As the 2016 campaign enters the homestretch, Russian-American tensions continue to be a prominent theme in the rhetoric around the race.
At the last presidential debate on Oct. 19, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump sparred over which one of them was Russia’s “puppet”; Trump asserted that Clinton had been repeatedly outfoxed by Russian leader Vladimir Putin as secretary of state, while Clinton took Trump to task for downplaying Russia’s likely role in the theft of her campaign’s emails released by WikiLeaks.
Meanwhile, many Trump supporters and anti-establishment leftists have been accusing Clinton of reckless saber-rattling that could draw the United States into a disastrous military confrontation with Russia.
I don’t think that Trump is a Moscow agent any more than Clinton is a trigger-happy warmonger. But the shadow of the Kremlin hangs over this election in more ways than one.
While Russia has professed neutrality in the presidential election, there are many signs that the Kremlin would prefer to see Trump as president of the United States. The state-controlled Russian media have been friendlier toward him than Clinton. The U.S. intelligence community has said it believes Russia is behind the hacking and email dumps that are clearly intended to compromise the Clinton campaign. No comparable material has been released targeting the Republican camp. And intelligence experts who are no Clinton fans, such as former National Security Agency staffer John Schindler, have long warned that WikiLeaks has become a front for a Russian operation.
Many commentators also have noted that Trump fits the profile of the kind of Western political figure Putin generally supports: a nationalist and populist who has little commitment to the idea of the West as an alliance of liberal democracies or of international concepts of human rights. They say Trump is unlikely to step up the pressure on Putin to stop bullying his neighbors (let alone liberalize at home).
But another, equally convincing theory is that Putin’s goal is not so much to get Trump elected as to sow discord and undermine Americans’ faith in their civic and political institutions.
Indeed, as a watcher of what passes for politics in Russia, I am struck by the extent to which various features of Russia’s prevalent political mentality infect the rhetoric promoted by the Trump camp: the conspiratorial paranoia, the view of political opponents as traitors, the faith in a paternalistic savior of the nation. Of course, none of these things are entirely new to American political discourse across the political spectrum. What’s different is the degree, the intensity and the mainstreaming of such attitudes.
As for Clinton, there are many reasons to criticize her, but her tough stance toward Russia is not one of them. While we may sometimes need to cooperate with Russia against such global threats as Islamist terrorism, Russia’s actions over the past decade have conclusively shown it is no ally. (The pro-Trump right tends to view Russia as a bulwark against Islamism, conveniently forgetting its role as an enabler of the Iranian regime.) Making it clear that we will respond to Russia’s hostile actions, including cyberattacks, is not warmongering but deterrence.
Right now, our priority should be to push back against hyperbolic claims that our democratic process is so thoroughly rigged as to be a mere facade for ruling elites — claims that, whatever some may argue, are not backed by even the most unsavory WikiLeaks revelations.
The belief that Western democracy is a sham has conditioned a new generation of post-Soviet Russians to accept authoritarianism. If it takes root in America, it will also do irreparable harm.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.