In all the chatter about Russian interference in the last election, one question keeps coming up. It’s never fully answered and because of that, the question as to whether or not such interference occurred remains in play. At this point, it’s like climate change—everyone knows it happened, but how, in what form, and to what end are details the absence of which seem to insulate the president for the time being. That seems about to change with Comey’s testimony.
But that question—why, what does Putin hope to gain, what’s the pay-off?—bedevils people. Especially people raised on spy thrillers and James Bond and post-Cold War conspiracy porn.
It seems fairly evident that any hacks of voting systems were ineffective in changing ballots or anything so direct. What is important is the fact of the attempted hacking not the direct results on tallies. Something was done, but because there does not seem to be the kind of result that makes sense in terms of past history and strategic movements of the sort we expect, the whole thing exists in a murk.
Which was the point.
Putin would like to “restore” Russia to the size and influence of the former Soviet Union. He doesn’t necessarily want to resurrect the U.S.S.R. politically, at least not in terms of collectivist, Marxist ideology. That nonsense doesn’t interest him. He’s interested in power, pure and simple, and the one threat to that is still—the United States.
The telling moment was this whole mess in Ukraine. Not till the threat of NATO membership did Putin act. Despite what Trump might say, NATO still has teeth. Membership in the alliance carries many benefits beyond simple military cooperation and mutual defense, although that is huge when you stop to think about it—the confidence that the member states will guarantee your sovereignty has tremendous ancillary benefits. You can act in your own best interests without, or at least with much less, fear that those actions will be crushed by a neighbor. Which is what has happened to Ukraine.
Power and money, at this level, are two sides of the same coin. The sanctions imposed on Russia by Obama have throttled a potential windfall from the Siberian oil fields. Ukraine was a part of that. There is a huge amount of money bottled up because of Putin violating Ukrainian sovereignty. What he wants more than anything else is to get those sanctions lifted so the oil will flow.
But more than that, in the long run, he wants a free hand in his part of the world. He’s not exporting revolution, that’s no longer part of the Russian identity. He just wants to be a big, bad bear, in charge of his tundra, and able to play as an equal on the world stage. He wants what he possibly believes the West has been keeping Russian from since 1917.
In spite of the fact that over the last three decades we have hamstrung our ability to be a positive force in the world because we can’t see how making money and human rights conflict in the Third World, and because we are unwilling to put a muzzle on our corporations when they go into other countries and poison environments, undercut reforms, and damage the people we think we’re helping, it remains possible for us to actually do what we should have done after the Soviet Bloc collapsed, namely rebuild and stand for justice. We in fact do that, in limited but occasionally spectacular ways, but we rarely hear about any of it and too often we do a half-assed job because of our inability to see our way past our own paranoia and self interest. (The chaos and mess in Iraq is an example of shortsighted greed undercutting what might have turned out to be a major success, but I won’t go into that here.)
What Putin wants most is for our political will to remain locked up in a struggle with itself over questions of money versus ethical action. We have been doing a reasonably good job of keeping ourselves disorganized and conflicted without his help. But it is just possible that he sees what we do not yet see, and that is a younger generation coming up that is fed up with this kind of inanity that will put into power people who will act positively. That will impact the money sector, certainly, but its biggest impact may well be globally with an America once more of the kind that created the Peace Corps and embraced a humanitarian mission. It might create an America willing to call Putin’s bluff.
Of course, it’s not just the United States. And so we’ve been seeing signs of Russian interference in many elections, most recently in France (where it backfired and where the newly elected president publicly scolded Russia), not with a view to invasion or anything so dramatic, but purely for the chaos resulting that will distract the West from Putin’s actions. Putin can do nothing but benefit from a West that is paying little or no attention because it is tangled up in petty feuds and ideological mudwrestling. Undermining our confidence in our own electoral process will only feed that chaos and render us even less effective.
Did Trump and his people collude with the Russians to fix the election? Probably not, at least not in those terms. I think Trump really believed he could win without interference. I think he may have thought he was playing Putin, accepting a hand that would gain him advantage with the Russians afterward. Did he do it out any embrace of treason? No, he did it because a deal was on the table and there was a lot of money to be made, and that is simply how Trump sees the world. If he is impeached over any of this I suspect he will be genuinely surprised. It was, after all, the Game, and he sees himself a master of that game.
What he will not understand is that his game is the least important one and the one Putin is playing is both more sophisticated and more devious and with stakes Trump just might not understand.
But the bottom line is likely to be, all Putin wants is what he now has. We’re distracted, we’ve suffered a blow to the confidence in our systems and institutions, and the bitter squabbling over the right to make as much money as avarice demands continues but now with even less intelligent players.