The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Did the United States interfere in Russian elections?

A Russian woman casts her ballot paper in the village of Lomakino, Smolensk region, western Russia, during the Russian presidential election in 2012. (Sergei Grits/Associated Press)

Tom Malinowski served as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor from 2014 to 2017.

Russia President Vladimir Putin denies meddling in U.S. politics — though he sometimes suggests, with a wink, that “patriotic” Russians may have done so. But there is one point that he always insists on: that the United States does the same to others. He has charged that the U.S. government interfered “aggressively” in Russia’s 2012 presidential vote, which Putin won after a year of protests against him. He claims that Washington “gathered opposition forces and financed them.” At the recent Group of 20 summit, Putin apparently got President Trump to agree to a mutual commitment that neither country would interfere in the other’s elections.

Is this moral equivalence fair? In short, no. Russia’s interference in the United States’ 2016 election could not have been more different from what the United States does to promote democracy in other countries, efforts for which I was responsible as a State Department official. But from Putin’s frame of reference, the distinction is without a difference. And therein lies a larger truth about U.S.-Russian relations that we have been slow to realize.

The U.S. government never hacked into Russian leaders’ emails and released them selectively to favor one side in their elections, or flooded Russian social media with fake stories to discredit their ruling party. What it did do, until the U.S. Agency for International Development was expelled from Russia in 2012, was to help fund some of the country’s leading nongovernmental organizations. These included the human rights group Memorial, the Committee Against Torture and, most important, given the drama to come, a group called Golos, Russia’s main nongovernment organization for election fraud monitoring. This effort was non-partisan and it aimed to strengthen democracy for everyone in Russia, not to steer the outcome.

If the Russian government were to offer grants in the United States to NGOs that promote voting rights for minority citizens, or that fight corruption in our politics, that would be the equivalent of what the United States did in Russia, and we would have no cause to complain. Indeed, to this day, we let the Kremlin fund a Russian cultural center in Washington (though it closed the U.S. cultural center in Moscow) and allow its Sputnik propaganda outlet to broadcast on FM radio in America (though it has denied Voice of America a license to broadcast locally in Russia). We don’t stop Russia or any other country from trying to influence public debate in the United States on any issue.

But the difference between partisan and non-partisan influence is lost on Putin, for reasons that make perfect sense in his reality. If you are a Russian president trying to rig an election – as the European Court for Human Rights recently ruled Putin’s party did in legislative elections in 2011 – you are not going to view organizations such as Golos, that uncover your fraud, as politically neutral. If you are amassing illicit wealth, you will look at organizations that expose corruption in Russia as partisan instruments of political opposition. You will assume the United States sees this, too, and that it funds such organizations not to advance some abstract ideal, but with the intention of getting rid of you.

In a sense, the central problem in U.S.-Russian relations has been a form of psychological projection. Putin views foreign policy as a means of enhancing Russia’s — and his regime’s — security, power and wealth in a zero-sum competition with other states. He assumes Americans are the same. We may talk about freedom for Russians, or safety for Syrian civilians, or sovereignty for Ukrainians, but he can’t imagine that we actually believe in such sentiments or allow them to dictate policy. Only a chump would do that. To him, our rhetoric of human rights and universal norms is just a weapon wielded to weaken our enemies.

As Putin projects his cynicism on us, we have projected our pragmatism on him. Successive American administrations thought they could give a few grants to Russian NGOs and criticize Putin when he cracked down on dissent (as Hillary Clinton did), while continuing to work with Russia on shared security interests. If the United States was willing to compartmentalize our relationship, insulating cooperation on Iran, fighting terrorists, or trade from areas of disagreement, surely Russia could, too. We did not consider that an insecure dictator such as Putin would view our help for Russians championing free elections as a knife to his throat — a threat to his system that justified a strike at the heart of ours.

Should we have refrained from supporting democracy in Russia? I’m not sure we could have. As hard as it is for Putin to imagine, ideals are part of America’s identity; even if we’d tried to stay silent, he would eventually have done something U.S. leaders would have felt compelled to condemn. Even under Trump, the U.S. Congress will keep funding human-rights activists from Russia and around the world, and the U.S. justice system will keep prosecuting Russian corruption. These things are in our laws and part of our national DNA.

Rather, I think, we should be more realistic about our idealism. The advancement of democracy and human rights is as serious a business as anything we do in our foreign policy and cannot be treated as an afterthought in our relations with great powers. After all, the stakes for them, and ultimately for us, are existential.