Has Russia joined China in targeting Trump for this election?

Has Russia joined China in targeting Trump for this election?
© VALERIY SHARIFULIN/AFP/Getty Images

As Election Day 2016 approached, WPFW-FM, the blues and jazz radio station in Washington, D.C., broadcast its weekly call-in program. A series of self-identified African American women phoned in with disparaging remarks about both Hillary and Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonClintons send pizza to NY hospital staff treating coronavirus Budowsky: President Trump, meet with all former living presidents Why Klobuchar should be Biden's vice presidential pick MORE. They urged District residents to forgo their Democratic Party loyalty this time and to vote for a different woman: Jill Stein, a fringe candidate on the ballot. 

In addition to that demographic group, any D.C. voter dissatisfied with the choice between Clinton and Donald Trump might be motivated to vote for Stein. If she could capture a plurality, denying Clinton D.C.’s three electoral votes and a majority of 270, the election would go to the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, which could select as president any person who meets the Constitution's citizenship and age requirements.  

Of course, Stein never came close and Clinton easily won the District while Trump took key Midwestern states and the election. What brought the episode freshly to mind was a recent report that Russian disinformation messages are being broadcast on three popular music radio stations in Kansas City by Radio Sputnik, formerly Radio Moscow.

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A December 2018 report on Russian election propaganda and disinformation, commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee, looked into Moscow’s 2016 intrusions. It stated: “No … group received as much attention as black Americans, whose voter turnout has been historically crucial to the election of Democrats. Russia’s influence campaign used an array of tactics aiming to reduce their vote for Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWith VP pick, Biden can't play small ball in a long ball world Hillary Clinton on US leading in coronavirus cases: Trump 'did promise "America First"' Democratic fears rise again as coronavirus pushes Biden to sidelines MORE.”

The report discussed how the disinformation campaign utilized social media: “The black-targeted pages ...  lobbied for votes for Jill Stein.” With the benefit of hindsight, it can be surmised that the spate of anti-Clinton, pro-Stein radio calls in October 2016 was almost certainly part of a Russian disinformation campaign.

Chad WolfChad WolfHillicon Valley: Malicious emails spike amid coronavirus | Real ID deadline delayed one year | Trump officials to limit Huawei's chip access Travel industry hails REAL ID extension, says may need to be longer Real ID deadline delayed one year amid coronavirus pandemic MORE, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, told Congress this week that Russia now is trying to interfere in the 2020 election. The question is whether, in concert or in parallel with China, it is trying to do to President TrumpDonald John TrumpWith VP pick, Biden can't play small ball in a long ball world Coronavirus hits defense contractor jobs Wake up America, your country doesn't value your life MORE what it partially succeeded in doing to Clinton in 2016. This time it is using the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic to undermine public perception of the president’s basic competence and trustworthiness.

Jani Vujica, director of analytics and research at the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, addressed a George Washington University conference on countering disinformation and propaganda last month. He described the Russian government’s efforts to exploit the virus crisis to America’s disadvantage by promulgating false stories that the pathogen originated in the United States. Unfortunately, he said, “many audiences around the world do believe these lies.” 

Why would Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Airbnb - Senate overcomes hurdles, passes massive coronavirus bill Putin wears hazmat suit during hospital visit; Moscow mayor warns of undercounted cases Hillicon Valley: Facebook reports huge spike in usage during pandemic | Democrats push for mail-in voting funds in coronavirus stimulus | Trump delays deadline to acquire REAL ID MORE’s Russia, having worked to help Trump defeat Clinton in 2016, now try to sabotage Trump’s reelection bid, especially given the cognoscenti trope that Trump is in Putin’s pocket? The obvious first answer is that the critics are wrong about the president’s susceptibility to the Russian dictator’s charms. Whatever personal chemistry the president has established with Putin, Trump’s national security team has been vigorous in punishing the Russian government for its aggression in Ukraine. 

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More broadly, the National Defense Strategy promulgated by this administration pulls no punches in naming both Russia and China as “revisionist powers” intent on upending the U.S.-led rules-based, democracy-promoting world order and moving it in a more authoritarian direction led by Beijing and Moscow. In other words, the neo-Maoist Communist Chinese and the neo-Soviet Russian dictatorships are America’s all-but-proclaimed enemies.

If Putin thought he could inveigle the new deal-making American president into giving way to Russia’s pressures on Ukraine, he must be sorely disappointed. Except for Trump’s shameful continuation of Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaCivil rights leader Joseph Lowery dies at 98 The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Airbnb - House to pass relief bill; Trump moves to get US back to work Obama thanks Fauci, Stephen Curry during Instagram Live session MORE’s disgraceful capitulation to Russian intervention in Syria, the president has not been the strategic patsy Putin expected. The Russian despot is clearly looking at Trump’s Democratic rivals for a more amenable partner. The historical record indicates that either former vice president Joe BidenJoe BidenWith VP pick, Biden can't play small ball in a long ball world Poll: Trump, Biden in dead heat in 2020 matchup Coronavirus pushes GOP's Biden-Burisma probe to back burner MORE or Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersWith VP pick, Biden can't play small ball in a long ball world Poll: Trump, Biden in dead heat in 2020 matchup Sunday shows preview: Lawmakers, state governors talk coronavirus, stimulus package and resources as pandemic rages on MORE (I-Vt.) would lead a more cooperative administration and be a better bet for Russian ambitions.

Biden’s foreign policy gyrations are notorious; he now says he should have reversed his positions and been for the first war with Iraq and against the second. Biden was vice president when President Obama whispered to outgoing Russian President Dmitri Medvedev to tell Putin that he would have “more flexibility” on missile defense and other issues after his reelection. Medvedev promised Obama that Russia would give him more space — and the record shows it did.

Obama and Biden were inaugurated for their second term in January 2013. Putin waited a year before invading and occupying Crimea, the first time since World War II that a European power had violated so blatantly the territorial integrity of a neighboring country.

Aside from imposing sanctions and ejecting Russia from the Group of 8, which it was invited to join in 1994 under Clinton, the Obama administration did little, presumably with Biden’s senior concurrence. Washington did put together with NATO allies the European Reassurance Initiative, to help prevent further Russian incursions into Ukraine. “Reassurance” later was changed to “Deterrence.” It did neither. Russia then moved into Eastern Ukraine, without a significant U.S.-led response. On the contrary, the Obama administration refused to provide desperately-needed lethal weapons to Ukraine for fear of offending Moscow.  

The following year, an emboldened Putin sent air support to Syria to save the regime of Bashar al-Assad from a nationwide military insurgency and later expanded Russia’s presence decisively.  It was the first time Moscow had returned to the Middle East since its eviction in the 1970s. After saying “Assad must go,” the Obama-Biden administration offered no resistance, and the Syrian civil war continued at the cost of 400,000 lives and millions of refugees flooding into Europe. 

Trump did nothing to reverse Obama’s capitulation to Putin and has made Syria’s humanitarian disaster even worse by abandoning the Kurds to the genocidal instincts of Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

But, on balance, Russia seems to prefer a change in Washington’s administration. Sanders offers an even more inviting target, given his aversion to U.S. military spending and foreign intervention and his attraction to Russian, Chinese and Latin American communist dictators.

It’s no wonder, then, that both Russia and China may be exploiting the coronavirus pandemic to undermine the Trump administration during this critical election year.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute.