Sen. Ben Cardin, ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, released this week an impressive report on the Russian threat and the Trump administration’s failure to defend American democracy and security.
Nearly 20 years ago, Vladimir Putin gained and solidified power by exploiting blackmail, fears of terrorism, and war. Since then, he has combined military adventurism and aggression abroad with propaganda and political repression at home, to persuade a domestic audience that he is restoring Russia to greatness and a respected position on the world stage. All the while, he has empowered the state security services and employed them to consolidate his hold on the levers of political, social, and economic power, which he has used to make himself and a circle of loyalists extraordinarily wealthy. …Despite the clear assaults on our democracy and our allies in Europe, the U.S. government still does not have a coherent, comprehensive, and coordinated approach to the Kremlin’s malign influence operations, either abroad or at home. Although the U.S. government has for years had a patchwork of offices and programs supporting independent journalism, cyber security, and the countering of disinformation, the lack of presidential leadership in addressing the threat Putin poses has hampered a strong U.S. response. In early 2017, Congress provided the State Department’s Global Engagement Center the resources and mandate to address Kremlin disinformation campaigns, but operations have been stymied by the Department’s hiring freeze and unnecessarily long delays by its senior leadership in transferring authorized funds to the office. While many mid-level and some senior-level officials throughout the State Department and U.S. government are cognizant of the threat posed by Mr. Putin’s asymmetric arsenal, the U.S. President continues to deny that any such threat exists, creating a leadership vacuum in our own government and among our European partners and allies.
It’s remarkable that any Republican would find that objectionable. Indeed, in private, all but a handful likely would say that they heartily agree. However, President Trump would surely not approve and has gone out of his way to echo Putin’s bogus talking points and denials of Russian meddling in our election.
Democrats provide a comprehensive account of Russia’s domestic repression as well as its low-cost cyber war and disinformation campaign against the West. They make 10 key recommendations, including exposing and freezing kleptocrats’ money; publicizing Russian meddling and aggression; supporting democratic institutions; and reducing European dependence on Russian energy; improving alliances. This used to be the default position for Republicans. But now, many regard this as some sort of partisan attack on the president.
A wide array of outside experts uniformly praised the report. “This is an incredibly thorough and thoughtful report that clearly outlines the pressing threat posed by Russia,” says Max Bergmann of the left-leaning Center for American Progress. “Our democracy was attacked in 2016 and it is urgent that we as a country take the steps outlined in the report right now so this doesn’t happen again. Yet instead of acting to protect America, we have a President focused on appeasing Putin and a do-nothing Republican Congress solely obsessed with protecting the President.”
Russian expert Alina Polyakova of the Brookings Institution likewise tells me, “This report is a thorough and comprehensive view of Russia’s decades-long political warfare against the West. The lesson learned from Europe, which has borne the brunt of Russian attacks, is that Russia can be deterred but that requires leadership. For that reason, this report would have sent a much stronger message to the Trump administration if it had Republican support.” She adds, “As is, it is an urgent warning and a call to action, but it may fall on deaf ears.” In that regard, it was a mistake, I think, for Republicans to stand aside and let Democrats claim the mantle of national security hawks. Once again, Republicans put loyalty to Trump over principles (human rights, defense of Europe) that they used to hold dear.
And on the human rights front, whereas Republicans have dropped the ball since President Barack Obama left office, Democrats (who tended to hold their fire when the Obama administration was lax on the issue) call out Russian repression (“Under Putin’s leadership, the Russian government has undermined political processes, parties, and opposition that present a meaningful check on the Kremlin’s power”) and Russia’s attempt to use all means of undermining Western democracies. As to the latter, the report states:
Today, the Kremlin’s malign influence operations employ state and non-state resources to achieve their ends, including the security services, television stations and pseudo news agencies, social media and internet trolls, public and private companies, organized crime groups, think tanks and special foundations, and social and religious groups.Disinformation campaigns are used to discredit politicians and democratic institutions like elections and an independent media; cultural, religious, and political organizations are used to repeat the Kremlin’s narrative of the day and disrupt social cohesion; corruption is used to influence politicians and infiltrate decisionmaking bodies; and energy resources are used to cajole and coerce vulnerable foreign governments.
Michael Abramowitz of Freedom House credits the drafters of the report for their work. “The findings of the Democratic Staff Report mirror the findings of our own research reports, including ‘Freedom on the Net’ and ‘Freedom in the World,’ ” he says. “Russia shows the increasing sophistication and reach of modern authoritarian regimes, especially through Russia’s organized disinformation campaigns during elections, not just here but in European democracies.” He adds: “We’ve already seen Russia move aggressively against neighboring states. It was in effect road-testing some of the tactics it deployed last year in the United States.”
In short, this report should be the bipartisan policy of the United States. That Republicans are too timid even to join in the report speaks volume about Trump’s infatuation with Putin and efforts to deny the actions amply documented in the report. Maybe the special counsel will enlighten us as to the reasons for Trump’s pro-Russian stances. In the meantime, it’s time for Republicans to get on board with the report and start implementing the recommendations.
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