2015 was a difficult year for Vladimir Putin. Russian soldiers were stuck in the mud of eastern Ukraine, their deaths hidden away from the public at home. The Kremlin’s hybrid warfare failed to topple the pro-Western government in Kiev. Western sanctions, imposed following the invasion of Crimea, were hurting both the national economy and the oligarchs’ mega-holdings and, coupled with the nose-dive in energy prices, were forcing the regime to cut spending, threatening the government wages and pensions which buy Putin a degree of domestic stability. Kreminologists were beginning to predict the downfall of the man who has ruled Russia with an iron fist for over a decade and a half, and discussing the-day-after-Putin.
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2016 has been so much better.
The Petroshenko government in Kiev is mired in corruption, fractured and dysfunctional. Putin’s biggest bet of last year, deploying dozens of fighter jets and thousands of troops to Syria has paid off handsomely. Not only have they crushed the rebel forces (and many thousands of civilians), ensured the survival of the Assad regime and secured Russia a strategic foothold in the Middle East and on the eastern Mediterranean coast, they have forced the Obama administration to recognize Moscow’s central role in the region and effective veto over Syria’s future. Meanwhile, the European Union, seen by Putin as his main rival for influence over Russia’s post-Soviet-empire satellites, is undergoing a potentially existential crisis.
Britain, the second-largest economy in the EU and a historical rival of Russia, has just become the first country to decide on leaving the Union, while another old enemy, Germany, is in turmoil over the influx of over a million Syrian refugees. Chancellor Angela Merkel, the most stable of the West’s leaders, has been weakened. Meanwhile, in terror-stricken France, a new ally, Marine Le Pen’s National Front, is cresting in the polls. But the best of 2016 for Putin may be yet to come in November with the election of an open admirer of his to the position of what is still sometimes called “the leader of the free world.”
Eye on NATO
If there is one international body that Putin fears and would like to undermine more than the European Union, it is the West’s defense alliance NATO. Donald Trump’s interview this weekend in the New York Times, where he said that the United States would not necessarily come to the defense of one of its NATO allies should they come under attack – as it is obliged to do under the “collective defense” Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty – but would first check whether they “have fulfilled their obligations to us,” would have been music to Putin’s ears and sent tremors of dread through the Baltic states and Poland, the NATO members on Russia’s borders.
Most commentators have so far been cautious about speaking of a Trump-Putin nexus for fear of being branded conspiracy theorists. Now it’s basically out in the open and serious news organizations are assembling the extensive library of compliments Trump has heaped on Putin’s head, from 2007 when he said the Russian president is “rebuilding Russia,” to his more recent dismissal of human-rights infringements and murders of Russian journalists (“I haven’t seen that”), and his comparisons of Putin to presidents Bush and Obama (“at least he’s a leader” and “in terms of leadership, he’s getting an A”).
Suddenly people are paying notice to the fact that Trump has been trying to do business in Russia for three decades, arriving for the first time in still-Communist Moscow in 1987 to erect one of his gargantuan hotels. None of Trump’s repeated forays to the Soviet Union and then Russia resulted in any actual projects, with the exception of the Miss Universe 2013 pageant in Moscow. But his Russian ties yielded him financial benefits in other areas. After his two major bankruptcies in 2004 and 2008, when no American bank was prepared to extend him any further credit, it was shadowy investment funds controlled by Russian oligarchs that bailed him out and allowed him to continue building.
Then there’s the presence of senior members of Trump’s team with ties to the Kremlin, including campaign manager Paul Manafort, who ran Ukrainian politician Viktor Yanukovych’s presidential campaign in 2010. Kiev’s Maidan revolution in 2014 against pro-Russian President Yanukovych was the event that spurred Russia’s invasion. And then there’s Carter Page, one of Trump’s foreign policy advisers who spent years as a highly-paid lobbyist for Russia’s national energy company Gazprom.
Trump and his team had little interest in the Republican Party’s election platform; after all their platform is the candidate’s speeches and image, but it is interesting that they demanded one change in the foreign policy section – deleting the demand that the U.S. supply Ukraine lethal weapons to help it defend itself from Russia.
None of this of course means Trump is some kind of Manchurian Candidate or puppet being installed by the Kremlin. Not only is that outlandish, it also isn’t the way Putin operates. Putin is the world expert at exploiting his perceived rivals’ weaknesses. He doesn’t create those weaknesses, but his apparatus is there to hack away at the weak spots. That’s why he has cultivated vain and venal politicians like former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, now a highly-paid employee of Gazprom, and former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who was recently hosted by the Russians in occupied Crimea, where he drank 240-year-old wine.
Russia’s military campaign in Syria not only propped up the Assad regime, targeting Western-supported rebel groups but barely targeting ISIS, it was also designed to increase pressure on the West by undermining NATO member Turkey and encouraging the influx of millions of refugees to Europe. The Kremlin’s international propaganda channel Russia Today sought to undermine Britain and the EU by boosting in its broadcasts first independence for Scotland in the 2014 referendum, then Brexit in last month’s referendum.
Putin didn’t have to invent corruption, extremism and discord in the West. But he has been ready to exploit it. Russian propaganda has given inordinate support and airtime to separatist and extremist movements in Europe. From the Scottish Nationalist Party and the Europhobic United Kingdom Independence Party in Britain, to Syriza and Golden Dawn in Greece, parties on the extreme right and left across the continent have benefited from support in various forms from Russia, as long as they are undermining either their own countries, the EU or NATO. From bankrolling Le Pen’s far-right National Front to Russia Today’s sympathetic coverage of the far-left leader of Britain’s Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, Putin didn’t invent any of these parties or personalities, but he has proven adept at playing them. However, influencing the presidential elections of the United States is a matter of an entirely different order than trouble-making in Europe.
Putin himself has been careful not to publicly endorse Trump. At a recent press conference he welcomed the Republican candidate’s intentions to improve U.S.-Russian relations and said that Trump is “flamboyant and talented, without a doubt.”
But his semi-official mouthpieces are ecstatic. Dmitry Kiselev, the Kremlin’s chief propagandist, usually extremely critical of the West, said on his talk show that “a new star is rising –Trump.” Aleksandr Dugin, the influential Russian fascist ideologue who is popular with far-right parties and neo-Nazis in the West has said that “Trump is the voice of the real right wing in America.” Russia Today has of course given Trump inordinate air time (along with Bernie Sanders) from early on in the campaign.
But this is not how Putin can really influence the race; far-right and white-supremacist voters hardly need the Kremlin to urge them to vote for Trump. But there are other ways of helping the Republican nominee – specifically by damaging his opponent Hillary Clinton’s prospects with other parts of the American electorate. Which is where Russian hackers and Wikileaks come in.
The hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s computers, which was discovered last week, has been clearly linked by a number of cybersecurity companies and analysts to groups of hackers that work in the service of Russian intelligence. The documents stolen by the Russian hackers, mainly emails, found their way quickly to Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, and were dumped en masse online at the most damaging timing for the Clinton campaign: on the weekend after the Republican Convention in Cleveland and two days before the opening of the Democrats’ convention in Philadelphia.
Most of the emails have no real importance, but the handful that detailed the rather ugly way that officials at the DNC were trying to help Clinton’s campaign against Sanders, at a time when they were ostensibly neutral toward the candidates, was bad enough to bring about the resignation of DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. But she wasn’t the target; Sanders supporters who may be wavering now in their intention to vote for Clinton, were.
The strategy is clear: to propagate the idea that Clinton is equally corrupt and every bit as bad as Trump, and make the young left-wing, idealistic Sanders voters stay at home on Election Day, or vote for the no-hoper Green Party candidate Jill Stein. These votes will be lost to Clinton, and who knows, may be the votes she needs to beat Trump in crucial battleground states.
Assange, who for the last four years has been holed up in a small room in Ecuador’s embassy in London, where he is hiding from Swedish prosecutors who want to question him on rape charges, has of course refused, when asked on Twitter, to say anything about the provenance of the 19,252 DNC documents he posted online. He has threatened those accusing him of working for Russia with legal action. Even Trump has responded to the speculation, tweeting yesterday, “The new joke in town is that Russia leaked the disastrous DNC e-mails, which should never have been written (stupid), because Putin likes me.”
But this is not the first time Wikileaks has served Russian interests. Since Wikileaks’ inception, it has targeted mainly the United States and its allies. Wikileaks claims to “open governments” and advocate for global transparency, but it has never published any leaks of Russian documents or those that could be detrimental to the Kremlin’s policies. Assange, who for a while hosted a talk show on Russia Today, also played a key role in facilitating the defection of former NSA employee Edward Snowden, who stole hundreds of thousands of American intelligence documents, and who found sanctuary in Moscow. Four months ago, when a large international consortium of news organizations published the “Panama Papers,” detailing how politicians and businesspeople from around the world, including a large group of Russians with very close ties to Putin, had used offshore bank accounts to hide away billions, Assange rubbished them for serving the U.S. government’s interests.
Wikileaks has already timed its publications to the most damaging moments for Western governments. In July 2015, at the height of the Greek crisis, when the Syriza government was on the brink of pulling out of the Eurozone, it tried to sow discord between the main EU members by publishing NSA transcripts of high-level discussions of the French government, where it was proposed to go behind the back of Germany’s Chancellor Merkel.
In the early stages of Wikileaks’ operations, it cooperated with some of the largest, most prestigious Western news organizations. That cooperation ended with, among other reasons, Assange’s impatience with the news organizations’ insistence on first reviewing all the documents and redacting names and personal information that could endanger individuals. Ultimately Assange went ahead on his own, putting thousands of citizens in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria at risk.
The DNC leak is no different. It includes the names and social security, credit card and passport numbers of thousands of ordinary donors to the Democratic Party who are now exposed to cybercrime, thanks to Wikileaks.
Assange, who is operating as if he has nothing left to lose, claims to be in possession of more documents regarding Clinton. These are probably from the computers of the Clinton Foundation, which have also reportedly been hacked by Russian intelligence, or from the former secretary of state’s notoriously leaky personal email servers. No one, not even Ms. Clinton’s most fervent supporters, will be surprised if those documents include much more embarrassing and damaging information about her personal and financial dealings. Damaging enough, if published at a crucial campaign juncture, as it no doubt will be determined by Assange’s Russian patrons, to perhaps persuade a few more million voters to say home and who knows, maybe even to push the pro-Putin Trump over the top.
When asked, Wikileaks denied to Haaretz that it was working for Trump, saying "the answer is 'no'. Any suggestion otherwise is baseless".