Putin, exposed, may become more dangerous
Has there ever been a covert action that backfired as disastrously as Russia’s attempt to meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign?
Granted, we know all the reasons Moscow is gloating: Donald Trump is president; America is divided and confused; Russia’s propagandization of “fake news” is now repeated by people around the world as evidence that nothing is believable and all information is (as in Russia) manipulated and mendacious.
But against this cynical strategy there now stands a process embodied by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, which we will call, as a shorthand: “The Truth.” Mueller has mobilized the investigative powers of the U.S. government to document how Russia and its friends sought to manipulate American politics. We are seeing the rule of law, applied.
Put aside for the moment what the indictments and plea agreement announced Monday will ultimately mean for Trump’s presidency. Already, Mueller has stripped the cover from Russia’s machinations: Trump’s former foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos has confessed that he lied to FBI agents about his contacts with individuals connected to Moscow who promised “dirt” on Hillary Clinton; Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort has been charged with laundering $18 million in payoffs from Russia’s Ukrainian friends.
Russian meddling is now advertised to the world. This topic will dominate American debate for the next year, at least. In Europe, meanwhile, a similar reaction to Russian influence operations is gaining force. President Vladimir Putin once imagined that Trump would be Russia’s bridge back from isolation. Not anymore.
Next comes the overtly dangerous part: When covert operations are exposed, nations sometimes adopt more aggressive actions. On the continuum of warfare, Russia has been playing somewhere in the middle, between war and peace. Now, as the world focuses on Russian mischief, will the Kremlin move the dial up or down?
Putin made some comments last week that worry me. Before a meeting of his security council on Oct. 26, Putin announced that he was augmenting cyberwar policies to take into account “that the level of threat in the information space is on the rise.” He proposed “additional measures” to combat adversaries and protect Russia. He argued that Russia was simply protecting its citizens from cybercriminals, but his language was emphatic: “It is necessary to be tough as regards those persons and groups that are using the Internet and the information space for criminal purposes.”
Trump may or may not have colluded with Russia during the 2016 campaign; we’ll leave that question for the lawyers. But if Trump seeks to derail Mueller’s probe, he is implicitly colluding with Russia now. By many people’s definition, that would be aiding a foreign power, which might be deemed a “high crime or misdemeanor.” Let Mueller finish his job of exposing Russian manipulation.