Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) scheduled an urgent meeting of the Armed Services Committee today. The meeting will come exactly one week after President Barack Obama announced several measures meant to punish Russia for the alleged hacking of the Democratic National Committee, the personal email accounts of Clinton campaign advisors and the accounts of Democratic House candidates.
Meanwhile, we’re still awaiting the release of a comprehensive investigation from the intelligence community, which President Obama ordered completed and presented to him before he leaves office. Reportedly, Obama will receive that report today. President-elect Donald Trump is scheduled to receive his briefing Friday from the heads of all of the intelligence agencies. (Yes. That IS notable.)
In the middle of all this, you may be wondering, “Where in the HECK did RUSSIA come from? I thought we won the Cold War?”
The truth is, this has all been going on for some time. A lot of American media has been focused on ISIS and few other international stories have broken through. Part of that is the American media’s focus on stories that “sell,” but honestly, most of it is because the American public doesn’t demand international news coverage. International reporting is costly and so if people don’t want it, why bother putting a lot of money in that type of coverage?
There are certainly wiser experts in the complex world of U.S.-Russia relations and I encourage you to seek them out. (I’ll provide some suggestions at the end of this post.) My goal here is to do what I do well: Translate “wonk” speak into English and give you a sort of timeline/summary of what you’ve missed in the fog of American international news coverage as well as provide links to do further reading.
I will break down what’s going on in two ways: “Getting the band back together” and “the Scooby Doo defense.”
Getting the band back together
Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent, wants Russia to be a respected world superpower again. He thinks fondly of the former-Soviet Union and saw the collapse as “the major geopolitical disaster of the [last] century.” Remembering the Cold War-style “spheres of influence,” he would like to see an end to the U.S.-led world order and a rise in Russian world influence.
Some of the ways he has tried to get the band back together:
- Invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea
- Support for Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Syria (Assad, the President of Syria, has been accused of using sarin gas on its own people—is an ally of Russia)
- Distributing propaganda to create chaos and undermine democracy in Eastern Europe (countries like Hungary, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Latvia, and Serbia) to encourage the election of politicians with Russia-friendly policies
For that final bullet point, I think it is important to read this piece from The New York Times on Russian “Pay to Play” in the Czech Republic and compare it to this report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies on the “Kremlin’s Playbook.” (The download link for the report is on the left-hand side. Reading just the executive summary will get you up to speed.)
The Scooby Doo defense
The second aspect is what I would call the Scooby Doo defense: “I would have gotten away with it if it hadn’t been for those meddling Americans!” The Russian economy is a disaster right now, but Putin has retained power by blaming domestic problems on America.
Some of the things on his list he blames on U.S. overreach:
- Magnitsky Act — The U.S. and Europe passed sanctions following the murder of Sergei Magnitsky by Russian authorities after Magnitsky exposed a tax refund scheme.
- Economic sanctions over the invasion of Ukraine
- FIFA indictments where Putin claimed the U.S. overstepped its jurisdiction
- Russian Olympic doping scandal (more American overreach)
- Protests in Russia following 2011 election (Putin claims Clinton instigated the protests when she said the elections were neither free nor fair.)
- Russian oligarchs found in the Panama Papers (Putin believes the information was leaked by American intelligence.)
It’s also important to know this tension between the U.S. and Russia has been growing for some time, especially toward diplomats serving our country in Russia. Here’s a report from ABC news which will give you an idea of what diplomats have faced over the past eight years, plus this troubling article from The Washington Post in June about escalating harassment of diplomats.
(BONUS: This is an interesting op-ed from the wife of a U.S. diplomat who was kicked out of Moscow in 2001 and describes how it affected her family.)
With all of that in mind, here’s a piece from Politico about Putin’s long game.
That said, I think it is important to not jump ahead of what the evidence shows so far. It is imperative we have an independent investigation in order to determine the depth of influence, show the facts and allow Congress to figure out ways to address whatever issues arise out of that investigation. This should be a nonpartisan issue.
It’s also important to separate the hack of email for propaganda purposes from the actual election vote count. There’s absolutely no evidence that Russia tampered with the actual voting process. However, we still don’t know the purpose of the hack of those email accounts. Was the goal simply to create chaos and make American voters skeptical and disengaged from democracy? Or was it to actually elect a specific candidate? The answers to these questions would greatly influence how the United States should act to protect itself going forward. Only an investigation could provide such answers.
This is why Mr. Trump’s comments/tweets in support and admiration of Putin and Russia are particularly alarming.
Undercutting the intelligence community while praising Putin (who kills dissidents and journalists) and WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange is baffling. Trump should answer questions on the record from the press to clarify these statements.
Meanwhile, the intelligence community is also reportedly working on a declassified version of the report President Obama and President-elect Trump will receive. There is a lot of debate about how much intel agencies could release without burning sources or endangering the lives of informants. But they will almost certainly have to release a substantial amount of information as people will otherwise continue to view this with skepticism (and that is certainly understandable).
Still, the testimony today should be interesting. C-SPAN likely will be covering the hearing, which begins at 9:30 am ET. You’ll be able to find it on their website after it is over as well.
I’ve also worked with independent journalists in Russia and they recommended subscribing to Meduza, an independent news organization which offers an English language version of its site.