The Authoritarian Challenge: The Concordance Between Trump And Putin

Our guest author today is Eric Chenoweth, co-director of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe and primary author of ASI’s Democracy Web civic education resource. This post was adapted from a longer essay, which can be found here.

Since November 8, 2016, American citizens and international observers have faced a startling new situation. On that day, the United States, the longest continuous representative democracy in the modern world, elected the seemingly authoritarian-minded Donald J. Trump to a four-year presidential term. Trump, a man with little apparent knowledge of, experience in, or appreciation for either representative government or America‘s international treaties and alliances, promised to upend U.S. domestic and foreign policy and reshape the international order. He has succeeded.

In the face of the decade-long rise of dictatorial leaders and nationalist and chauvinist parties in a number of countries around the globe, Trump’s election brought broad acknowledgement of a crisis of world democracy. Given its position and role in the world, the United States is now center stage in that crisis.

One of the most troublesome aspects of the election was that the rules of the U.S. Constitution awarded Trump victory based on the preference of a minority of voters using an antique and unique electoral college system that overrode a substantial national vote margin in favor of the election’s loser. Notwithstanding Hillary Clinton’s supposed unpopularity, the Democratic Party candidate won 2.85 million more votes in the national ballot, 48 percent to 46 percent, while Trump’s electoral college victory was determined in three decisive states by a total of 77,000 votes (out of 13.4 million). Putting aside that the results were influenced by foreign intervention (see below), the election process itself should be a cause for serious concern over the state of American democracy. For the second time in recent U.S. history, a national minority government has been imposed on the majority. No other democracy elects national leadership in such a manner. Yet, there is still little discussion of addressing this structural weakness in our political system.[1]

The more disturbing aspect is that the person who gained power according to these constitutional rules won the election through demagogy, propaganda, and populist appeals — what Alexander Hamilton called “low intrigue and the little arts of publicity.” Those appeals formed an entire authoritarian platform: mass detention and deportation of millions of unauthorized immigrants; building an impenetrable 2,000-mile border-wall; imposing a ban on Muslims entering the country; nationwide stop and frisk policing to impose “law and order”; ordering the use of torture to combat foreign terrorism; imperialist seizure of oil resources of sovereign countries; and the imprisonment of Trump’s election opponent upon victory; among many such election campaign promises.

Yet, these aspects are particularly vexing given the most alarming story of the election: the intervention of the Russian Federation to affect the outcome in favor of Donald Trump. For all the analysis of Trump‘s election and its causes (renewed by fevered debate over Hillary Clinton's recent book, What Happened), there remains a clear reluctance to confront the actual reasons for and consequences of the 2016 presidential election and the damage Trump’s victory has done both to American democracy and its global leadership. What remains largely undiscussed is the deep concordance between the Trump presidency and the authoritarian aims and actions of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. It is important therefore to assess America’s national crisis from this vantage point, how it came about, and the damage done thus far. Only by doing so may it be possible to repair the damage.

“Active Measures”: The Underlying Basis to the Election’s Most Alarming Story

While there have been numerous stories on different aspects of Russia‘s intervention in the U.S. presidential election, it is rarely presented in its full context. It is worth doing so.

The Russian intervention was consistent with its ongoing “active measures” operations directed at Western democratic countries. These operations are not new. They were inherited from the Soviet Union and have continued to be utilized by Russia‘s post-Soviet intelligence services. Their continued deployment, in both the former Soviet bloc countries and in the West, was one of several strong indicators in the that Russia’s supposed 1990s transition to democracy following the collapse of the Soviet Union was quite limited. Putin, an ex-KGB officer and head of the KGB‘s successor, the FSB, has had control of all of these capabilities since first assuming full power as Russia‘s president in 2000.

Active measures are aimed at influencing and altering the politics and international behavior of nations to benefit Russia’s interests and further its geostrategic goals. These measures involve a number of components: espionage, embedding Russian agents in foreign countries, and recruitment of foreign agents; financial and indirect support for political parties, organizations, and media; a broad range of overt and covert propaganda operations; use of compromising materials to coerce foreign nationals; entanglement of foreign businesses, investors and cultural and academic institutions in Russian state interests; murder of vocal opponents abroad; the more recent deployment of various cyber weapon techniques; among other means.[2]

Russia’s influence operations have multiple purposes, among them to weaken Western economic, political and military alliances (especially the European Union and NATO); to promote pro-Russian sympathies in the West among political parties and other institutions; and to reverse what are perceived as anti-Russian policies by Western countries. For Russia, one of the most important goals is to block NATO and the EU from accepting the sovereign decisions of former Soviet bloc countries to join these Western alliances. A more recent priority is to reverse the imposition of sanctions by the EU and U.S. in response to Russia‘s annexation of Crimea and further military aggression attacking the sovereignty of Ukraine.

Active measures are not a substitute for declining military power, as some speculate. Nor are their use a sign of Russia’s declining economic or military power. They were and are vital assets of the Russian state that are integrated within important power structures (the security services, military, and propaganda agencies). They were and are essential for projecting the state’s power in pursuit of the Russian Federation’s geostrategic aims, namely: (1) solidifying and expanding Russian dominance in Eurasia (its term for the former Soviet bloc empire and the broader sphere of influence it had in the Middle East and Asia); (2) restoring Russia’s international position to that of the Soviet Union before its collapse; and (3) in so doing re-establishing (and re-asserting) Russia as a “Great Power“ that helps determine global developments and alignments.

To achieve these aims, Russia has carried out aggressive foreign policies challenging the post-Cold War international framework in which the U.S. has been dominant. Well before Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and intervention in Syria, it had violated the sovereignty of many neighboring countries, created “frozen conflicts” aimed at keeping post-Soviet countries under its control, and used energy policies to make neighbors and EU/NATO alliance countries more dependent on Russia and thus (it was hoped) pliable to its interests. But to fully achieve his aims, Vladimir Putin seeks to change the world order from an international rules-based system to one determined by Great Power relationships that divide spheres of interest.

As with other dictators, Putin seeks justifications for his rule, and these have become an essential underpinning to his maintenance of political control. Such justifications are found in the development of a Russian nationalist ideology, drawn from both tsarist and communist-era thinking. One element is the belief that the collapse of the Soviet Union and Soviet bloc was a “catastrophe,” resulting from internal weakness, feckless leadership, and foreign intervention. The Soviet collapse caused Russia’s unnecessary decline and created economic and political chaos that was reversed only through the re-establishment of strong state control and policies put in place by Putin. A second element is the idea that the United States took advantage of Russian decline to assert world hegemony through expansion of its foreign empire (NATO) and undertaking wars of aggression in the Middle East. In this conception, Russia must re-assert its world power status to prevent U.S. domination and protect Russia‘s national interests. A third element is that Russia and its leader are central to the defense of Christian civilization against anti-civilizational dangers. These include the decadence of liberal democracy; international terrorism; mass migration; and economic disruption caused by (U.S. and European) elite-driven capitalism, globalization, and multiculturalism. Inherent in this “Russian idea” is the need for strong leadership to restore Russia’s greatness and uphold Russia’s national identity. These doctrines, like many ideologies, are contradictory and do not conform with history or current reality. Nevertheless, they form powerful messages that dominate Russian state propaganda.[3]

Russian active measures have had increasing success among right-wing nationalist and populist movements across Europe that share Putin’s message in defense of “civilizational values,” national identity, and traditional morals. There also remains lingering success from the Soviet era in encouraging pro-Russian sympathies on the political Left, using anti-American, anti-capitalist and peace themes (e.g. the movement that propelled Jean-Luc Melanchon’s strong French presidential campaign). But Russia also directly purchases the services of major politicians, such as Germany’s Gerhard Schroeder, a former Social Democratic chancellor and now the leading lobbyist in the West for Russia’s state-owned energy giants, Gazprom and Rosneft.[4]

The U.S. Presidential Election and Russian Active Measures

The United States was a long-standing target for Soviet and Russian active measures operations. The 2016 presidential elections, however, offered a distinct opportunity for Vladimir Putin to weaken its democratic stability and alter the geo-strategic direction of Russia’s key rival.

Russian intelligence services targeted specific weaknesses within American democracy to take advantage of this opportunity, most significantly the U.S. media’s inability to defend itself against foreign propaganda sources. But the operation relied on other factors and indicated a sophisticated assessment of American vulnerabilities: the rise of a partisan media in politics; the now-easy possibility to spread false news stories through social, digital and broadcast media; increasing hyper-partisanship and the susceptibility of voters to propaganda messaging; and the weakness of digital security within the electoral system. This assessment aligned with long-standing active measures operations to influence attitudes towards Russia on the Left and the Right. On the Left, the U.S. Green Party and a segment of Bernie Sanders supporters assumed a high value. On the Right, targets included religious conservatives focused on defense of “traditional values”; libertarians espousing isolationism; businessmen seeking investment opportunities (especially in technology and energy sectors); and the so-called alt-right with its focus on “white civilization” and “white identity.”[5]

The aims of the Russian intervention in the U.S. presidential election were evident to those observing its state-controlled media. Quickly after Trump announced his candidacy in June 2015, domestic and foreign-language Russian broadcasts generated a high number of stories against Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic Party candidate, and in favor of Donald Trump. Echoes of this propaganda could be seen repeated in U.S. social media and broadcast and print outlets.

It was not unusual to view negative messages directed at a particular U.S. presidential candidate on Russian state broadcasts. In the case of Clinton, Putin had publicly expressed his antipathy for her more anti-Russian views and openly accused her of instigating public demonstrations in 2011 directed against his rule. She also represented a more hawkish wing of the Democratic Party and a continuation of policies in support of U.S. world leadership. During the primaries, Russian broadcasts often repeated and exaggerated criticisms made against her by her primary opponent, Bernie Sanders, claiming that she was a supporter of Wall Street financial interests and had a militarist foreign policy.

What was unusual was the strong messaging in favor of Republican candidate Donald Trump. The reasons for the preference were disturbing.

Trump, a top U.S. presidential candidate for the nomination of a major political party, repeatedly praised Putin‘s strong-man leadership and frequently parroted Russian propaganda messages apologizing for Russian repression and even war crimes.[6] Relatedly, the same U.S. presidential candidate proposed not only better relations with Russia, but also fulfillment of Putin’s own long-standing goal of a U.S.-Russian entente to combat the global threat of Islamist terrorism. Further still, Trump’s ethno-nationalist campaign themes and policies echoed the “Russian idea” of defending “civilizational values” by pointing to exaggerated dangers of terrorism, immigration into Western countries, and the economic damage of elite-driven global capitalism. Trump’s themes and foreign policy positions appeared in synchrony, not only with Russia’s messaging in Europe and the U.S., but also with Russia’s broader geostrategic aims. Indeed, Trump proposed a new “America First” doctrine that de-emphasized America‘s leadership role in the world, questioned the value of the NATO alliance and relationships with other democratic allies, and advocated a unilateralist and economics-based concept of national interest.

Trump’s positions, ideological in nature, were reflected in the staffing of his campaign. In addition to a number of minor staff who had pro-Russian and pro-Putin sympathies, Trump’s first senior national security adviser, Lt. Gen. Michael A. Flynn, advocated an alliance with Russia to fight the global war on terror (not coincidentally, he had received $50,000 from Russia Today and Kaspersky Labs for a trip to Russia in December 2015). Most significant was the appointment of campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who had been paid many millions over ten years working for pro-Russian Ukrainian dictator Viktor Yanukovych and his political party, and who acted as a financial go-between for Kremlin-tied Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs. There were more, among them Richard Burt, a respected former State Department diplomat and now a lobbyist for Gazprom, who was a key adviser on Trump’s “America First” speech in April 2016.

Media reported on numerous financial ties between Trump and Trump associates and Russian state entities, oligarchs, and post-Soviet dictatorships.[7] These, together with Trump’s public positions and his campaign staffing, were all highly abnormal for a candidate of the Republican Party, whose past policy and leadership, similar to Hillary Clinton, generally opposed Russia’s dictatorship, supported stronger action in response to Russian aggression, and advocated a continued strong American role in the world.

Each week, we learn more about the extent of the Russian intervention in the U.S. presidential election. Russian active measures integrated domestic and foreign propaganda operations, traditional methods (such as espionage and infiltration of foreign institutions by agents), and highly unusual non-traditional methods. The latter included an aggressive operation of direct hacking into (at least) twenty-one individual state election systems (two successfully) and seemingly failed attempts to install Russian malware on electronic voting machines. Other non-traditional methods included a ratcheting up of a multi-pronged cyber operation involving (at least) a thousand human agents and tens of thousands of automated “bots” disseminating Russia’s domestic and foreign propaganda as well as the seeding of “false news” stories in places like Macedonia, and ideologically targeted messaging and paid advertising on social and digital media and on partisan broadcast media. Both media platforms were key sources of news and opinion for much of the electorate. The cyber operation worked seemingly in concert with the Trump campaign’s national strategy for depressing Hillary Clinton’s vote, especially in target Electoral College states, by spreading large amounts of anti-Clinton propaganda. Facebook and Google reported that much of its news feeds in the months prior to the election had been made up in large part by “fake news.”[8]

The most unusual and aggressive of the active measures was the Russian intelligence operation to hack computers of the Democratic National Committee and key Clinton campaign staff and then to “weaponize” seemingly compromising emails stolen in this effort. They did so through selective and well-timed public release by a “third party” so that they would have maximum public damage for the Clinton campaign. Arguably, this had the most effect.

The third party Russia chose to use was the internet platform Wikileaks, which free speech advocates had championed for publishing classified U.S. government documents. Still, there were clear reports that Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, had a pronounced anti-U.S. and anti-Clinton animus and had generally aligned Wikileaks policy and output with Russian interests.[9] The original source of the emails was fully confirmed by the Intelligence Community in a rare consensus statement made on October 7, 2016, which warned American citizens of Russia’s intervention in the presidential election.[10]

Nevertheless, most print and broadcast outlets were eager to publish “open source” information and reported aggressively on both sets of Wikileaks “dumps.” The first set, which might now be considered a test release by Russian intelligence services, was released during the Democratic National Convention and generated enormous negative media coverage over apparent favoritism by the DNC towards Hillary Clinton. The second set was a daily Chinese water torture-like drip of releases onto the heads of American voters beginning on October 8 made up mostly of private Clinton campaign staff emails. Neither of the email dumps had much substantive news value and were generally unverified but both sets were reported on as important negative “revelations” about Clinton and her campaign. There was little context offered to readers that these emails were stolen by a Russian government intelligence agency and formed part of a foreign government’s propaganda operation aimed at influencing the American electorate.

Further indication that Russian active measures acted in concert with the Trump campaign’s strategy to depress Clinton’s voter turnout was that Trump himself, his staff, and pro-Trump media abundantly used the Wikileaks releases, often distorted, as part of a disciplined, propaganda campaign against Clinton. In fact, they became the basis of the Trump campaign. Trump launched every rally with the newest “revelation” as “proof” of Clinton illegality or deception, while declaiming, “Don’t we love Wikileaks!” The Wikileaks “revelations” were used to buttress the overall themes of the campaign, which had distinct echoes of Russian propaganda depictions of American politics. “The system is rigged”; Washington (epitomized by the Clintons) was a “swamp” of corruption; and the capstone to the campaign, elaborated in chief strategist Steve Bannon’s “final argument” speech and advertisement, which claimed that Clinton was the agent for a “global economic elite” (all of whom appeared to be Jews in the TV advertisement) that had devastated the American economy and workforce.

Post-election analysis (and Clinton herself) focused on the effect of the unprecedented action of FBI Director James Comey to re-open and then close again a controversial investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while Secretary of State. This certainly had an effect, but one very considerable reason was that it reinforced the messages of the Wikileaks “dumps,” which had already dominated news coverage for weeks and continued until the day of the election.[11] From October 8 to November 8, Clinton’s polling lead dropped 8 points to a two-point margin nationally (the actual result).

 Assessing the Damage: The Weakening of American Democracy

The unified Intelligence Community assessment is that the Russian intervention had the goal of electing Donald Trump as president.[12] Nevertheless, the common layman’s analysis is that Putin’s initial aim in intervening in the election was not to elect Trump, but rather to delegitimize and weaken a likely Clinton presidency. Such analysis exaggerates short-term and personalized motivations and expectations (Putin’s “hatred” for Clinton, his “fear” of color revolutions, his “desire” to ease sanctions) and underestimates the broader ideological purposes of Russian active measures, which were designed to weaken American democracy and its legitimacy and leadership in the world. This analysis also underestimates the elastic nature of active measures. In this case, one goal may have been to delegitimize and weaken a potential adversary (Clinton), but the maximum one was to help propel a candidate to power who would change U.S. foreign policy in favor of Russian interests (Trump). Both of these goals had multiple potential benefits and both involved continuing pursuit of Russia’s broader and longstanding geostrategic aims.

So, in assessing the damage of Trump’s victory in the 2016 election, it is hard not to conclude that the first strategic goal of Vladimir Putin—to weaken American democracy—has been achieved. An authoritarian-style candidate appealing to a nationalist and intolerant base of supporters won the election with a minority of votes. He did so by use of anti-democratic means (propaganda and demagogy) and by relying on the decisive help of the Russian Federation. The dominant political party in the U.S. embraces Trump and Trump’s base as its own and attributes opposition to Trump as pure partisanship. It is noted that in the first round of France’s presidential elections 60 percent of voters preferred pro-Russian candidates before giving pro-NATO Emmanuel Macron a decisive second-round victory. In the U.S., 46 percent of the American electorate voted for a president stating his full admiration for Putin and promising better relations with Russia.

Trump’s leadership, rhetoric and policies consistently divide the nation. In the wake of his comments around the events of Charlottesville, that division has increased. Constitutional safeguards have limited the damage of Donald Trump’s presidency to some degree. But there has remained until now solid backing for Trump’s presidential rule within the Republican Party and especially for his ethno-nationalist, anti-terrorism and anti-immigration policy goals — the key concordances with Russian propaganda and Russian state policy.

Despite facing institutional checks and balances on his power, Trump immediately set out to exert presidential authority through executive orders revamping policies and “restructuring” government agencies, often contrary to long-standing Congressionally determined mandates, authorizations, and appropriations. Such “restructuring” is contrary to the principal function of the president (“to faithfully execute the laws”) but it fulfills a fundamental promise of his campaign to run the country as he did his business, without legislative approval as necessary.[13]

More significantly perhaps, Trump has flouted democratic and diplomatic norms regularly to create a chaotic atmosphere of national governance that undermines any pretense of stability. He has propagated a cascade of lies to deflect attempts at holding him accountable in office, all the while abusing the powers of his office to foster his private business enterprises. He has organized his presidency around the constant assertion of ideas that reflect Richard Hofstadter’s “paranoid mind in American politics”: demonizing the media as “the enemy of the people”; questioning the legitimacy of courts; accusing the Intelligence Community of delegitimizing his election; baselessly accusing his predecessor of carrying out illegal “dirty tricks” against him; and encouraging the notion that a “deep state” loyal to his Democratic opponents is conspiring against his leadership and sabotaging his administration; among others.

All of Trump’s practices undermine public trust in American institutions. On top of such an achievement, the Russian intervention has succeeded in sowing doubts among American citizens as to the validity and reliability of its political system while also having a U.S. president regularly depicted as being potentially compromised by the Russian government.

Assessing the Damage: The Weakening of America’s Global Leadership

Trump is also fulfilling the second broader aim of Russian geo-strategy: to weaken America’s global leadership.

For more than 70 years, the United States has been the pre-eminent economic and military power among democratic states in alliance against anti-democratic nations and blocs. Since the collapse of the USSR, it has acted as the world’s only super-power. While at times having contradictory policies and undertaking wars to pursue national security interests, the U.S. has not acted generally with imperialist purpose or to defend only its own interests. Rather, its consistent foreign policy doctrine has been to support the liberal international world order the U.S. helped create after World War II and the system of political, military and trade alliances that preserves it. There were significant differences carrying out foreign policy, but Democratic and Republican administrations each adopted this general foreign policy doctrine out of a common understanding that it protected the world’s security, prevented general war, and served both domestic and global interests. It was out of this understanding that the U.S. and Europe (as well as the U.N. General Assembly) acted against the aggression of Russia after its annexation of Crimea — the first time since World War II that state borders in Europe were changed by force.

In his Inaugural Address — that is, from his first hour in office — Donald Trump asserted that the United States would reject traditional doctrines and responsibilities of global leadership. He stated that the U.S. would instead adopt a foreign policy defined by narrow economic interests and protection of its own borders and national security. In doing so, he created a fully fictitious account of post-war and current reality. Until now, America had been “taken advantage of” by nearly all countries (except Russia). Its economy was “devastated” by free trade and impoverished by unnecessary wars. Its military was “depleted.” Foreign policy, he declared, would be governed by a new doctrine: “from this day forward, America First, America First.”

The Vice President and some key advisers and Cabinet members more grounded in post-WWII foreign policy have stated that the concept of “America First” includes “defense of American values” and maintaining previous policies and alliances. Several conservative analysts have concluded that “the establishment” re-asserted itself and Trump has adopted a “traditional Republican foreign policy.”[14] Such claims simply normalize “America First” doctrine as the new basis for U.S. foreign policy. Following Trump’s first trip abroad, during which he embraced dictatorships as allies and treated allies as moochers and trade enemies, his key economic and national security advisers wrote definitively that the America First doctrine “embraces” the view that the world is “an arena where nations . . . compete for advantage.”[15] After Trump’s second trip, H.R. McMaster and Gary Cohn repeated their defense of a foreign policy based on “securing the American homeland, enhancing American prosperity and advancing American prosperity and influence.” This doctrine of self-interest directs all departments of the U.S. government. Reflecting this, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson proposes to take out promotion of democracy and human rights from the Department of State’s mission statement.[16]

Within a brief time, Donald Trump has thus re-oriented American foreign policy away from its post-war global responsibilities and Trump is directing an overall unilateral dismantling of non-military capabilities to project power and protect national security interests.[17] Trump has also isolated the U.S. both economically and diplomatically by abruptly withdrawing the country from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the proposed Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, and the Paris Climate Change Agreement.

And regardless of any individual policies that may be adopted, Trump’s nationalist and chauvinist themes, erratic behavior, petty disputes with allies, and general orientation towards authoritarian leaders has greatly weakened America’s standing in the world. The United States is no longer a model for democracy nor a champion for it. Neither the country nor its president are any longer recognized as “the leader of the free world” but rather both are seen as inconstant and unstable. After Trump deliberately refused to articulate a commitment to NATO’s mutual defense provision in front of NATO’s members, German leader Angela Merkel stated her conclusion of Trump’s behavior and policy starkly: “Europe can no longer count on others,” meaning the United States.

Trump, Putin and the Challenge to American Democracy

All of this is consistent with Trump’s most frequently stated foreign policy goal: to have better relations with Russia. During and after the campaign, he did not describe the purpose of such good relations except their general desirability (“wouldn’t it be nice”) and more substantively to establish a partnership to “get rid of ISIS” in Syria. Trump’s determination in this regard and his affinity for Vladimir Putin — he continues never to criticize the leader — are often described by journalists as “mysterious” and “strange” as if they are discordant stances to an otherwise democratic outlook or set of policy positions.

Trump’s stances are certainly strange from a democratic standpoint: Russia, like the Soviet Union before it, is anti-democracy. Nor can it be considered a partner in the war on terror; it is instead a geo-strategic competitor wanting to re-establish influence in the Middle East.[18] Yet, despite all obstacles put forward by “the establishment,” Trump still insists on bringing about better relations with Russia. Recent signs of this insistence are the private one-on-one meetings at the G20 Summit that made clear Trump’s preference for Putin over allied leaders; his reluctant signing of the Russian sanctions legislation and subsequent blaming of Congress for bad relations with Russia; his continued insistence that Russia did not interfere in the presidential elections and his repeated statements that it is all a “hoax”; and his stunning approval of Putin’s order to severely diminish American diplomatic and intelligence capacities in U.S. facilities in Russia. In this regard, Trump clearly does not view either Putin or Russia through any democratic lens, but rather through the lens of America First.

All of the weaknesses that Russia targeted in 2016 remain: an electoral system that allows a minority of voters to outweigh the majority in a national election; hyper-partisanship that puts political party interests above considerations of country; the rise of an authoritarian-minded leader whose main affinity is with authoritarian leaders; mainstream and other media that is susceptible to foreign influence.

The question now is whether America’s institutions and citizenry are able to defend U.S. democracy and its broader purpose in the world. One positive indication is the adoption by overwhelming majorities in both houses of the Congress of legislation that strengthens and codifies into law existing sanctions against the Russian Federation for its annexation of Crimea, military aggression in eastern Ukraine, and its intervention in the U.S. election.

For the first time, the Congress acted decisively to constrain Trump’s power to radically re-orient American foreign policy and to continue to recognize Russia as a threat to global security and freedom. Many of Vladimir Putin’s aims for destabilizing the international world order and advancing Russia’s power would be fulfilled with the tacit recognition of the annexation of Crimea or the acceptance by the international community of a “frozen conflict” in Ukraine. Either or both such outcomes would permanently undermine Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty. Different aims would be fulfilled if there were no U.S. response to its destabilizing actions in the U.S. elections. The previous sanctions policy adopted by the United States, in tandem with the European Union, are the necessary and minimum measures for defending basic democratic principles of the liberal international world order and its proscription against the use of force to change state borders. The limited sanctions adopted by the Obama Administration and new, stronger ones adopted by Congress in reaction to the Russian intervention in the elections are a first step towards defending against external assaults on American democracy.

Only such a clear assertion of pro-democratic principles and policies by the Congress, including its proper authority in setting the foreign affairs of the United States, can begin to protect the country from the willful undermining of those principles by Donald Trump. A next step would be in heightening the sanctions policy to pressure Putin to abandon his adventurist and aggressive foreign policies.

But it is unclear if this first step will be followed by broader action of Republicans acting with Democrats in a bipartisan majority to defend the country. One additional measure would be to re-assert fully Congress’s powers to declare war and constrain the president’s power to undertake military action, including nuclear war, unilaterally. But there are further steps, such as directing the Secretary of State to fully respect Congressional authority in setting foreign affairs of the nation and to prevent Tillerson from permanently harming the diplomatic capacity of the United States and its other means of asserting “soft power.”

None of the above analysis takes away from the need to address fundamental political, economic or social issues that face the United States or its citizens. Vladimir Putin succeeded because he was able to take advantage of real fissures within American politics and American society. Those fissures exist on both domestic and foreign policy and need ample discussion for any bridging of divides. Ultimately, though, to safeguard democracy, we must realize the full nature and meaning of the assault on its political system by an authoritarian dictatorship. This is necessary in order to prevent that authoritarian dictatorship from furthering its own anti-democratic and imperialist interests at the expense of global security, freedom and also American interests. It is the concordance of Trump, Putin, and Russia’s active measures campaign to bring him to power that allows us to assess the true damage to American and world democracy — and the challenge to repair it.


[1] The anomaly is significant. In the country’s first 100 years, only three presidential elections were decided by the electoral college or House of Representatives contrary to the national vote winner. From 1892 to 2012, however, the victor in presidential contests won both the electoral college and national vote in all but one of thirty-one elections, usually by large margins, to achieve a popular mandate. The exception was the 2000 election. George W. Bush won a slight electoral college victory (271-266), affirmed by a narrow 5-4 Supreme Court ruling, which overrode a small national vote margin in favor of Al Gore of 0.5 percent. In light of the 2016 result, the historical anomaly of 2000 should have led to much greater national reflection on how U.S. presidents are elected.

[2] On Soviet active measures, see e.g., The KGB in Europe and the West: The Mitrokhin Archive by Chrisopher Wall and Vasili Mitrokhin (Penguin, UK: 2006). The full Mitrokhin files are made available at The Woodrow Wilson Digital Archive. Russian active measures and their impact in the U.S. election were explored by the Senate Intelligence Permanent Select Committee at its public hearing on March 30, 2017.

[3] For Russian strategic and ideological doctrines, and the intersection of policies in carrying them out, see Putinism: Russia and Its Future with the West by Walter Laqueur (St. Martins Press, New York: 2014).

[4] On Russia’s recent active measures in Europe, see The Atlantic Council’s report The Kremlin’s Trojan Horses by Alina Polyakova, Marlene Laruelle, Stefan Meister, and Neil Barnett.

[5] See “How Putin Played the Far Left” by Casey Michael (Daily Beast, Jan. 13, 2017) and “How the GOP Became the Party of Putin,” by Jamie Kirchik (Politico, July 18, 2017). On Russia’s persistent influence operation aimed at white supremacist and white nationalist groups (the so-called alt-right), see also author Molly McKew’s Twitter thread “We Need to Have a Conversation About What Is Happening” (August 12, 2017).

[6] In one instance, after the release of a definitive report by a Dutch government commission that tied the downing of the airliner MH17 and the deaths of 287 people on board to Russian anti-aircraft missiles supplied to pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, Trump raised doubts about Russia’s role in similar fashion as its state television station Sputnik. Trump frequently equated U.S. actions and practices with those of Russia (“the U.S. kills a lot of people too”), a common justification found on Russian state propaganda. The practice has been termed “whataboutism.”

[7] “The Curious World of Donald Trump’s Russia Connections” by John Henry comprehensively details these ties (The American Interest, Dec. 19, 2016), but much of it had already been reported during the election campaign.

[8] The large nature of the operation is truly impressive. Department of Homeland Security officials testified in Senate Intelligence Hearing on July 21, 2017 about the number of state election systems hacked. On other aspects see, e.g., Wired magazine (“Everything We Know About Russia's Election-Hacking Playbook,” June 17, 2017, among several articles) and Time magazine (“Inside Russia’s Social Media War on America” (March 19, 2017). Carole Cadwalladr’s series in the Guardian details how social media influence operations may have affected the referendum in the UK and also the U.S. election. Facebook has recently provided information to Intelligence Committees and the Special Council regarding paid advertising and the widespread use of fake accounts to spread propaganda (see, e.g., New York Times, September 6, 2017). But the extent of disinformation (“fake news”) on Facebook and Google has been detailed by many, including Vice News.

[9] The New York Times published a comprehensive article on Wikileaks (“How Russia Often Benefits When Julian Assange Reveals the West’s Secrets” (August 31, 2016), but several journalists detailed Assange’s anti-Clinton and anti-U.S. animus and ties to Russia, including its subsidization when Wikileaks almost went bankrupt in 2011. It was widely accepted in the Intelligence Community (and known by national security reporters) that Wikileaks was a “Russian asset.” Following the election, Trump’s own CIA Director, Mike Pompeo, confirmed this assessment.

[10] See “Joint Statement of the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Election Security,” October 7, 2016.

[11] Nearly all statistical analysis of the role of the media has pointed to the lack of coverage of issues and policy. The extent of the coverage of the Wikileaks dumps was measured by the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University in its report “Partisanship, Propaganda, and Disinformation: Online Media and the 2016 Presidential Election” (August 17, 2017). It found that they did in fact dominate media coverage.

[12] See “Background to Assessing the Russian Intentions and Activities in Recent U.S. Elections,” Report of the Directorate of National Intelligence, January 7, 2017.

[13] Minor examples: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is closing of a Congressionally mandated cyber security division within the State Department that would protect against foreign cyber-attacks (link) and he is refusing to spend $80 million allocated by Congress to combat Russian and ISIS propaganda (link). But there is a general effort to downsize the State Department against the clear wishes of Congressional leaders. A fuller description of the “restructuring” at the State Department is “Present at the Destruction” by Max Bergmann (Politico, June 29, 2017).

[14] The strongest such argument is made by former Reagan and Bush administration official Elliot Abrams (“Trump the Traditionalist,” Foreign Affairs July-August 2017).

[15] This was stated in the contrarily titled “America First Doesn’t Mean America Alone” by Gary Cohn and H.R. McMaster (The Wall Street Journal, May 30, 2017)

[16] Trump reiterated the doctrine before the United Nations, where he declared the primary interest of the U.S. among nations as self-interest, not mutual interest, contrary to the stated purposes that the U.S. helped to craft in the U.N. Charter. See Jennifer Rubin, Washington Post, September 19, 2017.

[17] See, e.g. “How Trump Broke the State Department,” by Robbie Gramer, Dan De Luce, and Colum Lynch, Foreign Policy, July 31, 2017.

[18] “Trump’s Plan to Fight ISIS with Putin Isn’t Just Futile. It’s Dangerous” by Molly McKew, Politico, Feb. 7, 2017.