Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

A Disastrous Conspiracy

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, August 1, 2017 --  

Relations between the United States and Russia are in terrible shape. Russian election meddling is largely to blame.

Did Russian President Vladimir Putin conspire with Donald Trump to make him President of the United States? If so, then the project has turned out to be an utter disaster for the Kremlin.

Today, Vice President Pence visited the former Soviet Republic of Georgia where he reaffirmed support for the country joining NATO.1 This, you may remember, is a country with two northern provinces occupied by Russian troops since a brief war in 2008. More recently, it has sent volunteers to fight Russian troops in Ukraine. As Russia and Georgia continue to dispute the status of occupied Georgian territories, the nations remain technically at war.

For the first time since hostilities ended, the United States has reaffirmed plans to enter a military alliance with Russia's enemy. Starting yesterday, American troops joined Georgian and other regional militaries in joint exercises on Russia's border.

On the same visit, Pence said President Trump would soon sign new sanctions on Russia passed overwhelmingly by America's congress. In response, Russia has announced plans to expel diplomatic personnel from Russia, saying the State Department must cuts its staff by 755 by September 1.2

Clearly, this is not the Russian-American rapprochement that many Russians and American analysts expected under the administration. Public outrage over allegations of Russian election meddling -- allegations pushed by Democrats and some congressional Republicans -- have paralyzed the administration on the issue.

When it comes to Russia, the Trump administration has had to spend all its energy trying to fight off investigations into alleged collusion with Russia, first by the FBI and then by special counsel Robert Mueller. When it comes to actual Russia policy, it has little choice but to go along with actions by others (like the new Russia sanctions passed by Congress) or with previously planned military exercises in Georgia.

The administration is under intense pressure to avoid any appearances of returning favors to Russia. So any time the administration does shift policy it tends to be toward a more hawkish stance -- exactly like Pence showed in his comments earlier today.

Despite his official denials, there is no doubt that Putin did seek to influence the American presidential election in order to keep Hillary Clinton out of the White House. Much like other special interest groups, the Russian government seeks to assist candidates it finds appealing. Assorted Russian minions of varying levels of competence used connections and information to try to hurt Clinton as much as possible. They did this because Putin's bitter feelings toward Clinton for her own election meddling in Russia. Back in 2011 and 2012, the Clinton State Department backed massive protests in Russia that broke in response to election fraud. Clinton's public support for the Russian opposition infuriated Putin.

But to try and paint this as a grand conspiracy worthy of outrage is silly. it is beyond naive to think that nations do not seek to influence the domestic affairs of other countries. The West typically uses non-governmental organizations (some of whom get government grants) to help build democracy in authoritarian regimes. Is this interference? Absolutely. Is it wrong? The answer to that is in the eye of the beholder. Foreign meddling typically arouses nationalistic anger, and certainly upsets those in power. But it's hard to make the case that American attempts to influence elections in Russia are OK, but the attempts by Russia to influence American elections are not.

Russia's interference in the American election was ham-fisted and of dubious efficacy. It probably did not tip the scales to a Trump victory. (Clinton needed no help being a terrible candidate.) What it did mange to create a durable controversy that will continue to haunt the administration. This controversy has effectively tied the Trump administration's hands from any softening of relations between the United States and Russia.

Could a President Clinton have been a better choice for Russia? Ironically, yes. Given the terrible state of today's relations, and the limited opportunities for improvement, it's hard to imagine she could have been any worse.


1. Bloomberg News, Pence Says U.S. Backs Georgia in NATO Over Russian Objection, August 1, 2017

2. Washington Post, President Trump Silent on Russia After Putin Announced Expulsion of U.S. Diplomats, July 31, 2017