Back in 2017, we at the Security Studies Group published a piece called Understanding Russian Propaganda. Now, in the run-up to the 2020 elections, we should certainly be on the lookout for Russian propaganda. There is likely to be some, which must be identified and countered. This piece does not intend to suggest otherwise.
What I do want to do here is to reinforce a point from the 2017 article: Russia’s main effort is to divide Americans against each other, not to support any particular outcome in any particular election. Irresponsible speculation that someone is being backed by Russia — let alone an actual agent of Russia’s — is doing the work of the Russians for them. Insofar as this kind of rhetoric is deployed without hard evidence, it is irresponsible. When American speakers with prominent platforms engage in this kind of irresponsible rhetoric, they can reach far more people and do far more damage than the Russian government’s propaganda arm could ever purchase with its limited resources.
The argument from 2017 applies verbatim to the current situation:
If we remember that dividing us and sowing distrust among Americans is the main effort, it becomes obvious that the Russians have found a powerful strategy in not hiding some of their propaganda efforts. Lots of people are now thinking about Russia all the time, and wondering which of their opponents are secretly Russian agents. That’s a much greater effect than they could have had by planting all the actual agents they could afford.
On that occasion, the target was H. R. McMaster. Today the targets are Richard Grenell, Senator Bernie Sanders, and of course President Donald Trump. As liberal outlet The Nation points out, the playbook is the same against Sanders as it has been against all the figures from the Trump administration: some vague intelligence is leaked to the press, where it is allowed to stand as a kind of guilt-by-association. Russia ‘might be’ helping X, therefore X is in some sense doing things that are in Russia’s interest; perhaps they are even agents of that hostile foreign power.
The latest round of Russian interference panic followed a familiar script. Vague leaks that US intelligence officials have determined that Russia intends to boost both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders made front-page headlines. Cable news pundits and Democratic luminaries seized the moment with ritual alarmism: “The Russians are coming,” MSNBC’s Chris Matthews and Joe Scarborough pronounced, and Trump—who “is a Russian operative” (MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell) and “Putin’s puppet” (Hillary Clinton) “is trying to cover it up” (CNN’s Don Lemon)…. James Carville concurred: With Sanders winning Nevada, Carville told MSNBC, “the happiest person right now is Vladimir Putin.”
The outcry proceeded despite a stunning lack of evidence or even a single detail on what the supposed Russian interference entails…. [Russia] the New York Times added, has “a new playbook of as-yet-undetectable methods.” This raises the obvious question: If Russian methods are undetectable, how can US officials detect them? Perhaps there is nothing to detect[.]
If we look at who is actually doing Russia’s work — dividing Americans against one another with these suggestions of foreign influence — it turns out that these journalists are much better candidates for ‘Russian agents’ than any of the politicians (excepting Ms. Clinton, who is right there with the journalists advancing irresponsible rhetoric). I do not say this to accuse them, or anyone, of being a Russian agent. What I mean to say is that Putin has more reason to be happy because major TV networks are accusing the winner of the Nevada caucus of being a spy than he has reason to feel good about Bernie Sanders having won.
Bernie Sanders’ election might possibly be good for Russia insofar as he is able to make good on his campaign rhetoric to undercut America’s energy exports. Russia’s economy and much of its geopolitical power derives chiefly from its energy exports, especially to Europe. Sanders’ desire to cut American exports would drive up prices for energy in the global market, enriching Russia, and make Europe much more dependent than currently on Russian gas and oil. Sanders’ stated desire to cut American military spending would probably also delight the Russians. Yet none of those policies is being advanced by Sanders because they would help Russia. He wants to cut energy exports because he believes it will help the climate; he wants to cut military spending as a believer in a longstanding left-liberal/progressive critique of America as warlike and imperialistic. Any benefit to Russia is coincidental.
And by the inverse argument, it is at this point indefensible to suggest that the Trump administration are Russian agents. No American administration since Reagan’s has done more harm to the Russian geopolitical position, in this case exactly by advancing America’s energy exports. Just as Reagan bled the Soviet Union out with a military buildup they could not afford to match, Trump is bleeding them by causing international energy prices to be at much lower levels, and by scarfing up a larger share of the international market for American producers. As Omri Ceren of Ted Cruz’s office points out, Richard Grenell did as much as anyone to slow the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. That pipeline is arguably Russia’s #1 agenda item, because it would tie central Europe to Russian energy exports in much the same way that Eastern Europe is tied to Russia. That would give Russia a powerful lever to force Europe, even wealthy Germany, to give in to its designs. There is no plausible way that these people are Russian agents and also aggressively working against Russia’s most crucial interests.
One thing has changed since the 2017 article. In 2017, the Mueller investigation was only getting started and there was some possibility that it would uncover Russian agents in the Trump administration. In 2020, we know that the Mueller investigation — which was intense, and destroyed several lives of even wealthy and connected persons in order to compel cooperation — found no evidence that any Americans colluded with Russia. That is good news, and we should celebrate it. Even in 2017, it was important to be careful and critical of speculation because of the damage done to American unity by sowing distrust. In 2020, it is outright irresponsible to engage in this kind of talk absent very hard evidence establishing the truth of it.
No doubt the Russians will run some information operations targeting our elections. They’d be fools not to, since they get so much mileage out of it. We don’t have to help them carry their ball downfield. Be wary of becoming a participant in Russia’s information warfare against our own nation.