By MEGHAN BODETTE || August 4th, 2016
The Cold War has been over for nearly twenty-five years. Anyone watching the headlines of the past two weeks could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Fear of a potential Russian threat to the United States has returned to the news as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has been questioned about his ties to the Russian government– with implications not considered by many Americans since the height of superpower rivalry.
These questions began to arise after a series of staff hires, events, and policy statements that, taken together, may not appear coincidental. Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, was once employed by former Ukrainian prime minister Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Russian leader. Retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, who has advised Trump on foreign policy, has appeared multiple times on RT, a Russian state-funded news network. The presence of Manafort and Flynn, with all the personal connections to the Russian government that they bring, add a layer of suspicion to Trump’s positions on Ukraine and NATO– issues where Russia has a strong interest. The official Republican platform softened its position on the defense of Ukraine, removing language advocating ‘lethal’ aid to Ukrainian rebels. When asked about the change, Trump offered not a nuanced defense of the position— which is possible—but a refutation of any involvement and a bizarre assertion that “He [Vladimir Putin] is not going into Ukraine, okay?…he’s not gonna go into Ukraine.” Trump’s NATO policy has scarcely changed since his earlier pronouncement that the alliance was “obsolete”. He disregards Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, replacing “an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all” with a threat of conditional protection based on economic calculation.
Such a pattern of staff hires and policy statements, connecting to a state whose interests often conflict with American interests, warrants serious attention in and of itself. The recently publicized hack of Democratic National Committee servers makes further investigation of a potential Russian intervention in the Trump campaign essential.
The release of about 20,000 unflattering emails showing the Committee’s undemocratic inner workings, timed to hit just before the Democratic National Convention, comes across as an attempt to hurt Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and thereby benefit Trump. The origins of the attack make that goal more than a mere partisan statement. US officials agree that the DNC attack originated from Russia, and that it had at least tacit state approval there. Some experts argue that it was explicitly sponsored by the Russian government, pointing to Trump’s ties to Manafort and Flynn and his attitude toward NATO security guarantees as reasons why they would go to such lengths to support his candidacy.
If these allegations are true— and it is possible that they could be— we have just seen direct foreign intervention in the outcome of an American election. Some observers will feel as though 20th-century panic over Russian subterfuge is finally justified. But how exactly does Russian support of Trump relate and compare to the Cold War tradition of election interference by both superpowers— and to more subtle post-Cold War attempts at destabilization?
Since 1945, the Soviet Union and the United States interfered in the democratic processes of weaker states both within and outside of their respective spheres of influences, to keep these states from from allying with or moving too ideologically close to the other superpower. According to political scientist Dov Levin, this interference has occurred 117 times between 1945 and 2001— one out of every 9 elections. Military, economic, and political pressures have all been used, overtly and covertly, depending on the situation and the interests of the intervening state at the given time.
Classic examples of Soviet interference began with the sponsorship of Communist parties in Eastern European states close to Soviet borders, and the elimination of opposition figures to ensure that these states would come under Communist, and inevitably Soviet, control. Military forces were sent into these satellite states when leaders came about who advocated even slight breaks with Soviet policy, as in Hungary in 1956. The United States behaved similarly, working covertly to support anti-Communist parties and even sponsoring coups against governments perceived to be too leftist or too hostile to American interests. Often, this behavior has had a measurable effect— in the case of overt interventions, equivalent to an additional 3% of the total vote for the party or individual in favor of which the United States or the Soviet Union has intervened.
It is likely that any impact the DNC hack might have will be on a far smaller scale than that of these events. Trump is historically unpopular— even a 3% increase in his share of the vote might not propel him to victory. Russia is no longer a superpower, and the United States holds a greater share of relative world power than it does, lessening Russian ability to credibly influence American politics. However, this part of history is still important to keep in mind when considering both states’ actions today. The Cold War patterns of behavior detailed above establish election-related interference as a tactic used by both states to push their own interests. Because each state knows that the other has used this tactic, it knows that it might do so again, and that the tactic can be effective.
This suspicion has not ended with the breakdown of the bipolar order. Rather, it has evolved to fit shifting interests and a new technological landscape. Neither Russia nor the United States is likely to interfere with or overthrow an elected government because that government has moved too close to capitalist or communist ideology; neither is as likely to invest as much time and resources in altering the electoral outcome of a state far from its region as it might have during the Cold War. The growing power and prevalence of the Internet has opened cyberspace as a far wider field for competition and subterfuge— a field that many states have taken advantage of, from Chinese economic espionage against American companies to American use of the Stuxnet virus on computers in an Iranian nuclear facility. A state that sees an opportunity to use an old tactic for a new purpose, or against a new type of target, may benefit from that innovation— and if it believes that the benefit is credible, it is likely to pursue the opportunity.
It would be very reasonable for the Russian government to to evaluate a Trump presidency as a definite benefit, both for his pro-Russian foreign policy proposals and the disorder he would cause both within the United States and beyond it. This analysis, coupled with a sense of revenge for perceived American influence in pro-democratic “color revolutions” near its borders, could easily lead Russia to attempt to intervene, or condone intervention, in the 2016 election in favor of Trump. Whether he and his campaign are aware of it is, in a way, beside the point. Generalized instability exploited in favor of foreign interests can be as dangerous as targeted instability caused by foreign interests. In a world where any foreign intervention can have a tangible effect on democratic elections, and where the past 70 years have seen a marked pattern of such intervention, it is wise to be wary of both.