Capone-era lessons can show us how to confront Putin
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“Cicero Votes Amid Battles of Gangsters.” So read a headline in the Chicago Daily Tribune on Wednesday, April 2, 1924. Over the previous two days, the Chicago suburb of Cicero had been inundated with a deluge of lawless gang violence.

Thugs loyal to the notorious mobster Al Capone had descended on the town, unleashing a wave of beatings, shootings and kidnappings intended to swing the election in favor of Capone’s preferred candidates. The Democratic contender for town clerk was pistol-whipped by six of Capone’s cronies while his wife and son watched. Gangsters let fly a hail of gunfire so pervasive that, “The local police force found it impossible to cope.” Criminals “sped up and down the streets ... kidnapping election workers.”


Despite his all-out assault on Cicero’s elections, Capone avoided responsibility for his actions. Although four of his goons were jailed for their election-linked violence, Capone faced no prison time and was described as “swagger[ing] down Cicero Avenue.”


Now, almost 100 years after Scarface’s attack on Cicero’s elections, a similar event has occurred, but on a national scale. During the 2016 elections, Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose corruption-rife regime puts Capone’s rackets to shame, ordered an assault on American democracy.

On his command, Russian troll armies “pistol-whipped” the campaigns of Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonCongress won't end the wars, so states must Democrats say it's up to GOP to stop Trump 2024 Hillary Clinton to speak at Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders summit MORE and Marco Rubio on social media, let fly a hail of “fake news” against their candidacies, and “kidnapped” the data of politicians by assaults on their networks and email accounts. Just like with Capone, Putin has emerged from his election meddling relatively unscathed, with his only penalty being a few retaliatory sanctions by the Obama administration.

But Putin’s behavior, unlike Capone’s, has implications far beyond who controls local speakeasies. Russia’s interference in the 2016 election is part of a wide-ranging campaign to undermine liberal democracy around the globe and promote in its place a dystopian order of graft-ridden, despot-led dictatorships.

To this end, Russia has meddled in politics in the Netherlands, France, Germany, Britain and Eastern Europe, supporting anti-establishment parties and causes whose interests align with the Kremlin’s. Moscow has also infected Europe with an epidemic of corruption, using money laundering, bribes, and blackmail to make it difficult for European leaders to counter Russian aggression.

The Russian government is behaving like our Prohibition-era gangsters — meddling in elections, paying off politicians and committing crimes. Just like the U.S. government has worked tirelessly to combat organized crime, policymakers need to labor doggedly to beat back the creeping tentacles of Russian autocracy.

In our recent paper, The Last Straw: Responding to Russia’s Anti-Western Aggression, Third Way proposes two main avenues that lawmakers can take to march against Moscow’s meddling:

First, just as Capone was brought to heel by criminal investigations, we recommend undermining Russian influence through rigorous investigations into Putin’s election interference and its possible ties to the Trump campaign. These investigations should leave no stone unturned and pay special attention to the web of suspicious ties between persons in Trump’s orbit and figures in the Russian government and intelligence services. 

Second, just like authorities used a multifaceted strategy to bring Capone to justice and keep him from committing future crimes, we put forward a multipronged approach to hold Russia accountable and deter it from future aggression.

Among other suggestions, we recommend subjecting Moscow to additional sanctions and strengthened enforcement of existing sanctions; increasing resources for the Justice Department to pursue prosecutions of Russian cybercriminals; enhancing domestic and international transparency measures to discourage Russian corruption; partnering with the private sector to combat Russian trolls and fake news; and working with our allies in NATO and the EU to strengthen resistance to Russian belligerency.

Capone’s election meddling allowed him to serve as the de facto leader of Cicero for a time. But, in the end, unflinching investigations and multipronged actions by law enforcement landed Capone in Alcatraz. Although he was eventually released from federal custody, prison and illness broke the notorious Scarface, rendering him disconnected from his criminal empire and incapable of wreaking havoc on American society.

Similarly, Putin’s interference in the 2016 election and in politics abroad has given him influence unparalleled in post-Cold War Russia. But, as lawmakers promote thorough investigations into Russian election interference and multipronged measures to hold Russia accountable and deter it from future wrongdoing, Russia’s despotic influence can be “broken.” As it is, the sovereignty and freedom of America and other liberal democracies can be protected from Putin’s gangsterism.

Gary Ashcroft is a fellow for the National Security Program at Third Way, a centrist think tank that tries to reconcile right-wing and left-wing politics by advocating a varying synthesis of right-wing economics and left-wing social policies.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.