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Mark MacKinnon
Mark MacKinnon

ANALYSIS

Russia wanted payback, not a President Trump Add to ...

The startling thing about the U.S. intelligence report released last week on Russia’s alleged “influence campaign” to boost Donald Trump’s chances of winning the presidency is its lack of, well, intelligence.

That’s not a complaint about the lack of hard evidence provided to the public on Friday. As is noted atop each of the document’s 25 pages, “this version does not include the full supporting information.” Some sources, understandably, had to be protected.

But there are major problems with the version of the report that we’re able to see. The first and largest concern is a confused framing of Russia’s aims and motivations in supporting Mr. Trump. Contrary to the report’s theme, the Kremlin wanted to hurt Hillary Clinton, the presumed winner, more than it wanted to see Mr. Trump in the White House.

Read more: Russia decries U.S. ‘witch hunt’: A primer on the hacking scandal so far

Opinion: Trump’s feud with U.S. intelligence will make us all less safe

Read more: Spies vs. spies: How the Cold War lives on between Russia and the United States

The second eyebrow-raiser is the credit the U.S. intelligence community apparently gives the RT (formerly known Russia Today) television channel for helping swing the vote in favour of the Republican candidate, while spending no time pondering why so many Americans were ready to buy into the conspiracy theories and outright lies peddled by the Kremlin’s propaganda apparatus. That part – like the actual result of the election – likely shocked Russian President Vladimir Putin as much as anyone.

The report published by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) starts off on the right foot by suggesting Russia’s main goals were to “undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate secretary of state Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.”

That matches the strong sense I got while reporting from Moscow just before the Nov. 8 election. The Kremlin expected Hillary Clinton to become president – so much so that Valery Garbuzov, director of the state-funded Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies (which prepares reports that end up on Kremlin desks), told me days before the vote that he and his colleagues would “be in a furore” if Mr. Trump won, because they had devoted almost no time to studying how a President Trump might behave.

The operating assumption was that Ms. Clinton would win; the only thing in question was the margin.

But the DNI raced past such nuances to conclude that Mr. Putin and his government “aspired to help president-elect Trump’s election chances.” That’s true only to the extent that feeding Mr. Trump’s campaign – with hacked information and “fake news” stories that fit Mr. Trump’s narrative – would cut into Ms. Clinton’s share of the vote, and people’s trust in the expected result.

Remember that Mr. Trump himself believed the election process was “rigged” against him. He expected to lose. The Kremlin accepted the same premises, and boosted Mr. Trump only to undermine Ms. Clinton. Mr. Garbuzov suggested the Russian political elite was as uncomfortable as those in other countries with the idea of Donald Trump as president of the United States. “For Russian interests, it would be better when there is a situation of stability in the U.S.; a situation of predictability rather than unpredictability. An understanding of reality,” he told me.

It was clear then and now which candidate represented stability, and which promised unpredictability. If the Kremlin covertly aided Mr. Trump’s cause, it did so with almost no expectation that he could win.

The real aim of Russia’s effort was payback. The DNI correctly assesses that Mr. Putin had a personal grudge with Ms. Clinton dating back to 2011 and 2012 protests in Moscow against his rule, which Mr. Putin publicly accused Ms. Clinton, then secretary of state to President Barack Obama, of masterminding.

But that’s not the only reason Moscow might have thought it was fair game to meddle in a U.S. presidential race. From Russia’s point of view, the U.S. has been tinkering for decades in elections well beyond its borders.

The charge sheet is long: In 1996, a trio of spin doctors with connections to then-U.S. president Bill Clinton helped ensure Boris Yeltsin was re-elected as president, rather than the Communist challenger who held a wide lead in the polls before the Americans arrived. In 2003 and 2004, the U.S. and other Western governments poured money into election-monitoring organizations, pro-Western media outlets, and radical youth groups that prepared the ground for, and then helped carry out, revolutions that toppled pro-Russian governments in the post-Soviet states of Georgia and Ukraine.

From a Western perspective, the revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine were colourful examples of democracy breaking through in parts of the world that had finally grown sick of the corruption and autocracy. From Moscow, the uprisings smacked of an “influence campaign.”

In 2011 and 2012 – following Mr. Putin’s announcement that he would return to the presidency after a four-year hiatus as prime minister – the pro-democracy protests came to Moscow itself. In the spring of 2012, just before Mr. Putin won re-election as president, I met an American diplomat in Moscow who was carefully weighing the wording of the post-election statement the U.S. Embassy would release following the vote. He was looking to encourage the anti-Putin protesters as much as possible, while still maintaining plausible deniability for the day after, when the U.S. had to get back to working with President Putin.

It’s easy to see how the Kremlin would see their pro-Trump meddling in 2016 – while simultaneously preparing to deal with a President Clinton – as a proportionate response.

The real shock of Moscow’s actions isn’t their scope or intent, but how well they worked.

The DNI report highlights how a trio of anti-Clinton, pro-Trump videos – some of them clearly belonging in the category of “fake news” – were among the most-viewed on the website of RT (Russia Today). This is held up as yet more proof that the Kremlin wanted to see Mr. Trump in the White House.

The videos highlighted by the DNI include an August interview with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, a report claiming that “100 per cent of the Clintons’ ‘charity’ went to … themselves,” and a late-campaign file that quoted Mr. Assange asserting “Trump will not be permitted to win.” Each video was viewed millions of times online, and the DNI includes a detailed (if out-of-date) seven-page assessment of RT as an appendix to its crisper five-page summary of the evidence.

But while RT and Wikileaks, separately and collaboratively, clearly set out to damage Ms. Clinton, few Americans actually pay direct attention to either outlet. The real impact of both was offering material that was quickly spread by a host of Kremlin-friendly Twitter accounts (the DNI names the infamous Internet Research Agency – a “troll factory” in Mr. Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg – as a primary culprit), and spun out on all-American pro-Trump blogs that were given equal weight with the mainstream media by online “news” disseminators such as Facebook and Google.

The Kremlin now seems pleased to see Mr. Trump moving into the White House, and the president-elect has gone to curious lengths to embrace Russia and its strongman ruler as potential “friends.” Hopes are high in Moscow that Mr. Trump will unwind U.S. sanctions against Russia, and perhaps even recognize its 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine.

But there’s little to suggest the Kremlin expected its “influence operation” would work anywhere near as well as it has.

The e-mail hacks and pseudo-news couldn’t have had the effect they did if the U.S. wasn’t so bitterly divided. Millions of Americans were ready to believe anything that fit their political narrative, regardless of its source. Mr. Trump’s supporters hated Ms. Clinton more than they distrusted the foreign power feeding them election “facts” of suspicious veracity and provenance.

That’s the real scandal of the 2016 U.S. election.

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Follow on Twitter: @markmackinnon

 

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