Trump, Putin’s Useful Idiot?

Trump, Putin’s Useful Idiot?

On November 8th, the two candidates with the lowest net-favourability ratings to ever contest the American Presidential election will end their historic Presidential race. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are more strongly disliked at this point than at any point in the previous ten presidential cycles. Such is the strangeness of this campaign that it has barely been remarked upon that Hillary Clinton will be the first female President if elected, and Trump the first whose principal professional credential is serving as a chief executive officer.

This campaign has also been the first to involve attempted interference by a foreign power. Barack Obama has officially accused Russia of hacking into US political systems in an attempt to interfere with the process (a claim that both Trump and Russia has denied). Russian interference is less about getting Trump elected than undermining trust in the American political process, and undermining the legitimacy of a Clinton victory. Russia is using the same tactics it has deployed against the likes of Estonia, Georgia and Ukraine – all countries with which Russia has had major geopolitical disputes – owing to Trump and Clinton’s unprecedented unpopularity, appears to have suffered no negative consequences.

Seventeen US Intelligence Agencies, civilian and military, have all concluded that the Russian government was either behind, or directly facilitated, the hacking of American institutions like the Democratic National Committee and the accounts of figures such as former secretary of state Colin Powell and John Podesta, the Chairman of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and passing them to organisations such as Wikileaks. All of these hacks were done using the same tools: short Bitly URLs hidden in fake Gmail messages.

In July 2016, WikiLeaks released 19,252 emails and 8,034 attachments from Democratic Party officials. The emails seemed to demonstrate the split between the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Clinton’s democratic challenger, Senator Bernie Sanders. This led the chair of the Democratic National Committee, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, to resign on the eve of the Democratic party convention. David Axelrod, a former advisor to President Obama, tweeted that the DNC’s treatment of Sanders amounted to putting the finger on the scale for Clinton.

In recent weeks, WikiLeaks has been dropping daily instalments of its trove of John Podesta’s emails, with the aim of weakening Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Although these emails have, for the most part, failed to uncover any fresh scandals, they have revealed ugly facets of Clinton controversies that were already known about: the relationship between the Clinton Foundation and its donors, Clinton’s easy relationship with powerful interests on Wall Street and ties to wealthy campaign donors.

The embarrassment hasn’t stopped at Clinton’s ties with financial interests: it emerged that Donna Brazile, the interim chair of the Democratic National Committee, in her role as a CNN commentator, provided Clinton with a question that was asked of Clinton at a March 13 Town Hall event with Senator Sanders. Brazile has since said that she felt the email may have been doctored by Russian hackers, raising the question of why make the effort of hacking an email account if you intend to doctor the emails. CNN, for their part, denied giving Brazile access to any questions, but at the same time expressed alarm at her interactions with the Clinton campaign while she was a CNN contributor.

Many of the email leaks have been reported as part of the election news cycle without questions being asked of Russia and WikiLeaks interference in the electoral process. WikiLeaks, in releasing unreacted documents, has left a trail of destruction in its wake over the years, violating the privacy of many individuals who were not in any way involved in corrupt activity.

WikiLeaks released its first document in 2006 – an order for the assassination of multiple Somali government officials, however the organization became known internationally in 2010 with the release of “The Iraq War Logs” and “The “Afghan War Diary.” The logs, provided by whistleblower Chelsea Manning, contained 490,000 documents related to the war. The long-term impact of the narrative surrounding the war was limited.

WikiLeaks release on November 28, 2010 of classified United States diplomatic cables was more influential. A second tranche of cables were released in September 2011 after David Leigh of the Guardian inadvertently published an encryption passphrase to the cables in a book. On 1 September 2011, WikiLeaks decided to publish all 251,287 unedited documents. The documents had a significant political impact, enriching our understanding of six countries central to U.S foreign policy: Libya, Pakistan, Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia and Iraq. Research from Atlantic Wire found that nearly half of 2011’s New York Times issuesrelied on WikiLeaks.

Although many of the problems Obama is charged with were not of his creation, Putin has taken advantage of Obama’s attempt to stand back from the wars in the Muslim world by creating facts on the ground. In 2006, Assange published a series of essays that have since been seen as an explanation of his political philosophy. These included opposition to what he saw as being secrecy-based, authoritarian governments. He included the US government in this category.

Russia’s initial response was to dismiss Assange as a “petty thief running around on the Internet” and hint, none-too-subtly, that WikiLeaks could be destroyed via cyberwarfare if WikiLeaks ever started to cause trouble in Moscow. As it turns out, Assange has done little to cause trouble. As Putin’s government has become increasingly authoritarian – jailing, spying on, and assassinating opponents – WikiLeaks relationship with Russia has become ever closer. Putin has repeatedly taken up Assange’s cause, calling charges against Assange “politically motivated” and claimed that Assange was being “persecuted for spreading the information he received from the U.S. military regarding the actions of the U.S.A. in the Middle East, including Iraq.”

Hillary Clinton, then Secretary of State, called the release a “tear on the fabric of government” and emphasised that she wanted to “make it clear to our partners and our friends that we are taking aggressive steps” to hold those who leaked the documents to account. Assange told TIME Magazine that Clinton should resign “if it can be shown that she was ordering U.S. diplomatic figures to engage in espionage in the United Nations.” Assange wasn’t the only one to call for Clinton to step down – respected political journalists such as Jack Shafer did too. But although Assange famously claimed in the TIME Interview that “We don’t have targets,” this claim simply does not stand up.

In Assange’s book “When Google Met WikiLeaks,” Assange details the Clinton State Department’s relationship with Google. And the dump of the DNC emails seems to have been timed to cause maximum damage to the Clinton campaign. Assange told Fox News Anchor Megyn Kelly in August that his organization was going to release “potentially significant information” about Hillary Clinton in September 2016 and accused Clinton of being the “security candidate” and “palling up with the neocons responsible for the Iraq War and she’s grabbed on to this sort of neo-McCarthyist hysteria about Russia, and is using that to demonize the Trump campaign.”

Clinton’s enmity with Putin goes back a long way. In 2013, she advised President Obama to snub Putin, avoid working with him and turn down any invitations by Putin for a Presidential summit. While Secretary of State in 2009, Clinton attempted a “reset” of relations with Russia. However, this went nowhere and Russia instead began military adventures in Ukraine and Syria. In December 2011, Putin took the unusual step of accusing Clinton of inciting unrest in Russia, by “sending a signal to some actors in our country,” arguing that “millions of dollars in foreign money” to influence Russian politics, and accusing Clinton of personally spurring protesters into action.

In Hillary Clinton, Assange and Putin have a common enemy. We can’t look at WikiLeaks recent release of hacked Democratic National Committee emails without also unpicking this relationship.

Trump has consistently praised Putin as a strong leader, even as the evidence that Russia has attempted to influence the US election mounts. Trump even suggested that Russia should release the emails deleted from Hillary Clinton’s private server, before insisting the remarks were sarcastic. Putin, for his part, has praised Trump as a “colourful and talented man” and, in June, saying “Mr Trump has declared that he’s ready for the full restoration of Russian-American relations. Is there anything bad there? We all welcome this, don’t you?” On the 7th September, Trump praised Putin again, saying that Putin had been more of a leader than Barack Obama, and that as President he would have a “very good relationship with Putin,” and saying that the United States and Putin had a joint interest in defeating Islamic State. “If we had a relationship with Russia wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could work together and knock the hell out of ISIS?” At the final Presidential debate on October 19th 2016, Trump insisted that while Putin “wasn’t his best friend,” that “if the United States got along with Russia, wouldn’t be so bad.”

But Russia hasn’t gone after ISIS. In fact, Russia’s intervention has, thus far, disproportionately targeted areas with little or no ISIS presence. Despite this, Trump is confident that Putin will eventually get around to targeting ISIS, and has excoriated the Obama administration for “backing people who they don’t know who they are,” and warning that rebels backed by the United States could be ISIS.

In March 2016, Trump took aim at alliances that America has held for generations. Trump told the Washington Post that while NATO may be “a good thing to have … it’s costing us a fortune,” and reiterating to the New York Times “our country’s a poor country.” Trump also insinuated that he was happy to abandon Japan and other allies in East Asia “unless they paid us more” and that “we’re totally predictable, and predictable is bad.”

Trump seems to have a very transactional view on alliances. Alliances help America deter aggression, give America influence over other nation’s decisions, and legitimise American action around the world. They also form an important element of America’s global leadership – which is based on America’s soft power. Russia and China can’t hope to create the same international coalitions, and thus they struggle to find support for their stances on controversial issues.

Putin came to power promising to “get Russia off its knees,” impose strong law and order, and crush terrorism. Trump promises to “Make America Great Again,” has proclaimed himself the law and order candidate and promised to crush terrorism. Trump lamented that the Constitution would require a suspected bomber Ahmad Khan Rahami to be treated fairly. “He will be represented by an outstanding lawyer. His case will go through the various court systems for years and in the end, people will forget and his punishment will not be what it once would have been. What a sad situation.” Trump has promised to revive torture as a US government practice. Putin has spoken at length about the need to revive Slavic and Orthodox traditions. Trump began his campaign with a pledge to build a large wall on America’s southern border and deport the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Trump has borrowed much of his rhetoric on Muslims from far-right American activists: rhetoric that was once denounced as bigotry, but which has now found its way into the Republican mainstream.

Trump has succeeded in combining positions that are populist but unpopular with establishment conservatives: defending Social Security, guaranteeing universal health care, and economic nationalist trade policies. Russia has forged alliances with populist groups such as the AfD.

Trump, even after calling upon Russia to hack the email server of Hillary Clinton, has continued to question the certainty that Russia is behind the hacking of Democratic National Committee emails. “She’s saying Russia, Russia, Russia, but I don’t know. Maybe it was. It could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It could also be someone sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.” Trump even went as far as to suggest that some good may have come of the hack: “But what did we learn with DNC? We learned that Sen. Bernie Sanders I-Vt. was taken advantage of by your people,” he said, directing his comment to Clinton. 

Michael V. Hayden, a principal at the Chertoff Group and visiting professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, argued three days ago that Trump was playing the role of polezni dorak or a “useful fool, some naif, manipulated by Moscow, secretly held in contempt, but whose blind support is happily accepted and exploited.” Clinton has said that Trump would be a “puppet” for Russian President Putin if he were elected to the White House.

Since President Obama imposed sanctions on Russia last year, Russia has ramped up cyber attacks to an unprecedented extent, and are targeting a wide array of US businesses. Cyber security firm Crowdstrike has recorded over 10,000 Russian intrusions at companies worldwide in 2015 alone. Many see the recent reports that Moscow infiltrated the State Department and White House networks – giving them access to President Obama’s schedule – as a key turning point in Russian government hacking.

This is nothing new for citizens in Russia’s near neighbourhood. In 2007 Estonia found that its websites had been subjected to heavy attacks, blaming Russia for playing a part. During the Russo-Georgian war, Russia was accused of attacking Georgian government websites, with the Georgian central government site, the site for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Georgian Ministry of Defence coming under attack. Thus far, the response from the West has been measured at best. President Obama stated that he was weighing a “proportional” response to Russia’s efforts to interfere with the U.S. election campaign. The U.K. Chancellor Philip Hammond has said that the U.K must be able to retaliate in kind against cyber-attacks.

In April 2013, Joseph Nye, the author of the concept of “soft power” argued in Foreign Policy that Russia and China do not understand the concept of soft power and do not know how to wield it. If Russia didn’t understand then, they certainly do now. Russian media outlets such as Russia Today and Sputnik Television are tools in Russia’s information war, and have been used variously to intervene in decision-making, fomenting insurrection, denigrate countries international reputations and develop native pro-Kremlin media.

Today, Western media and Western society is ill-prepared to counter Russian propaganda and cyber threats and campaigns of disinformation. Western media is under financial pressure. At the start of 2016, American intelligence agencies pledged to conduct a major investigation into how the Kremlin is infiltrating political parties in Europe. A source said “Right across the EU we are seeing alarming evidence of Russian efforts to unpick the fabric of European unity on a whole range of vital strategic issues.”

Thus far, the Western response has been entirely inadequate: neither the U.K. nor the US can seem to decide whether to retaliate, a task that won’t be made any easier in the U.K. with pro-Russian Jeremy Corbyn on the other side of the dispatch box, and Putin has shown his willingness to impose facts on the ground in Ukraine. Putin has proven that he is willing to use destabilisation techniques across Europe: in Austria, the Netherlands and the UK, blending traditional military power with cyber warfare. Donald Trump fits the mould of Russia’s ‘useful idiot.’ Hillary Clinton is far from perfect, but a Trump victory would be a calamity for international security. Voters should choose wisely.

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