Russia, America, and Interference in Domestic Politics: Comparative Context

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by Gordon M. Hahn

Two can play at almost any game. Russia is now accused of interfering in the 2016 U.S presidential election campaign by hacking Democratic and republican party committees and Hillary Clinton’s illicit e-mail server and sending the uncovered documents to Wikileaks for publication allegedly in order to help Republican Donald Trump defeat Democrat candidate Clinton. But since the collapse of the USSR, the U.S. has used a variety of means to interfere in the domestic politics of the post-Soviet states, including those of Russia. Those who implemented and supported those policies should have foreseen that some day a potentially resurgent Russia would exact revenge for such interference. That revenge came in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Throughout the post-Soviet period the U.S. has used the State Department, USAID, CIA, the military, and NATO to interfere in the domestic politics of post-Soviet states comprising Russia’s traditional sphere of influence. Russia’s eventually aborted transition to democracy was not viewed in Moscow as the occasion for foregoing that sphere of influence. Rather, Moscow hoped to maintain that sphere of influence and become a guarantor of democratization in Eurasia in partnership with the U.S. until NATO expansion was approved in Washington and Brussels in the mid-1990s. There is no need to demonstrate all the specifics of said interference outside Russia in the post-Soviet space, given the blatant a priori or post facto Western approval of numerous color revolutions in the region from Bishkek to Kiev. Rather, it would be more direct to point out just a few examples of Western interference in Russian domestic politics since the Soviet collapse.

In the early 1990s Western political and economic advisors like Jeffrey Sachs were directly involved in designing post-Soviet Russia’s political and economic reforms and privatization program. When that privatization process and the economy in general went off the rails, the West, most notably Washington, stepped into to ensure Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s re-election in the face of seemingly hopeless popularity ratings in the single digits.

A team of American political consultants with ties to Republican California Governor Pete Wilson and Democrat President Bill Clinton introduced cutting-edge American election methodologies to hone Yeltsin’s messages and image. At the same time, they convinced the Clinton Administration to stage a spectacle in which Yeltsin lectured Clinton before television cameras and journalists on Russia’s ostensibly inevitable and deserved great power status while Clinton remained silent. This performance allowed Yeltsin to steal the main thunder of the leading candidate, Communist Party of the Russian Federation leader Gennadii Zyuganov on the campaign trail. One of the American consultants convinced the Yeltsin team to rein in television channels more tightly to meet its re-election needs, noting: “It was ludicrous to control the two major nationwide television stations and not have them bend to your will.” Taking a page from post-Cold War America’s increasingly corrupt government-media nexus, the consultants urged the Yeltsin administration to communicate to the state-run television and radio channels how they wanted Yeltsin campaign events covered. They also advised Yeltsin’s campaign “staging crowds” using government workers to people campaign rallies (Michael Kramer, “Rescuing Boris,” Time, 15 July 1996, pp. 28-37, at pp. 34-5, http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,984833,00.html ).

Moreover, on the eve of the election’s second round the U.S. helped get approved a $10 billion IMF loan that was supposed to be used by President Boris Yeltsin to pay off wage arrears to government-paid workers, pensioners, and welfare recipients and thus bolster his then seemingly hopeless re-election prospects. It was later acknowledged by privatization tsar Anatolii Chubais that much of this loan tranche was misappropriated.

Moreover still, I have it on a very good source that the $500,000 seized by hardliners from Chubais as he removed a xerox copy paper box out of the Russian White House on the election’s eve was money provided by the U.S. government on the approval of then Vice President Al Gore, who was delegated much of America’s Russia-policy by then President Bill Clinton.

In addition, there is some reason to believe that the U.S. helped the radical nationalist Chechen Republic of Ichkeriya militants in the 1990s (see https://gordonhahn.com/2016/12/11/hybrid-warfare-from-centcomm-to-slavdom/; https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/legacy_files/files/publication/110930_Hahn_GettingCaucasusEmirateRt_Web.pdf; https://gordonhahn.com/2015/05/06/putin-u-s-intell-assisted-chechnyas-chri-in-the-early-2000s/).

These are but a few examples of U.S. interference in post-Soviet Russian domestic politics. Again this partial list excludes American support for color revolutions in Russia’s backyard, ending with the indirect support for the Maidan revolt in Kiev and direct post-revolt support for the resulting regime in violation of the 21 February 2014 agreement that could have avoided the violent overthrow of a legitimately elected president in the country most central to Russia’s national security and preservation of its traditional sphere of influence. The reader can decide how this stacks up with the alleged Russian hacking of Hillary’s and the party committees’ computer systems during the U.S. presidential election campaign this year.

Interestingly, some of those vehement in accusing Moscow of interfering in the election seem to be backing off the version that Russia is Wikileaks’ source. For example, Glenn Beck’s conservative-libertarian and sufficiently anti-Trump news organization ‘The Blaze’, which like Beck has been playing up the Russian threat and Putin as the source of the leaks of DNC and now RNC documents, recently noted: “There has still been no official report from any national intelligence agency confirming that the Russian government was behind the hacked emails.” It did so in a story covering and containing the video of FOX News commentator Sean Hannity’s interview of Julian Assange in which the latter denies that the DNC and RNC leaks came from Russia or any state entity(www.theblaze.com/news/2016/12/15/sean-hannity-had-wikileaks-founder-julian-assange-on-his-program-to-discuss-the-source-of-the-podesta-leak/).

Thus, whereas the examples of US interference in Russian politics and that of its neighbors is hard fact, Russia’s interference in American politics is not, and if even it was is the inevitable payback for America’s interference in Russian presidential elections, politics, economics, and that of its closest neighbors.

It is important to note that any interference by either side is a violation of the Helsinki Final Act, which forbids signatory-states from interfering in the domestic politics of other signatory-states. Both Russia and the U.S. are signatory-states. This article needs further elaboration to define what constitutes ‘interference in domestic politics’ and to determine remedies and punishments for such interference. As far as the use of cyber warfare to so interfere, it seems that a treaty process and international convention to limit and rollback cyber warfare is very much needed.

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About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an analyst and Advisory Board member at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation (Chicago, Ill.), http://www.geostrategicforecasting.com; member of the Executive Advisory Board at the American Institute of Geostrategy (AIGEO) (Los Angeles, Calif.), http://www.aigeo.org; a contributing expert for Russia Direct, russia-direct.org; a senior researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group (San Jose, Calif.); and an analyst and consultant for Russia – Other Points of View (San Mateo, California), www.russiaotherpointsofview.com.

Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book from McFarland Publishers Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War”. Previously, he has authored three well-received books: The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.

Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.

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About Gordon M. Hahn