Can we limit Russian political interference in future elections?

Can we limit Russian political interference in future elections?
© Aaron Schwartz

Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller told Congress “the Russian government interfered in our election in sweeping and systematic fashion… Over the course of my career, I have seen a number of challenges to our democracy. The Russian government’s effort to interfere in our election is among the most serious.  And as I said on May 29, this deserves the attention of every American.”

Relations between the U.S. and Russia are at the lowest point since the Cold War, and it’s been suggested the U.S. and Russia seek agreement on ways to limit mutual political interference.

Someday that might happen, and the U.S. should cooperate with Russia where it can, but the U.S. is burdened by its own history of meddling in foreign elections.

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After the revelation that Russia (or Russians) interfered in the 2016 election, observers pointed out the Soviet Union was involved in America’s political process since the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917. The Soviet Union attempted to influence America’s politics through front groups, fellow travelers, and cooperating journalists, such as New York Times reporter Walter Duranty.

During the Cold War, presidential aspirants solicited (Teddy Kennedy), refused (Hubert Humphrey), and refused (Bobby Kennedy) Soviet support for their campaigns; Ronald Reagan’s 1984 campaign was the target of a hostile KGB operation. And meddling was “an integral part of Cold War” according to Princeton Professor Stephen F. Cohen.

So why is it an issue this time? Because Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonQueer Marine veteran launches House bid after incumbent California Rep. Susan Davis announces retirement Poll: Trump neck and neck with top 2020 Democrats in Florida Former immigration judge fined, temporarily banned from federal service for promoting Clinton policies MORE, the candidate of the Democrats and many establishment Republicans lost to a TV personality and real estate speculator in a rebuke to the Beltway establishment. Then, the campaign demonstrated that social media has leveled the election playing field; a state or non-state party doesn’t need the scale of the covert operations assets and money the U.S. deployed in Italy’s 1948 election, or in Japan in the 1950s and 60s.

The frenzied reaction isn’t as much a matter of principle, as a case of “whose ox.”

But there was a foreign election intervention that didn’t arouse the same ire as Russia’s activity: Hillary Clinton’s campaign hired Christopher Steele, formerly of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, to do opposition research on Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump conversation with foreign leader part of complaint that led to standoff between intel chief, Congress: report Pelosi: Lewandowski should have been held in contempt 'right then and there' Trump to withdraw FEMA chief nominee: report MORE. And Mr. Steele admitted to a U.S. State Department official that two of his contacts were the former chief of Russia’s foreign intelligence service, and Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinTrump's 'soldier of fortune' foreign policy Feehery: Impeachment fever bad for Democratic governing vision Taliban travels to Moscow after Trump declares talks dead MORE’s top political fixer.

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Why did Russia meddle in the election? Aside from “because it could,” we should look to 1996, when the U.S. intervened to ensure the re-election of Boris Yeltsin as president of the Russian Federation. Yeltsin was more popular in Washington than in Moscow, but the American intervention succeeded and Yeltsin oversaw economic reforms, known as “shock therapy,” that many Russians blame for the economic collapse of 1998.

During Yeltsin’s term, Russia collected over $22 billion from the International Monetary Fund alone, with multilateral banks and institutions such as the World Bank adding billions more. The failing economy, and the Yeltsin family’s reputation for corruption, led many Russians to assume much of it was stolen.

So, while the Americans and the West were talking up democracy, when push came to shove, the U.S. did what all great powers do — what Russia would have done — it made sure it got its way by supporting an unpopular and corrupt politician.

Russians, to their detriment, have long memories and amplify every slight, real and imagined; Americans, usually to someone else’s detriment, have famously short memories and confuse the rules of personal morality with the rules of interstate behavior.

When the Cold War ended, the U.S. forswore a demand for unconditional surrender, thanked God the whole damn thing was over, and thought about how to spend the peace dividend. The message Russians took away was: “We never surrendered.”

In 2016, Russia had the means (technology, hackers), motive (to sow dissension in America), and opportunity (an ungoverned social media space) to avenge the American intervention of 1996. Vladimir Putin took the risk so, when Hillary Clinton won, she would inherit a divided country. Instead, Trump won, and the country is divided, but at least Putin doesn’t have to deal with Hillary Clinton who he dislikes for accusing him of rigging elections. 

For now, all sides in Washington are dug in. Some movement with Russia might have been possible with any other winner, but Trump won ugly — and for that he’ll never be forgiven. And there’s no chance of anything like the Obama administration’s anti-hacking U.S.–China Cyber Agreement which hasn’t worked out anyway.

The U.S. retaliated by requiring the Russia-sponsored RT network (which hardly anyone watches) to register as a foreign agent. OK, but acknowledging that American state-sponsored media Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and NGOs, such as the National Endowment for Democracy, do “openly what the CIA once did in secret” might make the exercise look less hypocritical.

What should the U.S. do?

First, harden the voting system by relying more on paper ballots, and secure online election records. This may not find much favor in Washington, D.C. because it won’t cost very much money and some nobodies on county election boards will get the credit, but Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulDefense bill talks set to start amid wall fight Senate confirms two Treasury nominees over Democratic objections Liz Cheney calls for 'proportional military response' against Iran MORE (R-Ky.) put it best: “We also do the same [interfering in elections] ... We all do it. What we need to do is make sure our electoral process is protected.”

Then, cooperate with Russia where we can — maybe counterterrorism, aviation and maritime safety, and environmental protection — but if Russia gets handsy with its neighbors, sell the neighbors all the weapons they need to deter Moscow. 

What happened in America in 2016 wasn’t aberrant everywhere else in the world where “interference” is another word for “politics,” but it was the first time it was so on display to Americans so the rest of the world may have to pause while the U.S. catches up.

James Durso (@james_durso) is the Managing Director of Corsair LLC, a supply chain consultancy. He was a professional staff member at the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission and the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Mr. Durso served as a U.S. Navy officer for 20 years and specialized in logistics and security assistance. His overseas military postings were in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and he served in Iraq as a civilian transport advisor with the Coalition Provisional Authority.  He served afloat as Supply Officer of the submarine USS SKATE (SSN 578).