What Does Russiagate Look Like to Russians?
Last Wednesday, former adviser to Bill and Hillary Clinton Paul Begala stepped out of his usual milquetoast centrist costume and made a chest-thumping pronouncement on CNN.
"We were and are under attack by a hostile foreign power," he said. "We should be debating how many sanctions we should place on Russia, or whether we should blow up the KGB."
Begala's is the latest in a string of comments from prominent pols and pundits suggesting we are (or should be) in a state of war with nuclear-armed Russia.
Former DNC chair Donna Brazile tweeting this week, "The Communists are dictating the terms of the debate" – and not bothering to delete the error – is another weird example of what feels like intense longing in the Beltway to reignite the Cold War. (Begala wanting to blow up the long-dead KGB is another.)
James Clapper this spring saying Russians are "genetically driven to co-opt, penetrate, gain favor" also recalled the Sovietology era, when Russians were cast as evil, emotionless manipulators, cold as their icy homeland. CNN reporter Michael Weiss casting suspicion on people with Russian spouses is another creepy recent example.
For journalists like me who have backgrounds either working or living in Russia, the new Red Scare has been an ongoing freakout. A lot of veteran Russia reporters who may have disagreed with each other over other issues in the past now find themselves in like-minded bewilderment over the increasingly aggressive rhetoric.
Many of us were early Putin critics who now find ourselves in the awkward position of having to try to argue Americans off the ledge, or at least off the path to war, when it comes to dealing with the Putin regime.
There's a lot of history that's being glossed over in the rush to restore Russia to an archenemy role.
For one, long before the DNC hack, we meddled in their elections. This was especially annoying to Russians because we were ostensibly teaching them the virtues of democracy at the time. We even made a Hollywood movie on the topic (Spinning Boris, starring Jeff Goldblum and Anthony LaPaglia!).
After Boris Yeltsin won re-election in 1996, Time magazine ran a gloating cover story – YANKS TO THE RESCUE! – about three American advisers sent to help the pickling autocrat Yeltsin devise campaign strategy. Picture Putin sending envoys to work out of the White House to help coordinate Trump's re-election campaign, and you can imagine how this played in Russia.
Former Yeltsin administration chief Sergei Filatov denied that the three advisers did anything of value for Yeltsin. But even if Filatov is right, American interference throughout the Nineties was extensive.
For one thing, the privatization effort under Yeltsin, much of which was coordinated by Americans, helped lead to a little-understood devil's bargain that sealed Yeltsin's electoral victory.
President Clinton with Boris Yeltsin Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty
Essentially, Yeltsin agreed to privatize the jewels of Russian industry into the hands of a few insiders – we call them oligarchs now – in return for their overwhelming financial and media support in the '96 race against surging communist Gennady Zyuganov. The likes of Vladimir Potanin, Boris Berezovsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky were gifted huge fortunes before bankrolling Yeltsin's re-election bid.
How much of a hand we had in that infamous trade has never been explained. But Americans surely helped usher in the oligarch era by guiding Russia through its warped privatization process. In some expat circles back then, you found Americans who believed that by creating a cadre of super-wealthy Russians, we would create a social class that would be pre-motivated to beat back a communist revival.
This may have prevented a backslide into communism, but a by-product was accelerating a descent into gangsterism and oligarchy.
The West also aided Yeltsin during that election season by providing a $10.2 billion IMF loan that just happened to almost exactly match the cost of Yeltsin's vicious and idiotic invasion of Chechnya. (Yeltsin had been under fire for the cash crunch caused by the war.) Le Monde called the timely giganto-loan "an implicit vote in favor of candidate Yeltsin."
What most Americans don't understand is that the Putin regime at least in part was a reaction to exactly this kind of Western meddling.
The Yeltsin regime, which incidentally also saw wide-scale assassinations of journalists and other human rights abuses, was widely understood to be a pseudo-puppet state, beholden to the West.
The conceit of the Putin regime, on the other hand, was that while Putin was a gangster, he was at least the Russians' own gangster.
It's debatable how much success Putin really had at arresting the flight of Russian capital abroad that began in the Yeltsin years. But the legend that he would at least try to keep Russia's wealth in Russia was a key reason for his initial popularity.
Russians also have an opposite take on their "aggression" in Ukraine and Crimea, one that is colored by a history few in America know or understand.
When asked about the roots of the current Russian-American divide, former CIA analyst Melvin Goodman, the author of excellent books like Whistleblower in the CIA and Failure of Intelligence, points to a 1990 deal struck between Secretary of State James Baker and Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze.
The two men brokered a quid pro quo: The Soviets wouldn't oppose a re-united Germany, if the Americans promised not to "leapfrog" East Germany into the Russians' former sphere of influence.
Goodman later interviewed both men, who confirmed the key details. "They both used the word 'leapfrog,'" he says. "The Russians think we broke that deal."
Russia believes the U.S. reneged on the "leapfrog" deal by seeking to add the Baltics, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Georgia and even Ukraine to the NATO alliance.
To Russia, American denunciations of Russian adventurism in Crimea and eastern Ukraine seem absurd, when all they see is NATO leapfrogging its way ever-closer to their borders.
This is not to say that the Russians were right to move into Crimea or Eastern Ukraine. But it's easy to see why Russians would be frosty about America trying to put border states under the umbrella of NATO, or wigged out by Americans conducting war games in places like Latvia. Imagine, for instance, the response here in the States if the Russians conducted amphibious military exercises in the Baja Peninsula after promising to honor the Monroe doctrine.
As Goodman and others have pointed out, failing to predict the Soviet collapse was probably the biggest intelligence failure in our history. While Ronald Reagan and his cronies politicized intelligence and overhyped the Soviets as a mighty and monolithic force, the on-the-ground reality was that the Soviet Union was a crumbling third-world state besotted with crippling economic and infrastructural problems.
We missed countless opportunities for easier, safer and cheaper relations with the Russians by consistently mistaking their disintegrating Potemkin Empire for an ascendant threat.
It's not exactly the same story now, but it's close. Putin's Russia certainly has global ambitions, just as the Soviets did. But the game now is much more about connections and hot money than about geopolitics or territory. There's evidence that the Russians have tried to burrow their way into America's commercial and political establishment, but by most accounts the main route of entry has been financial.
If indeed Trump was a target of Russian efforts, we'll likely discover that this was not something that was exclusive to Trump but rather just one data point amid a broad, holistic strategy to curry favor and make connections across the American political class.
Still, these efforts are probably far more limited in scope than we've been led to imagine. DNC hack or no DNC hack, Russia is still a comparatively weak country with limited power to influence a nation like the U.S., especially since it's still dogged internally by those same massive economic and infrastructural problems it's always had. Putin's political grip on power at home is also far less sure than our pundits and politicians are letting on.
The generalized plan to create chaos in other industrialized states by seeding/spreading corruption and political confusion – which many in the intelligence community believe is an aim of Russian intelligence efforts – is revealing in itself. It's the strategy of a weak and unstable third-world state looking for a cheap way to stay in the game (and bolster its profile) versus more powerful industrial rivals. Hyping Russia as an all-powerful menace actually plays into this strategy.
But the Russians still have nukes, which is why we have to be very careful about letting rhetoric get too hot, especially with the president we now have.
For all the fears about Trump being a Manchurian Candidate bent on destroying America from within, the far more likely nightmare endgame involves our political establishment egging the moron Trump into a shooting war as a means of proving his not-puppetness.
This already almost happened once, when Trump fired missiles into Syria with Russian troops on the ground, seemingly as a means of derailing a Russiagate furor that was really spiraling that particular week. That episode proved that the absolute worst time to bang the war drum under Trump is when he's feeling vulnerable on Russia – which he clearly is now.
Rising anti-Russian hysteria and a nuclear button-holder in the White House who acts before he thinks is a very bad combination. We should try to chill while we still can, especially since the Russians, once again, probably aren't as powerful as we think.