The New York Times and the Washington Post ran back-to-back stories over the weekend reporting on closed-door briefings that the CIA had given members of Congress on Russia’s interference in the recent U.S. elections. The stories revealed no real new information on the hacks themselves—the consensus among the Intelligence Community that Russia was probably behind the DNC leaks was reported as early as July, and the subject was debated by the candidates themselves—but they did contain a tantalizing new tidbit: The CIA had concluded that since the Russians had compromised both the RNC and the DNC but leaked only the DNC’s documents to Wikileaks, they were actively trying to help Donald Trump get elected.
This has predictably kicked off a political brawl on the Hill. Republican hawks like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both suspicious of President-elect Donald Trump’s stated intention to attempt to cooperate with Russia in the future, have been leading the charge on the Right to have these events investigated—probably looking less to delegitimize Trump’s victory than to try to tie his hands out of the gate on foreign policy. They have the support of Republican leadership in both the House and Senate, who on Monday released statements calling for further inquiries. The Democrats have been more nakedly partisan. President Obama has ordered an investigation, and has asked that as much of it be declassified as possible and released to the public before the inauguration. Even more aggressively, John Podesta is pushing for electors to get intelligence briefings ahead of their official vote on December 19. Reversing the results of the election is surely a moon-shot, but landing a few blows on Donald Trump on the way to the White House is all but assured.
One ought not blame politicians for engaging in politics; it’s never a pretty sight, but it’s expected behavior. But their self-serving machinations have prompted various pundits, many of whom should know better, to lose their bearings. What is the Russians’ strategy in having Trump elected? What do they want? What is Putin’s next step? Even the usually collected David Frum was channeling Franklin Foer at his most conspiratorial in his column yesterday, speculating about Manchurian Candidate-like scenarios, and even going so far as to suggest that the Trump campaign was instructing the Russians on how best to help it.
There is already pushback coming to this kind of thinking from the Intelligence Community itself. Reuters is reporting that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has not fully embraced the CIA’s conclusions, while Newsweek got some ex-spooks to try to lower the temperature of the discussion, pointing out that leaks like these, coming from politicians rather than analysts themselves, are usually incomplete at best, and could be misleading.
But you don’t need to have access to top secret intelligence to be suspicious of this kind of speculation about Russia’s full motives. Everyone agrees that Russia is a malevolent actor that does not have the United States’ best interests at heart. And there is not much doubt among all concerned that the Russians were behind the hacking of the DNC. There is no need to go further, however. Some common sense and a little knowledge of recent history go a long way to suggesting that the CIA itself may not have intended to imply much more than that. The pols and pundits have completely lost the thread.
The main problem with assuming that Vladimir Putin and his inner circle of strongmen had a preference either way is that it imparts a certain farsighted strategic genius to a regime that has shown little evidence of possessing it. Putin is a world-class tactician, but is not an accomplished strategist.1
That is not to say that the Kremlin is without a larger vision. On the contrary, its vision is quite well-defined. It sees itself inhabiting a zero-sum Hobbesian world, an order ruled not by norms but organized around state power. It sees Western demands for accountability, democracy, and the establishment of the rule of law not merely as threats to its own way of running its affairs, but as hypocrisies in their own right. The West lives in the same Hobbesian world, Putin and his cohort reason, and they wield those concepts as cudgels to bring low their rivals. But worse than that, Westerners appear to be blind to their own hypocrisy, and are genuinely baffled when civil wars fill the void left behind by a toppled autocracy.
This vision helps explain how Putin and his inner circle have understood world events since coming to power in 2000. The Iraq War, the Rose Revolution in Georgia, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the Arab Spring, and the Libya War were all seen by the Kremlin as part and parcel of the same thing: Western attempts at expansion. Civil society organizations and NGOs that help organize political parties and encourage democratization are quite clearly all funded by the CIA. These assets are all activated at the opportune time to force regime change—which is what the Westerners are really after.
Enter Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. With Qaddafi’s freshly bayonetted corpse still warm in Libya, Clinton began criticizing widespread reports of ballot-stuffing by pro-Putin goons across Russia during the December 2011 legislative elections. “The Russian people, like people everywhere, deserve the right to have their voices heard and their votes counted,” she said on December 5. The next day, she called for investigations of the irregularities. As Russian organizers began preparing for what would become known as the first of the Bolotnaya protests that weekend, Putin didn’t hesitate to connect the dots: “[Opposition leaders] heard the signal and with the support of the U.S. State Department began active work,” he thundered. “We are all grownups here. We all understand the organizers are acting according to a well-known scenario and in their own mercenary political interests.”
By March of 2012, Putin was re-elected for a third term, and after violent protests marred his inauguration in May, he started rolling out increasingly repressive measures to geld the opposition in Russia. By the time the Maidan protests had sprung up in Ukraine in late 2013, Clinton was no longer at State. Putin almost certainly saw in Ukraine’s “Revolution of Dignity” what would have happened to him if he hadn’t acted forthrightly two years earlier. And though she was not around for Ukraine, Clinton’s role in his own troubles was neither forgotten nor forgiven.
The paradox of Putin and his siloviki is that their coherent, Hobbesian vision of the world does not lead them to a positive strategic program. Instead, it has them constantly fighting rearguard actions, trying to weaken and forestall what they correctly judge to be a far mightier competitor in the West. In many ways, EU expansion is just as threatening to the Kremlin as NATO expansion, as it represents another side of the same Western coin. (Similarly, grasping that fact helps explain why no amount of explanation that NATO is not meant to threaten Russia reliably falls on deaf ears in Moscow; NATO membership, which is correctly seen as a first step towards Westernization, is threat enough.)
These rearguard, defensive actions against the West are fought on many fronts. Russia has waged various small wars along its periphery since the fall of the Soviet Union, for example. These wars never really end, leaving behind smoldering dumpster fires that deter the West from further encroaching on what Moscow sees as its privileged zone of interest. Then there are the more traditional cloak and dagger operations, run deep inside enemy territory. Those can include “wet work” like the poisoning of dissident spy Alexander Litvinenko with Polonium in London, or more paramilitary-style efforts, such as the recent botched coup in Montenegro. Or they can be more political in nature, such as providing financing and training for ascendant populist parties across Europe, and bolstering their narratives through the creative use of propaganda, using state-run media outlets such as RT and Sputnik. The goal of all these actions is the same, however: to sow chaos and weaken the opponent.
All these factors come together to provide an explanation for just how and why the Russians did interfere in our most recent elections. First and foremost, the purpose of the operation was to wreak havoc. It’s all Putin’s Russia is ever up to these days: there is no deeper ideology at work, beyond a kind of reductive cynicism that sees everything in zero-sum terms. Any weakened, disorganized opponent is inherently good for Russia.
Even without Russian help, Trump had proven himself to be the chaos candidate early in the primaries. Insofar as Russian spymasters sought to help Trump, it was to empower the candidate who would be most likely to upset the status quo. And the rationale extends beyond domestic politics. Trump’s iconoclasm, much like that of his fellow travelers in Europe, extends to his foreign policy preferences: the rise of the populists comes at the expense of institutions such as the EU and NATO—another zero-sum win.
But even if Trump had not emerged, it’s likely that the Russians would have intervened in the elections against Hillary Clinton anyway. Even a muscular interventionist with no love for Russia like Marco Rubio might have benefited. The term “ratfucking”—spitefully using underhanded political tricks to screw over a rival—is attributed to one of Richard Nixon’s campaign strategists, but is a concept all too familiar to the graying ex-KGB specters in the Kremlin. Hillary Clinton probably sealed her fate in 2011 when she was widely seen to be the hand behind middle class uprisings that shook up Putin’s fabled Power Vertical. Something like that does not go unanswered—she had it coming to her. Who wins, after all, is immaterial. If Clinton could have managed to prevail, she would suffer while doing so.
Push and prod a level-headed Russia analyst around town, and you’re likely to get some version of the above theory. And indeed even the CIA analysis, as reported by the Post and Times, does not go beyond what I have outlined above. Yes, the Russians intervened in our elections. Yes, it appears they intervened on behalf of Donald Trump, and acted against Hillary Clinton. Yes, they acted malevolently, against the interests of our country, and are trying to undermine our faith in our democratic institutions. But there are no further conclusions to be drawn from the evidence. It’s only political spin, pundit paranoia, or some unholy admixture of the two that conjures up Manchurian Candidate-like scenarios from the CIA’s stated conclusions.
The finale of the 1995 film The Usual Suspects features a memorable line delivered by Kevin Spacey: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled is convincing the world that he didn’t exist.” The obverse applies to Vladimir Putin, whose strength is proportional to the West believing that he is behind every setback. The kind of misapprehension of exactly what Russia is up to described above thus directly plays into the Kremlin’s hands. Unlike during the Cold War, there is no positive ideological program that Russia is trying to achieve. Its sole goal is to make us weaker. And the longer we chase our own tails, the more exhausted we will become.