The Kremlin’s favourite soap opera these days is the ongoing investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Each new episode is followed intently. It’s unclear whether popcorn or caviar is served, and whether fans at the Kremlin consider the program a drama or a comedy. Its popularity, however, is indisputable.
The investigation into Russian election meddling has generated numerous investigations and copious ink, much of it of questionable accuracy. At its heart are two issues:
- Did the Kremlin orchestrate a campaign to influence the outcome of the presidential election?
- Was this effort co-ordinated with Americans and particularly with anyone employed by one of the presidential candidates?
On Feb. 16, U.S. deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein unveiled a 37-page indictment of 13 Russian nationals and three companies filed by special counsel Robert Mueller. The indictment laid out the most detailed picture of how the Russian government sought to interfere in the 2016 election by promoting the candidacy of those candidates it saw as the most divisive: Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein.
In addition, Russian agents attempted to aggravate divisions in American society by organizing public demonstrations and social media chatter both in favour and against contentious issues.
Once Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Trump won the nominations of their parties, the Russian effort doubled down to promote the candidacy of Trump while, it appears, orchestrating the release of damaging information about both candidates.
The indictment is significant for few reasons.
First, it laid out the case that Russian agents broke several U.S laws, hence the indictment, by using false identities to set up accounts on social media platforms, and by spending approximately $1.25 million, both in the U.S. and elsewhere, to actively promote one or more candidates. By deliberately hiding the source of those funds, the Russians also committed bank and wire fraud.
Secondly, the level of detail disclosed in the indictments strongly suggested that the Mueller investigation had a source within the Internet Research Agency, the Kremlin-linked Russian organization responsible for much of the interference.
Finally, as Rosenstein acknowledged during the press conference, “there is no allegation in this indictment that any American was a knowing participant in law-breaking.” He added, “There is no allegation in the indictment that the charged conduct altered the outcome of the 2016 election.”
Several conclusions can be drawn from the indictment.
First, it seems incontrovertible that the Kremlin orchestrated a sophisticated, well-funded campaign to influence the outcome of the U.S. elections. The continued claims by President Trump’s administration that there’s no evidence of Russian interference ring hollow and only act to undermine the White House’s credibility.
Secondly, none of this is new or surprising. The Russians, and before them the Soviets, have a long history of interfering in the elections of other countries. So does the United States and many of its allies.
The indictment described the Russian activity as an “information war” against the U.S. What today is dismissed as ‘fake news’ was long called ‘agitprop’ (agitation propaganda) by Soviet intelligence. Nor were the Soviets ever shy about demonstrating their preference for who won presidential elections. From Franklin Roosevelt to Richard Nixon to Trump, the Kremlin hasn’t been afraid of indicating its preference.
What’s different today is that the spread of alternative media platforms has made the diffusion of misinformation a lot easier. In the past, national media organizations exercised a degree of due diligence in vetting news before publishing it.
The system broke down on occasion, as when CBS News anchorman Dan Rather famously blew up his career by releasing a story that then-candidate George W. Bush received preferential treatment by the Texas Air National Guard only to later discover that the evidence had been faked.
The role of social media platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, among others, in disseminating unvetted news and the transformation of many media outlets into loosely-supervised contributor platforms, however, has made it a lot easier to distribute inaccurate information.
Concurrently, the distrust that many people have about the objectivity of national news organizations means that for many the credibility of traditional news outlets has been seriously eroded.
Russian intelligence has taken advantage of such platforms to push their own agenda, but so have other organizations, domestic and foreign. There has never been as much ‘news’ as there is now. Nor has it ever been as accessible, as easy to disseminate and as unreliable.
‘Fake news’ is now a permanent feature of modern life and it’s going to persist regardless of whether it originates in Moscow or Washington.
Thirdly, the question of whether any Americans colluded with Russia in the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign hasn’t yet been answered. The Mueller indictment didn’t name any Americans. It did, however, refer to unnamed indictments. These may specify Americans.
Opposition research has become an integral part of western politics. Candidates routinely fund efforts to find embarrassing and incriminating evidence against opponents. In addition, any number of individuals or organizations come forward during a campaign proffering information for money or in return for future political favours.
The available evidence suggests that the Kremlin offered embarrassing information to both the Clinton and Trump campaigns. The Clinton campaign staff was far more circumspect in hiding its use of such information, a reflection of its greater sophistication and political experience. The Trump campaign’s lack of sophistication and experience was manifest.
Allowing prominent members of Trump’s family to meet with Russian nationals who were offering embarrassing information about Clinton wasn’t a criminal offence, although lying under oath about such meetings would be. It was nonetheless exceedingly stupid.
Fortunately, stupidity is not a criminal offence, otherwise most of our elected officials would be in jail. Ditto for much of the media.
Finally, based on some of the disclosures in the indictment, it appears that the Mueller investigation has a highly-placed source within the Kremlin’s Internet Research Agency. This may be a lucky break or another connivance of Russian intelligence.
One of the surprising features of the entire Russian effort in influencing the 2016 election is how easily the evidence of Russian involvement has been uncovered. In fact, the entire Russian effort has been uncharacteristically sloppy. Sloppiness is not a trait of Russian intelligence.
It would have been relatively easy to hide the extent of the Russian effort by working through intermediaries.
The fact that they didn’t strongly suggests that the Kremlin didn’t care if their efforts were exposed. Indeed, they might have welcomed such revelations, knowing that evidence of the Kremlin’s involvement would further inflame social divisions.
The entire episode feels increasingly like a Russian intelligence operation designed to create political turmoil in the U.S. and exacerbate social tensions. By treating it as a criminal matter requiring a lengthy investigation, the U.S. government may have unwittingly exacerbated its effects and played directly into the Kremlin’s hands.
Regardless of the outcome of the Mueller investigation, and others, it’s unlikely that the extent or consequences of Russian meddling in the 2016 election will ever be resolved. Each side will take the facts that suit them and disregard the rest.
Conspiracy theorists will find plenty of fertile ground to spin ‘what-if’ scenarios. Nor is the matter over. With the 2018 elections just around the corner, it’s safe to assume that the issue will continue.
Joseph Micallef is an historian, best-selling author and, at times, sardonic commentator on world politics.