When Napoleon Bonaparte executed the Duc d’Enghien in 1804 for what seemed like trumped-up treason charges, the implications extended far beyond questions of French justice and even beyond the borders of France. European leaders were shocked, and the episode helped crystallize anti-Bonaparte sentiment throughout the Continent and in Britain. The famous French diplomat Charles de Talleyrand captured the moment when he said: “It was worse than a crime; it was a blunder.”
That might well be said now about the Russian effort to manipulate the 2016 presidential election by using social media to undermine Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, promote the candidacy of Donald Trump, and generally sow discord throughout the American body politic. Three Russian companies and 13 Russian citizens were indicted by U.S. authorities Friday on charges of engaging in a three-year, multimillion-dollar effort to interfere in the election. Americans naturally are shocked at this brazen effort to unravel the political fabric of their country.
But it isn’t really all that shocking. To understand why it was more of a blunder than a crime—and a blunder with likely tragic consequences—it is important to absorb five fundamental realities surrounding this important development in U.S.-Russian relations.
First, countries have been doing this sort of thing for centuries. It is a fundamental part of tradecraft—the use of covert actions to undermine the internal workings of rival nations. No country likes being on the receiving end, but few refrain from such activity when they think it will thwart national security threats.
Second, no nation has been more aggressive than the United States in pursuing efforts, covert and even overt, to destabilize other regimes. In part that’s because, as the leading global power since World War II, the Unites States has had more at stake in events of significance throughout the world. In part also, it’s because America has had the greatest capacity for bringing the latest technology and the greatest covert capabilities to meet the challenge.
In any event, the U.S. record in this area is beyond dispute. A New York Times piece by Scott Shane over the weekend quoted a University of Georgia professor named Loch Johnson as saying, “We’ve been doing this kind of thing since the CIA was created in ’47. We’ve used posters, pamphlets, mailers, banners—you name it.” Among other things, he adds, the United States has planted false information in foreign newspapers and distributed “suitcases of cash” to influence foreign elections. Steven L. Hall, a 30-year CIA veteran (now retired) with extensive experience leading the Russia desk, told Shane that the United States “absolutely” engaged in such activities, “and I hope we keep doing it.”
Shane cites a study by Dov H. Levin of Carnegie Mellon that sought to quantify “election influence operations” by the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia between 1946 and 2000. He counts 81 by the United States and 36 by the Soviet Union or Russia (though he figures there were more ops initiated from Russian soil than we know about).
Beyond that, there is what has become known as the “democracy industry”—legions of U.S. NGOs, many funded with federal money, that fan out through the world to remake regimes they consider insufficiently imbued with Western values. Writer and thinker David Rieff, writing in The National Interest a few years ago, attacked these democracy promotion adherents as people who “will not or cannot acknowledge either the ideological or the revolutionary character of their enterprise.” He likened the democracy promoters in propaganda terms to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 boast to America that “we will bury you.”
Third, the greatest interference in the internal affairs of foreign nations, aside from invasion, is regime change, and here the United States is by far the leader in the post-World War II era. We know of major efforts—covert or overt, successful or not—by America to upend regimes in Iran, Guatemala, South Vietnam, Chile, Nicaragua, Grenada, Serbia, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Ukraine.
Leaving aside the case-by-case merits, this is a powerful record, and it has implications far beyond U.S. domestic politics. Like Bonaparte’s execution of the Duc d’Enghien, it generates concerns and fears among foreign leaders. In the case of America’s regime change zest, it sends chills down the spines of leaders fearful that they may be next on the list of U.S. regime change targets. Certainly the resolve of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un to develop nuclear weapons with a delivery capacity to the United States is partly a product of such fears.
Fourth, America and its allies bear by far the greater share of the blame for the current tensions between the West and Russia. It was all predictable back in 1998 when NATO fashioned its policy of aggressive eastward expansion toward the Russian border. George F. Kennan, the highly respected U.S. diplomat and Russia expert, predicted the outcome in particularly stark terms. He called it “the beginning of a new cold war…a tragic mistake.” He foresaw that of course the Russians would react badly, as any nation would, and then the NATO expansionists would say, see, we always said the Russians were aggressive and couldn’t be trusted. “This is just wrong,” Kennan warned.
But if NATO expansion was a provocative policy destined to elicit a strong Russian response, the provocation was heightened hugely when America helped perpetrate a regime change initiative in Ukraine, which is not only next door to Russia but has been a crucial part of Russia’s sphere of influence going back to the mid-17th century. Further, Russia lies vulnerable to invasion. The unremitting grassy steppes of the nation, extending from Europe all the way to the Far East, with hardly a mountain range or seashore or major forest to hinder encroachment by army or horde, has fostered a national obsession over the need to control territory as a hedge against incursion. Such incursions from the West occurred three times in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Ukraine is crucial in this Russian sense of territorial imperative. It’s a tragically split country, with part tilting toward the West and part facing eastward toward Russia. That makes for a delicate political and geopolitical situation, but for centuries that delicate political and geopolitical situation has been overseen by Russia. Now the West wants to end that. Upending a duly elected (though corrupt) Ukrainian president was part of the plan. Getting Ukraine into NATO is the endgame.
Note that the Ukrainian revolution occurred in 2014, which just happened to be the year, according to the U.S. indictments, that Russia initiated its grand program to influence America’s 2016 elections. Kennan was right: Russia inevitably would react badly to the NATO encirclement policy, and then America’s anti-Russian cadres would cite that as evidence that the encirclement was necessary all along. That’s precisely what’s happening now.
Which brings us to the fifth and final fundamental reality surrounding the revelation of Russia’s grand effort to influence the U.S. election. It was an incredible blunder. Given all that’s happened in U.S.-Russian relations this century, there probably wasn’t much prospect that those relations could ever be normalized, much less made cordial. But that is now utterly impossible.
Donald Trump campaigned on a platform of seeking better relations with Russia. After getting elected he repeatedly asserted in his first news conference that it would be “positive,” “good,” or “great” if “we could get along with Russia.” Unlike most of America’s elites, he vowed to seek Moscow’s cooperation on global issues, accepted some U.S. share of blame for the two countries’ sour relations, and acknowledged “the right of all nations to put their interests first.”
This suggested a possible dramatic turn in U.S.-Russian relations—an end to the encirclement push, curtailment of the hostile rhetoric, a pullback on economic sanctions, and serious efforts to work with Russia on such nettlesome matters as Syria and Ukraine. That was largely put on hold with the narrative of Russian meddling in the U.S. election and vague allegations of campaign “collusion” with Russia on behalf of Trump’s presidential ambitions.
It doesn’t appear likely that investigators will turn up any evidence of collusion that rises to any kind of criminality. But it doesn’t matter now, in terms of U.S.-Russian relations, because these indictments will cement the anti-Russian sentiment of Americans for the foreseeable future. No overtures of the kind envisioned by Trump will be possible for any president for a long time. It won’t matter that every nation does it or that America in particular has done it or that the West’s aggressive encirclement contributed to the Russian actions. The U.S.-Russian hostility is set. Where it leads is impossible to predict, but it won’t be good. It could be tragic.
Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C., journalist and publishing executive, is editor of The American Conservative. His latest book, President McKinley: Architect of the American Century, was released in September.