Thirteen Russian nationals allegedly involved in an information warfare operation to interfere in the 2016 presidential election were indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
The indictment [PDF] claims the Internet Research Agency engaged in a conspiracy from 2014 to the present that was funded by Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin and companies he controlled, including Concord Management and Consulting and Concord Catering.
Beyond already known allegations related to Russians creating false U.S. personas on social media, it alleges the Russian nationals traveled, or attempted to travel, to the U.S. Aleksandra Yuryevna Krylova and Anna Vladislavovna Bogacheva stopped in Nevada, California, New Mexico, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Louisiana, Texas, and New York to “gather intelligence.”
Several of the accused Russian nationals, posing as U.S. persons, allegedly contacted grassroots organizations and learned to focus their operations on “purple states like Colorado, Virginia, and Florida.” They used their pages on Facebook and Instagram on immigration (“Secured Borders”), the Black Lives Matter movement (“Blacktivist”), and religion (“United Muslims of America” and “Army of Jesus”), as well as geographically focused pages (“South United” and “Heart Of Texas”) to advance their agenda.
As of February 10, 2016, “specialists” were posting content to “criticize Hillary [Clinton] and the rest [of the candidates] (except [Bernie] Sanders and [Donald] Trump—we support them).” And by the end of 2016, the Russian nationals were allegedly focused on encouraging minorities not to vote or to vote for a third-party U.S. presidential candidate.
The indictment goes on to accuse the Russian nationals of staging political rallies while failing to register as “foreign agents” with the Department of Justice. They promoted anti-Clinton rallies, pro-Trump rallies, and after Trump won, “#NotMyPresident” rallies against Trump.
While this undermines Trump’s argument that claims of Russian interference were a “hoax,” it does not demonstrate that the outcome of the 2016 presidential election was changed because of this interference.
Citizens of the United States can count on the U.S. media to spend the next few days talking about the operation detailed in Mueller’s indictment as if it was part of a one-sided or unprovoked attack on American democracy. But the fact is the U.S. government has targeted Russia with similar operations.
In 1996, a team of American political strategists “served as Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin’s secret campaign weapon” in a “comeback win over a Communist challenger,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
George Gorton, who worked for Gov. Pete Wilson’s bid for the GOP presidential nomination in 1996, was hired by a “San Francisco firm with connections in Moscow.” The team never met Yeltsin. They sent “unsigned memos to his daughter,” and Gorton said they were “retained as advisors to the Yeltsin family.” They developed an “American-style campaign to counter the public sentiment running against Yeltsin.”
The Los Angeles Times further reported, “Felix Braynin of San Francisco, a Soviet immigrant who [was] a wealthy consultant to American businesses working in Russia, asked for advisors who could help. “San Francisco lawyer Fred Lowell suggested Gorton and Joe Shumate, an expert on political polling, and Richard Dresner, a political strategist” who “helped not only Wilson but President Bill Clinton in his earlier campaigns for governor of Arkansas.”
Before their efforts, “Yeltsin’s approval rating was about 6%, and, as they told Time magazine, Josef Stalin had a higher positive rating in their polls.” Yeltsin beat Communist candidate Gennady A. Zyuganov “by more than 13 percentage points.”
In other words, this team of advisors apparently influenced the outcome of the 1996 election in Russia. They meddled in the election and achieved success.
As Owen Jones recounted in a column for The Guardian, “As soon as Bill Clinton assumed the White House in 1993, his experts discussed ‘formulating a policy of American tutelage,’ including unabashed partisan support for President Boris Yeltsin. ‘Political missionaries and evangelists, usually called ‘advisors’, spread across Russia in the early and mid-1990s.'” Many received U.S. government funding.
“The results were, to put it mildly, disastrous,” Jones wrote. “Between 1990 and 1994, life expectancy for Russian men and women fell from 64 and 74 years respectively to 58 and 71 years. The surge in mortality was ‘beyond the peacetime experience of industrialized countries.’ While it was boom time for the new oligarchs, poverty and unemployment surged; prices were hiked dramatically; communities were devastated by deindustrialization; and social protections were stripped away.”
Aside from Yeltsin’s election, in 2011, President Vladimir Putin accused U.S. government of supporting protests against the outcome of elections. He attacked Hillary Clinton for suggesting voting was “rigged.”
“We need to safeguard ourselves from this interference in our internal affairs and defend our sovereignty,” Putin declared. “It is necessary to think about improving the law and toughening responsibility for those who take orders from foreign states to influence internal political processes.”
Whether covert U.S. operatives were involved in fomenting turmoil, that is hard to discern. But what is clear is that Putin and the Russian government had various reasons to believe their authority was undermined by a foreign power. So, to what extent was alleged U.S. interference in past Russian elections a catalyst for the decision to launch the operation that targeted the 2016 presidential election?
U.S. intelligence agencies recently asserted the Russian government will potentially target the 2018 midterm elections. The U.S. under Trump is exceptionally vulnerable to this kind of information warfare, and one could see why Russians would want to continue operations.
Détente, that is the ceasing of hostilities, could go a long way toward ensuring that Russians do not attempt to further exploit deep political divisions and disenchantment with the United States’ two-party electoral system. Reconciliation that involved an admission of what was done on both sides could cool off tensions that frankly are alarming given the fact that both countries are nuclear powers.
Unfortunately, such action seems unlikely, which means Americans must confront the reality of what it means to live in a country that is bent on geopolitical dominance. Its actions against other countries, like Russia, will result in reactions. These reactions produce consequences; in this case, it makes Americans feel like their country’s elections are easy to manipulate.
Intelligence agencies have not released any documents that qualify or quantify the effect of this interference on the 2016 presidential election. Democrats would like a bipartisan commission to assess the influence the information warfare operation had. Until there is any study released, all the public has are statements from partisan political operatives arguing Putin elected Trump.
It’s worth recalling the Clinton campaign outlined the following goal in April 2015: “Make whomever the Republicans nominate unpalatable to a majority of the electorate.”
“Force all Republican candidates to lock themselves into extreme conservative positions that will hurt them in a general election,” and, “Undermine any credibility/trust Republican presidential candidates have to make inroads to our coalition or independents.”
It advocated against marginalizing “more extreme candidates” and sought to make “Pied Piper candidates,” like Trump, Senator Ted Cruz, and Ben Carson, into representatives of the Republican Party. “We need to be elevating the Pied Piper candidates so that they are leaders of the pack and tell the press to [take] them seriously.”
Like the Russian nationals indicted by Mueller, the Clinton campaign sought to sow discord in the 2016 presidential election that they could wield to their advantage. The problem, however, is the plan to elevate Trump backfired tremendously.
Finally, it is possible this indictment has the effect of further inspiring Democrats and their campaigns to cast doubt on any hashtag campaigns or general expressions of discontent against them. Former rapid response director for the Clinton campaign, Zac Petkanas, immediately suggested Chelsea Manning was a Russian agent when she announced she would run against Senator Ben Cardin in the Maryland primary.
The Trump administration amplifies systemic racism and class-based oppression by dismantling the social safety net and transferring hundreds of millions of dollars into the pockets of corporations and wealthy Americans. They engage in routine attacks on immigrants through mass deportations and indefinite detention. They promote and defend an anti-Muslim travel ban. Meanwhile, the two political parties in Congress are complicit or accomplices to these acts.
Russia is not responsible for any of this turmoil. The Russians won’t be the primary cause of any turmoil in 2018. The U.S. politicians that govern the most powerful country in the world will be the cause of tension and outrage, and they can blame Russia all they want but citizens see what is happening in their daily lives, and they are capable of figuring out that Putin is the least of their worries.