Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, recently told an NBC News reporter, “Every elected official in the Ukraine was for Hillary Clinton. Is that very different than the Russians being for Donald Trump?”
This false equivalence—a tactic used by Russia itself—completely and dangerously mischaracterizes the threat we are facing.
What Republicans like Burr are pointing to as Ukrainian interference amounts to a few op-eds and tweets from Ukrainian officials who took issue with candidate Trump saying he might recognize Crimea as Russian territory. Republicans have also pointed to the publication of “the black ledger,” a document that outlines secret, illegal payments from former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Included in that ledger was the name Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager. Republicans claim that the release of this information was aimed at damaging Trump’s campaign. In hearings, Republicans have also repeatedly described the “ledger” as a “disputed” document. It is worth remembering that the chief critic of the document’s veracity is Manafort himself, and the Associated Press corroborated some of the ledger’s payments to him. It is also worth noting that the original reports in Ukraine about the ledger did not mention Manafort. His name first became associated with the ledger when the New York Times reported on it three months later.
So Ukrainian officials publicly expressed a dislike for candidate Trump and, separately, looked to hold corrupt Yanukovych associates—one of whom happened to be Trump’s campaign chairman—accountable.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, is aiming to destroy Western democracies. Does that sound overblown? Here are Putin’s own words about the end of liberalism: “The liberal idea has become obsolete,” he told the Financial Times. “It has come into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population.”
Russia has been running, and continues to run, a covert intelligence operation aimed at duping Westerners and inflaming internal divisions, in order to break down our democratic institutions. Putin aims to bring down the Western liberal order, which—with the United States at the helm—has generally brought peace and stability to the West for 70 years.
Republicans should ask themselves why Putin sees them as a good partner in this task.
Let’s review what Putin’s government did in 2016:
- Used its intelligence services to conduct reconnaissance on election systems in all 50 U.S. states.
- Utilized the GRU to hack the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and spearphish a number of individuals related to the Democratic party, stealing emails and internal DNC data such as polling numbers.
- Sent human intelligence officers to the U.S. to map out the political battleground and discover what messages would resonate where.
- Directed a Russian oligarch to set up the Internet Research Agency, whose trolls and bots amplified messaging aimed at dividing the U.S. electorate and inflaming passions. This influence campaign used online personas that were made to seem American. They were used to help actual Americans organize rallies and protests. These events sometimes featured acts like a Hillary Clinton lookalike in a jail cell. Funds for such acts were funneled to actual Americans from the IRA.
- Ran an influence campaign through the release of the aforementioned hacked emails through sites like WikiLeaks, in order to manipulate political debate.
- Directed oligarchs at quarterly meetings to push the Russian agenda on the U.S., including getting a U.S.-Russia reconciliation plan onto the desk of President Trump.
- Made several attempts to infiltrate and influence the Trump campaign.
- Infiltrated the NRA and GOP circles with Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin.
Putin is also utilizing similar tactics across Europe and elsewhere to gain influence and break down democratic institutions. Russia has provided covert support to populist governments across Europe, from Italy to Germany to France and more, and likely played a covert role in pushing Brexit.
All of this was done secretly. That is, it was executed while denying Russian government involvement. Furthermore, these are only the activities we know about. There likely were, and continue to be, other activities taking place behind the scenes. This isn’t “a couple of Facebook ads,” as Jared Kushner once characterized Russian interference in the 2016 election. Nor is it a few signed op-eds and tweets. This is a full-frontal assault on democracy.
We must also look at Russia’s actions in context. Putin has ordered the murder of dissidents both at home and abroad. GRU agents even used a chemical weapon in an attempted assassination in England. Just last week, German prosecutors accused the Russian government of being behind the contract killing of a former Chechen commander that took place in broad daylight at a park in Berlin in August. Putin has murdered journalists, jailed and killed political opponents, and allows no one to run against him in elections. His people have literally stuffed ballot boxes to ensure he wins. He has thrown opponents into psych wards where they faced psychological torture. He has ordered the implementation of a state-funded and Russian intelligence-run doping program for Russian athletes to cheat in international competitions.
These are the values Putin is promoting. In playing their short-term political game, these are also the values Republicans are aligning themselves with, even if they don’t realize it.
Congressional Republicans have become patsies of Putin in a much larger game. This is not about one election or even two elections. Putin is playing a long game aimed at changing the international system in his favor, and Republicans are aiding and abetting him. Does the party of Ronald Reagan really want to be an accomplice to the destruction of the U.S.-led liberal world order? And for what? One corrupt and inept president, plus a few conservative judges? It’s a raw deal for all of us. Even for them.
The strangest part of all of this is that we have the power to change it. Covert action, like what Russia is doing, can only exploit conditions that already exist. It cannot create those conditions. Putin is not a master mind. He and his intelligence services are not better than us, nor are their values anything we should covet. Rather, Putin is only exploiting weaknesses in our society that we created: racism, sexism, income inequality, and more. With strong leadership, a righting of our moral compass, and the return of civility and reasoned thinking, we could move in the right direction. Republicans are choosing to take us further down Putin’s path.