BUZZFEED recently broke an explosive story about Russia’s meddling in America’s elections. On August 3rd 2016, it reported, just as the presidential race was entering its final phase, the Russian foreign ministry wired nearly $30,000 through a Kremlin-backed bank to its embassy in Washington, DC, with a remarkable description attached: “To finance election campaign of 2016”. Worse still, this was only one of 60 transfers that were being scrutinised by the FBI. Similar transfers were made to other countries. The story created a buzz, but not of the kind its authors hoped for. “Idiots. The Russian election of 2016, not the US one, you exceptionalist morons,” tweeted a prominent Russian journalist, pointing out that Russia too held parliamentary elections in 2016 and that the money was most probably sent to the embassies to organise the polling for expatriates. This was confirmed by the Russian foreign ministry. BuzzFeed updated its story, but did not take it down.
The author of that tweet was not a Kremlin agent but Leonid Bershidsky, a sharp-tongued writer for Bloomberg News and co-founder of Vedomosti, Russia’s leading business newspaper. “The Trump-Russia story is becoming surreal,” he wrote in a follow-up column while also offering a disclaimer: “I grew up and lived most of my life in Moscow. My perspective is that of a guy from Russia, who hates the current government there but loves the country itself.” For Russian liberals, the spectacle of American commentators imitating the Kremlin, which has long blamed every problem on America, is dispiriting.
Such people have no illusions about the Kremlin, and most of them have been on the receiving end of its disinformation and repression. Leonid Volkov, the campaign manager for Russia’s foremost opposition politician, Alexei Navalny, who—like his boss—has been in jail more than once, wrote recently, only half in jest: “I can’t be silent any longer…I understand that American society and the liberal media, stuck somewhere between denial and anger, still cannot reflect upon and accept Hillary Clinton’s defeat in the election a year ago. But the investigation of Russian intervention is not just a disgrace, it’s a collective eclipse of reason, it’s lunacy.”
Russians who think like Mr Volkov have long looked to America as the model of how a free press should be. For them, it is maddening to watch the news organisations they so admire building Mr Putin into an all-powerful Bond villain, thereby elevating his stature among the many Russians who credit him with making Russia a geopolitical player again. “If they fear us, they respect us,” runs a Russian saying. The aim of Mr Navalny’s campaign, by contrast, is to show that the king is naked, not to dress him up in armour.
In September Morgan Freeman recorded a video promoting the launch of a non-profit organisation called the Committee to Investigate Russia. The Academy award-winning actor spoke in a deep, deliberate tone as alarming music played in the background: “We have been attacked. We are at war.” The committee includes actors and former spooks, including James Clapper, a former director of National Intelligence, and Leon Panetta, a former director of the CIA and White House chief of staff. “Imagine this movie script,” intones Mr Freeman. “A former KGB spy, angry at the collapse of his motherland, plots a course for revenge…he sets his sights on his sworn enemy, the United States. And like the true KGB spy he is, he secretly uses cyber-warfare to attack democracies around the world …And he wins…Vladimir Putin is that spy. And this is no movie script.”
Mr Putin almost certainly did not expect Mr Trump to win. His government’s cyber-activity was more a haphazard and petty response to what the Kremlin perceived to be Hillary Clinton’s intervention in Mr Putin’s election of 2012. In contrast to the cold war, when all “active measures” were designed and conducted through a specially designated department of the KGB, some of the hacking and social-media disinformation was outsourced to mercenaries and “patriotic hackers”, as Mr Putin described them. As a result, says Maxim Kashulinsky, the founder and publisher of Republic, a liberal news site, many Russians have been genuinely surprised by America’s heavy-handed response to what are seen inside the country as pranks.
But Mr Putin underestimated the shock this reckless behaviour would cause in America. For many Americans, the history of Russia’s stand-off with the West ended in 1991. “By the grace of God, America won the cold war,” George H. W. Bush told Congress a few weeks after the collapse of the Soviet Union. For Russians, by contrast, after a brief hiatus in the 1990s, state propaganda returned to depicting America as the arch-enemy.
The Kremlin has long argued that it is under an “information attack” from the West. “In this frame there is no space for any idea of ‘truth’ or universal values,” argues Peter Pomerantsev, an expert on disinformation at the London School of Economics, in an article in the American Interest. “All information is war.” By accepting Russia’s frame of reference, the West, he argues, reinforces the Kremlin’s line and amplifies its efforts to show that America works in the same way as Russia.
During the cold war, the Soviet Union aimed to infect America and the West with its Communist ideology (or quasi-religion) and capture as many minds on the left as possible. Those Westerners who opposed capitalism played the part of useful idiots for the Soviet regime. Today’s Russia has the opposite goal. It projects no coherent ideology or religion beyond a mixture of authoritarianism and nationalism, but aims to portray its adversaries as being as cynical, corrupt and conspiratorial as Russia’s own leaders. Those who mimic the style of the Kremlin’s anti-Americanism play the role of useful idiots now.
“Neither Russia Today (RT) nor trolls are interested in really influencing US audiences,” says Vasily Gatov, a Russian media analyst and visiting fellow at the University of Southern California, referring to the Kremlin-financed news outlet. “Their goal is to make the Western system as such react to their work.” Their effectiveness is judged (and rewarded accordingly) not by what they actually achieve, but by the level of noise they create in the American media. Russian propagandists regularly and gleefully recite articles about “Russia’s menace”. RT is already capitalising on its image. Its advertisement in Lonon reads: “The CIA calls us a ‘propaganda machine’. Find out what we call the CIA.” Branding RT a foreign agent, as America has just done, may be accurate—but it also plays into the Kremlin’s hands.
From the Kremlin’s point of view, this is a welcome departure from the cool realism displayed by Barack Obama, who dismissed Russia as a regional power and described Mr Putin as a “bored kid in the back of the classroom”. Few things infuriate Mr Putin more than being ignored. He has been trying to get America’s attention ever since, and appears to have succeeded.
But this recognition carries a hefty price-tag for the Kremlin. As a result of Mr Trump’s election and Mr Putin’s attention-seeking, Russia has emerged as one of the few bipartisan issues in American politics. This has allowed both parties to come together to pass the bill on Russian sanctions. “It is like Christmas-time for us—there is no way we could have passed this bill through the Congress under Obama,” says one Republican staffer in the Senate.
The result is that American policy towards Russia is sounder now than it was under the two previous administrations. George W. Bush looked into Mr Putin’s eyes; Barack Obama followed Russia’s aggression against Georgia in 2008 with a “reset”. Mr Trump has an unexplained affection for Mr Putin, but his room to change policy is limited by the toxic cloud around Russia’s election interference.
Though Mr Trump enjoys long calls with Mr Putin, day-to-day policy has been left in the hands of professionals with few illusions about Mr Putin’s intentions. Fiona Hill, the author of one of the most perceptive books about Mr Putin, oversees Russia at the National Security Council. Her boss, General H.R. McMaster, closely studied Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its use of disinformation. The defence secretary, General Jim Mattis, leaned towards supplying Ukraine with “lethal defensive weapons”. “We need to manage tensions and avoid accidental clashes,” one senior government official says. “But we are not looking for any positive agenda.” You are not going to reach out if you get repeatedly punched in the face, the official says. “It is all about managing expectations. The lower the expectations, the easier they are to manage,” argues a former official.
The policy of no positive agenda, says Kirill Rogov, a Russian political analyst, deprives Mr Putin of his favoured blackmailing tactic. “His threats and aggression are only worth something if the West steps back and offers concessions and resets in exchange for him not escalating further.” This has repeatedly allowed Mr Putin to pocket his gains and present himself as a victor. If his counterparts refuse to negotiate, these threats lose their potency.
After two and a half decades of inflated hopes and expectations for peaceful coexistence, America is back to its old cold-war policy of containment and deterrence. One of the authors of that policy, George Kennan, concluded in his long telegram of 1946 that “the greatest danger that can befall us in coping with this problem of Soviet Communism, is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.” This is worth bearing in mind as the Russia investigation rumbles on.