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‘Imagine what would happen if ‘Voice of America’ tweeted #CorruptPutin’ Michael McFaul explains how Russia became a major theme in the US presidential race

Source: Meduza
Photo: Spencer Platt / Getty Images / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Russia has become one of the major themes of this year's presidential contest in the United States. While questions about domestic policy typically dominate the race to the White House, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and the biggest media outlets in the US have regularly focused on Vladimir Putin, the annexation of Crimea, and various acts by Russian intelligence agencies. At Meduza's request, former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul explains Moscow's unexpected role in the presidential election.

Russia surprisingly has become a major issue in the 2016 presidential election. The main reason is not what Russian officials have done, or business deals by Trump and Manafort in Russia and Ukraine, but rather policy positions that Trump has taken. He openly and often praises Putin as a strong leader. Trump also supports many policies that the Kremlin also supports. For instance, Trump has promised to “to look into” the recognition of Crimea as a part of Russia. With the exception of one or two people, no politician or advisor involved in foreign policy—Democrat or Republican—shares Trump's views. Most of the world also has rejected this idea. Only a handful of countries—Afghanistan, Cuba, Nicaragua, North Korea, Syria, and Venezuela—share Trump's position. 

Mr. Trump also has made many statements that make our NATO allies nervous. He also has made clear his absolute rejection of defending human rights or promoting democracy abroad. Moreover, Trump has argued for moral equivalency between President Putin and President Obama. When asked by MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough about Putin’s policies, Trump responded, “Well, we are doing a lot of killing ourselves…” That was shocking to hear. No previous American politician has ever said such things. Trump also has encouraged Russian intelligence agencies to conduct more espionage again Secretary Clinton. All of these comments have made Russia a much bigger issue in this campaign than usual.

I do not remember a candidate for president who has ever advocated such positions. Trump's stances are especially unusual for a Republican-Party candidate, as they usually adopt more confrontational stances regarding Russia. Remember in 2012, Mr. Romney called Russia our number one enemy. And during the Cold War, Republicans adopted even tougher language towards the USSR. Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union the evil empire. Trump’s positions are a radical departure from these Republican-Party traditions.

Secretary Clinton has taken the exact opposite positions. She will never recognize Crimea as part of Russia, she believes in strengthening NATO and making more credible our commitments to defend our allies, and she speaks out about human rights. Clinton has different views on Russia and wants voters to understand the contrast. Therefore, Russia will remain a campaign issue all the way until November.

In a few interviews, Putin has said some positive things about Trump. And why shouldn't he, as Trump supports his policies? Its very rational on Putin’s part. Those comments, however, have generated a lot of attention in the US, including first and foremost from Trump himself. Strikingly, Putin has never said anything positive about Secretary Clinton, even though he has met her several times, unlike Trump.

Trump has noticed, and is thrilled with the praise. He mentions it often on the campaign trail. He wrongly claims that Putin called him a “genius.” I have searched around the Internet, and I have never heard Putin call Trump a genius. Trump made that up. But Putin’s approving words have prompted Trump to say very nice things about Putin.

In my opinion, Putin’s remarks about Trump will not influence voting. The only impact could be positive for Clinton as Ukrainian-American, Polish-American, or Lithuanian-American voters may be more likely to support her. These voters, by the way, tend to live in swing states—Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida—so the impact could be small, but consequential.

I do think Russian government officials should think more strategically, and remember that Secretary Clinton could very well be sworn in as president on January 20, 2017. They should stop offending her. I can tell you that, when the Russian government agency Sputnik tweets “#CrookedHillary,” her campaign notices and it's not amused. Instead, I think more caution now might make it easier to engage in 2017.

Russia hasn't gotten so much attention in a presidential election in the last thirty years.

And government-controlled news agencies in Russia have never been so blatantly in favor of one US candidate. When Sputnik just repeats Trump's accusations and campaign slogans, such as asserting falsely that Obama is the “founder” of ISIS or tweeting the hashtag #CrookedHillary,” that generates attention here. Imagine if Voice of America had tweeted “#CorruptPutin” in 2012! The Kremlin would have gone absolutely mad! Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak attended a campaign speech by Mr. Trump. (To the best of my knowledge, he has not attended an event at which Secretary Clinton spoke.) Imagine the uproar if I had attended a campaign speech by Mikhail Prokhorov in the run up to the March 2012 presidential vote in Russia! 

But these are minor issues compared to the serious policy disagreements about Russia that have now crystallized between Clinton and Trump.

I personally do not believe that Trump’s financial relationships with Russia have any effect on his policies. And to the best of my knowledge, Trump has not lied about meeting Putin. They've never met. I think the focus of attention should be on Trump’s policy statements on Russia and not his business deals.

The stealing of Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails is a major story that deserves attention, especially if Russia provided this stolen data to Wikileaks. On background, US government officials reported that they have “high confidence” Russian agents hacked into the DNC and other Democratic-Party email accounts. Crowdstrike, a private company founded by former FBI officers, reported that “Cozy Bear” and “Fancy Bear” (code names for actors affiliated with two Russian intelligence agencies) were the culprits. I personally have spoken to senior officials in the US government, who have no doubt that Russian actors hacked into the DNC's servers. 

Why, by the way, is anyone surprised by this activity? That is their job, just like it is the job of American intelligence agencies to gather the same kind of data. They should not get caught, of course, but they should lose their jobs if they are not seeking to obtain this kind of information. And Russia is good at this kind of espionage, as I learned firsthand working in the US government for five years.

The part of this story that is unique is the possible use of this information to influence our elections. Let's be clear about what we know and what is speculation. We know with certainty that Wikileaks—not the Kremlin—published these emails on the eve of the Democratic National Convention with the clear and successful intent of disrupting the convention, the Democratic Party, and damaging their candidate for president, Hillary Clinton. I personally did not think there was anything shocking in the leaked emails, but supporters of Bernie Sanders did. These leaked emails by a foreign organization (remember Wikileaks is not an American NGO) led to the removal of the chair of the Democratic Party. That is amazing.

We cannot say with absolute certainty that the Russian government gave these emails to Wikileaks. And we will never know for certain (unless our intelligence agencies intercepted the transfer!—that's a joke). Wikileaks protects its sources. And Russian intelligence agencies are good at what they do. Mr. Bortnikov would never just call up Mr. Assange and say, “Hey, Julian, I have some great info for you!” Of course, they would use cutouts—third parties and fourth parties—to make sure that the Russian role was never known by Wikileaks. But to date, we do not know who else might have supplied the data to Wikileaks. (Another actor, Guccifer 2.0, claims to have made the transfer, but our intelligence organizations believe that this entity is also affiliated with Russia.)

And Wikileaks has promised to release more information right before the November election. It claims that this new data will do irreparable damage to Clinton. This is a big deal. This situation is unique. That is why this story is getting so much media attention.

Trump has made Russia an issue in this election. A year ago, I would have predicted that the Republican nominee would be criticizing Secretary Clinton and President Obama for the Reset. But Trump’s unique positions have changed everything. What we don't know is whether this debate about Russia will have any impact on the election's outcome. That will be interesting to see in November. 

Michael McFaul

Stanford, California

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