Blind on Rus­sia

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - ap­ple­baum­let­ters@wash­post.com

“Ifeel like we sort of choked.” That’s how one for­mer ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial re­cently de­scribed Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s fail­ure to re­act to in­tel­li­gence re­ports on Krem­lin at­tempts to in­flu­ence the U.S. elec­tion. Plenty of other peo­ple — in­clud­ing, with ex­tra­or­di­nary cyn­i­cism, Pres­i­dent Trump — have also asked why more wasn’t done.

But now that the de­tails of that story are fi­nally com­ing into fo­cus — now that one Trump as­so­ciate has been linked di­rectly to Rus­sian hack­ers — it’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber the bigger pic­ture. For the real mys­tery is not why Obama didn’t stop Rus­sian hack­ing in 2016 but why didn’t ei­ther Obama, or Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush, or any of their Cab­i­net mem­bers, rec­og­nize the pe­cu­liar dan­gers posed by a resur­gent, ag­gres­sive Rus­sia years ear­lier — and how did that fail­ure help boost the ca­reers of peo­ple such as Trump?

The an­swers have to be­gin in the 1990s when the Soviet Union col­lapsed and most Amer­i­cans dropped the whole sub­ject of Rus­sia with great re­lief: At last, the Cold War was over and we could be­gin think­ing about some­thing else — maybe cli­mate change, or the Mid­dle East. Rus­sian speak­ers in the State Depart­ment be­gan re­train­ing to learn Ara­bic, strate­gists fo­cused their tal­ents else­where, and Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton in­vited Rus­sia to join the Group of Seven (G-7), which be­came the G-8.

In sub­se­quent years, no­body paid much at­ten­tion as Rus­sia, which many had hoped would be­come a West­ern-ori­ented, lib­er­al­iz­ing state, turned into some­thing quite dif­fer­ent. Or per­haps I should put it more strongly: No­body in West­ern pol­i­tics paid much at­ten­tion, but many oth­ers in the West were ea­ger to aid that trans­for­ma­tion. In par­tic­u­lar, many were ea­ger to help a ca­bal of re­van­chist for­mer KGB of­fi­cers, in league with Rus­sian or­ga­nized crime, to steal money that be­longed to the Rus­sian state, laun­der it abroad, bring it back and use it to take power. While West­ern pres­i­dents and prime min­is­ters were dis­tracted by other things, West­ern lawyers, ac­coun­tants, un­scrupu­lous off­shore bankers and even main­stream bankers were hap­pily tak­ing cuts.

Every­body wanted a piece of the ac­tion. In 2006, Ros­neft, a Rus­sian com­pany bla­tantly built on stolen as­sets, de­buted with great fan­fare on the Lon­don stock ex­change. The prospec­tus warned that “crime and cor­rup­tion could cre­ate a dif­fi­cult busi­ness cli­mate in Rus­sia,” but it was con­ve­nient, and very lu­cra­tive, to pre­tend that Rus­sia had a “nor­mal” busi­ness en­vi­ron­ment — with that small ex­cep­tion — nev­er­the­less. The same week the stock de­buted, Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin hosted a G-8 meet­ing in St. Peters­burg.

Here I am of­fer­ing a trun­cated ver­sion of this long and com­pli­cated story. But it’s worth re­call­ing the ba­sic el­e­ments be­cause they help ex­plain where we are to­day. Think about this: We still don’t know ex­actly how much Rus­sian money was in­vested in Trump’s real es­tate em­pire. But we do know that Rus­sian money flooded into New York real es­tate (and Lon­don real es­tate) over the past 15 years, where it pumped up prices, dis­torted hous­ing mar­kets, con­trib­uted to ris­ing in­equal­ity and helped en­rich Trump, among oth­ers. We know that Trump, among oth­ers, did deals with many peo­ple who had Rus­sian or ex-Soviet con­nec­tions. We also know that he has ad­mired Putin for many years, per­haps be­cause Putin used money to win po­lit­i­cal power and then used po­lit­i­cal power to make money, which is ex­actly what Trump clearly as­pired, suc­cess­fully, to do, too.

We also know that he was not alone. Rus­sian money was cor­rupt in a le­gal sense, but also in a softer sense: There was so much of it that it tempted banks and busi­nesses to cut cor­ners and per­suaded politi­cians to change sides. It drew in the for­mer Ger­man chan­cel­lor Ger­hard Schroeder, who works for an arm of Gazprom, a Rus­sian gas mo­nop­oly, and ar­gues Rus­sia’s case on Ger­man television. It funded the Na­tional Front, an ex­trem­ist, anti-NATO and anti-Euro­pean French po­lit­i­cal party whose leader made it into the fi­nal round of the French pres­i­den­tial elec­tions. It still sup­ports ex­trem­ist groups and ex­trem­ist pro­pa­gan­dists of both the far left and the far right all across Europe and, it now seems, in the United States as well.

For nearly two decades, in fact, the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment and Rus­sian com­pa­nies spent money sys­tem­at­i­cally to cre­ate cor­rupt busi­ness re­la­tion­ships as well as to un­der­mine democ­ra­cies in both Eastern and West­ern Europe. Dur­ing that pe­riod, no U.S. pres­i­dent or sec­re­tary of state ever took any threat from Rus­sia se­ri­ously, all of them ei­ther over­es­ti­mat­ing the Krem­lin’s good­will or un­der­es­ti­mat­ing its ca­pac­ity to do dam­age. Bush “looked into Putin’s eyes” in 2001 and got “a sense of his soul.” Obama dis­missed Putin back in 2013 as be­hav­ing “like a bored kid in the back of the class­room.”

Nei­ther one of them ever un­der­stood the cor­ro­sive ef­fect of Rus­sian money, whether on New York real es­tate or West­ern democ­racy. Nei­ther un­der­stood the sub­tle ways in which a large, klep­to­cratic, semi-crim­i­nal state on Europe’s bor­ders could threaten West­ern po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity. Nei­ther un­der­stood that the U.S. po­lit­i­cal sys­tem, like that of France, Ger­many and Ukraine, had be­come so vul­ner­a­ble, or that U.S. po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tives may have turned to Rus­sian hack­ers for help. By 2016, it was al­ready too late to stop Rus­sia, be­cause most of the dam­age had al­ready been done.

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