The U.S. role in Rus­sia’s elec­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY TOM MALINOWSKI

Rus­sia Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin de­nies med­dling in U.S. pol­i­tics — though he some­times sug­gests, with a wink, that “pa­tri­otic” Rus­sians may have done so. But there is one point that he al­ways in­sists on: that the United States does the same to oth­ers. He has charged that the U.S. gov­ern­ment in­ter­fered “ag­gres­sively” in Rus­sia’s 2012 pres­i­den­tial vote, which Putin won af­ter a year of protests against him. He claims that Wash­ing­ton “gath­ered op­po­si­tion forces and fi­nanced them.” At the re­cent Group of 20 sum­mit, Putin ap­par­ently got Pres­i­dent Trump to agree to a mu­tual com­mit­ment that nei­ther coun­try would in­ter­fere in the other’s elec­tions.

Is this moral equiv­a­lence fair? In short, no. Rus­sia’s in­ter­fer­ence in the United States’ 2016 elec­tion could not have been more dif­fer­ent from what the United States does to pro­mote democ­racy in other coun­tries, ef­forts for which I was re­spon­si­ble as a State De­part­ment of­fi­cial. But from Putin’s frame of ref­er­ence, the dis­tinc­tion is with­out a dif­fer­ence. And therein lies a larger truth about U.S.-Rus­sian re­la­tions.

The U.S. gov­ern­ment never hacked into Rus­sian lead­ers’ emails and re­leased them se­lec­tively to fa­vor one side in their elec­tions, or flooded Rus­sian so­cial me­dia with fake sto­ries to dis­credit their rul­ing party. What it did do, un­til the U.S. Agency for In­ter­na­tional De­vel­op­ment was ex­pelled from Rus­sia in 2012, was help fund some of the coun­try’s lead­ing non­govern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions. These in­cluded the hu­man rights group Me­mo­rial, the Com­mit­tee Against Tor­ture and, most im­por­tant, given the drama to come, a group called Go­los, Rus­sia’s main non­govern­ment or­ga­ni­za­tion for elec­tion-fraud mon­i­tor­ing. This non­par­ti­san ef­fort aimed to strengthen democ­racy for ev­ery­one in Rus­sia, not to steer the out­come.

If the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment were to of­fer grants in the United States to NGOs that pro­mote vot­ing rights for mi­nor­ity ci­ti­zens, or that fight cor­rup­tion in our pol­i­tics, that would be the equiv­a­lent of what the United States did, and we would have no cause to com­plain. In­deed, to this day, we let the Krem­lin fund a Rus­sian cul­tural cen­ter in Wash­ing­ton (though it closed the U.S. cul­tural cen­ter in Moscow) and al­low its Sput­nik pro­pa­ganda out­let to broad­cast on FM ra­dio in the United States (though it has de­nied Voice of Amer­ica a li­cense to broad­cast lo­cally in Rus­sia). We don’t stop Rus­sia or any other coun­try from try­ing to in­flu­ence pub­lic de­bate in the United States on any is­sue.

But the dif­fer­ence be­tween par­ti­san and non­par­ti­san in­flu­ence is lost on Putin, for rea­sons that make per­fect sense in his real­ity. If you are a Rus­sian pres­i­dent try­ing to rig an elec­tion — as the Euro­pean Court of Hu­man Rights re­cently ruled Putin’s party did in leg­isla­tive elec­tions in 2011 — you are not go­ing to view or­ga­ni­za­tions such as Go­los that un­cover your fraud as po­lit­i­cally neu­tral. If you are amass­ing il­licit wealth, you will look at or­ga­ni­za­tions that ex­pose cor­rup­tion in Rus­sia as par­ti­san in­stru­ments of po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion. You will as­sume the United States sees this, too, and that it funds such or­ga­ni­za­tions not to ad­vance some ab­stract ideal, but with the in­ten­tion of get­ting rid of you.

In a sense, the cen­tral prob­lem in U.S.-Rus­sian re­la­tions has been a form of psychological pro­jec­tion. Putin views for­eign pol­icy as a means of en­hanc­ing Rus­sia’s — and his regime’s — se­cu­rity, power and wealth in a zero-sum com­pe­ti­tion with other states. He as­sumes Amer­i­cans are the same. We may talk about free­dom for Rus­sians, or safety for Syr­ian civil­ians, or sovereignty for Ukraini­ans, but he can’t imag­ine that we ac­tu­ally be­lieve in such sen­ti­ments or al­low them to dic­tate pol­icy. Only a chump would do that. To him, our rhetoric of hu­man rights and uni­ver­sal norms is just a weapon wielded to weaken our en­e­mies.

As Putin projects his cyn­i­cism on us, we have pro­jected our prag­ma­tism on him. Suc­ces­sive U.S. ad­min­is­tra­tions thought they could give a few grants to Rus­sian NGOs and crit­i­cize Putin when he cracked down on dis­sent (as Hil­lary Clin­ton did), while con­tin­u­ing to work with Rus­sia on shared se­cu­rity in­ter­ests. If the United States was will­ing to com­part­men­tal­ize our re­la­tion­ship, in­su­lat­ing co­op­er­a­tion on Iran, fight­ing ter­ror­ists or trade from ar­eas of dis­agree­ment, surely Rus­sia could, too. We did not con­sider that an in­se­cure dic­ta­tor such as Putin would view our help for Rus­sians cham­pi­oning free elec­tions as a knife to his throat — a threat to his sys­tem that jus­ti­fied a strike at the heart of ours.

Should we have re­frained from sup­port­ing democ­racy in Rus­sia? I’m not sure we could have. As hard as it is for Putin to imag­ine, ideals are part of Amer­ica’s iden­tity; even if we’d tried to stay silent, he would even­tu­ally have done some­thing U.S. lead­ers would have felt com­pelled to con­demn. Even un­der Trump, Congress will keep fund­ing hu­man rights ac­tivists from Rus­sia and around the world, and the U.S. jus­tice sys­tem will keep pros­e­cut­ing Rus­sian cor­rup­tion. These things are in our laws and part of our DNA.

Rather, I think, we should be more re­al­is­tic about our ide­al­ism. The ad­vance­ment of democ­racy and hu­man rights is as se­ri­ous a busi­ness as any­thing we do in our for­eign pol­icy and can­not be treated as an af­ter­thought in our re­la­tions with great pow­ers. Af­ter all, the stakes for them, and ul­ti­mately for us, are ex­is­ten­tial. The writer served as as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of state for democ­racy, hu­man rights and la­bor from 2014 to 2017.

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