moment we are concerned with much bigger issues.” That grand alibi disappeared at the end of 1991. America felt the initial adrenaline of winning the Cold War. Then there was the post 9/11 mindset. Likewise, Europe was grappling with the issues of expansion of NATO, but above all of the European Union.

For a long time, we were all distracted by other things. But ultimately I think the pressures were always growing. Which is why we now have a situation in which there is a generalized lack of faith in many of the institutions, certainly the politicians. And it’s perfectly normal that there’s a hunger for people who can come up with simple answers to complex questions. This is where the populists score the best.

Would you say this also explains the success and basic character of a left-wing populist like Bernie Sanders?

I think there’s some truth there. The reason his campaign message was so appealing is that it provided people with a simple answer. It was the old elites problem, and Sanders was an outsider. Had Sanders won, I believe he would have been rather more nuanced.

I’ll be honest, as a European, I was tremendously excited by the potential of Bernie Sanders as a presidential candidate, because to my mind it would have meant that America had a genuine choice, rather than asking them to choose merely between the left and right wing of the Conservative Party (to use the British term).

It is for lack of a genuine choice that we now have populists on both the left and the right. Or, in the case of Trump, populists who are outside of that spectrum altogether.

And I think it is getting worse. Particularly in the sense that agency is being taken away from populations, which is in part because — as a result of globalization — agency is being taken away from nations. The Margaret Thatcher era, on one level, was characterized by a “Little Englander” sentiment that is very familiar today.

But many of the key challenges of the Thatcher era were just the first wave of what we might call the real bite of globalization. Closing the coal mines, because how can you possibly compete with Chinese coal? Pushing the level of deregulation, because all of a sudden we have to fight on the global financial markets. The trend started in the early 1980s.

Do you think an analogy can be made between the crisis of legitimacy in the West and the “crash privatization” that wreaked so much havoc in Russia during the 1990s?

What actually came to Russia in the process of crash privatization was a caricature of the market. Capitalism isn’t just about buying and selling. The absolutely essential element of capitalism is — or ought to be — trust. Trust in institutions, trust in the overall structures whereby the economy can be maintained.

What happened is that Russia got capitalism without any of the trust. Inevitably it was not only disastrous but deeply alienating. And although Russia today is very much capitalist and red in tooth and claw — a rapacious form of state capitalism –, nonetheless part of Putin’s strength is that he was, or that he seemed to be, standing against the Oligarchs, who were taking the money out of Russia.

Obviously, there are many other steps in between and many other variables, but, yes, in some ways, Harvard economists gave us Putin.

Do you feel the DNC has been pushing the Russia story as a distraction?

I can’t really comment on how decisions are made in the DNC or their motivations. But I do find it fascinating how the issue has become so polarized.

On the one hand, there are people who say that the means by which the information comes out are irrelevant. What matters is that it shows a degree of complicity and collusion on the part of the DNC to distort the democratic process.

On the other hand, there are other people who say that what the emails say is entirely irrelevant. What matters is that they were leaked as part of an evil foreign plot to undermine America’s political system.

Well, of course, both of them ought to be true. If there had not been attempts to sideline the Sanders campaign, then there would have been nothing for the Russians to leak. That is the crucial point. What made the leaks so dangerous was not that — to use the current phrase — they were fake news. They were dangerous precisely because the news was so real.

Both major parties in America stand to lose by admitting there’s a crisis and that’s why they’re trying to avoid it. Whether it’s strategy I don’t know, but it’s certainly true that both sides have leapt on the issue of Russian influence as a way of externalizing the problem.

It’s so much easier to think of it as a debate about outsiders, rather than having to consider the more systemic and cultural issues at work.

In its declassified report of January 6, 2017, the US Intelligence Community alleges that RT has given a mouthpiece to various political “outsiders” — Green Party candidates, the Occupy Movement, and so forth — as a way of undermining confidence in Western political systems. Do you think this is leading to a new era of McCarthyism in America?

RT will give airtime to anyone who is conveniently divisive. So, yes, you get the Greens and you get Occupy, but you also get virulent anti-migrant campaigners, you get Nigel Farage talking about the great glories of Brexit, and so on. Basically, there is not a single ideological mooring to RT. It’s whatever will cause damage.

I thought the declassified intelligence report was pretty awful, but it was interesting to see the extent to which they zoom in on the leftist aspect. With regard to the new McCarthyism, we already find it in this game where everybody is accusing everyone else of fake-newsery, and using those accusations as a way of sidestepping real engagement and real discussion. This leads to a distinct impoverishment of meaningful discussion and debate.

Whether or not it is a strategy, do you think the Russia story will backfire, or perhaps even deepen the crisis of trust in American politics?

Yes, very much so. What Russia benefits from is a lack of unity and cohesion within the West. The key thing that undermines that unity and cohesion is not practical disagreements, because practical disagreements can be discussed, compromises can be made.

What undermines the West rather is questioning Trump’s legitimacy in this way. In terms of delegitimizing the political system, to say that a large chunk of the American population was stupid and manipulated is every bit as corrosive as the threat of foreign influence.

The more one focuses on this notion of a grand conspiracy, the more one is actually playing to the “Breitbartification” of the overall discourse.

You work in Prague, Czech Republic, which saw the election a few years back of Miloš Zeman, a man who is largely seen to be an ally of the Kremlin. Is there any lesson to learn there about what is happening in America?

If you’re in the Pražská kavárna set [cosmopolitan liberals] you are now happily saying that Zeman was elected because of the Russians. And it’s true that the Russians gave him a certain amount of airtime, and there was a chunk of money that came to him by Martin Nejedlý provided by Lukoil.

But we should see the 2013 Czech presidential election as a microcosm of the bigger story on Russian influence. Zeman was not elected because the Russians backed him, or because of a little extra money to buy airtime and placards. Zeman was elected because he realized and was able to tap into the concerns of the socially conservative rural and smalltown population.

Now, from the point of view of the cosmopolitan Prague types, isn’t it much nicer to think that the Russians did it, rather than admitting that they failed? They failed to reach out to that population. They chose a candidate who was completely unable to win that kind of legitimacy. So once again the Russians become the perfect alibi, and by using it, nobody learns their lesson.

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Peter Gaffney is a freelance writer with bylines in Salon, Alternet and Counterpunch. He has taught courses on the theory and history of visual culture and the public sphere at University of Pennsylvania, Haverford College and The Curtis Institute of Music. He tweets @PeterDGaffney.