Sanders’s broadside against Russia came in response to this startling New York Times report that Russian military hackers have penetrated Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company at the center of one of President Trump’s biggest attacks against potential 2020 opponent Joe Biden.
Trump, of course, subverted our foreign policy toward the corrupt goal of making his narrative about Biden appear true. Trump dangled official acts to extort the Ukrainian president into announcing an investigation of then-Vice President Biden’s ousting of a Ukrainian prosecutor, supposedly to protect his son, Hunter, who sat on Burisma’s board, from investigation.
That narrative is complete nonsense. While Hunter Biden should not have taken the Burisma gig, none of that casts doubt on what Joe Biden himself did in Ukraine. At a time when Burisma was not under investigation, Biden worked to oust a prosecutor who dragged his feet on corruption, which was U.S. policy, backed by international institutions.
Russia apparently wanted to prove otherwise, however. Experts believe the hackers “could be searching for potentially embarrassing material on the Bidens,” as the Times puts it, just as Trump has been. And:
The Russian attacks on Burisma appear to be running parallel to an effort by Russian spies in Ukraine to dig up information in the analog world that could embarrass the Bidens, according to an American security official.
Sanders responded sharply to this news, pronouncing himself “alarmed” by Russia’s effort to hack Burisma and interfere again, and ripping Russia for disinformation campaigns designed to divide the United States along racial and social lines:
Let me be clear: we must not live in denial while allowing Russia and other state actors to undermine our democracy or divide us. Russia targets the divisions in our society; we will work to heal those divisions. We must do everything we can to strengthen our democracy and build a society based on social, economic, and environmental justice, and equality and dignity for all.
To understand the argument Sanders is making here, read his 2018 foreign policy speech, which is all about what he terms a “struggle of enormous consequence” taking place “throughout the world”:
On one hand, we see a growing worldwide movement toward authoritarianism, oligarchy, and kleptocracy. On the other side, we see a movement toward strengthening democracy, egalitarianism, and economic, social, racial, and environmental justice.
Sanders cites Russian interference in our elections on Trump’s behalf as an important front in this struggle, noting that Trump is “ultimately more sympathetic to Russia’s strongman form of government” and to this kind of authoritarianism and kleptocracy “than he is to American democracy.” This must be countered with “a strong global progressive movement.”
In other words, Sanders speaks to the threat of Russian interference not through the sort of neo-Cold War frame often derided by some of his online supporters, but through a frame that pits liberal democracies that share a common — if sometimes wobbly and ineffective — commitment to international institutions against a global movement of “oligarchic authoritarianism.”
Sanders, of course, would agree with one argument often advanced by those who downplay Russian interference as a factor — that the failures of neoliberalism are to blame for the rise of this Putinist International of illiberal authoritarian regimes threatening liberal democracy everywhere, including here.
But in Sanders’s telling, this analysis does not preclude being deeply concerned about Russian sabotage of our elections. Instead, it argues in favor of being deeply concerned about it. Sanders sees a kind of alliance between plutocrats (Trump, wealthy donors, multinational corporations) with oligarchs and autocrats abroad, all of whom share the loose common goal of hobbling liberal democracy and international institutions to enable their own continuing plunder.
Trump won in part due to Russian interference, then went on a spree of homegrown corruption, self-dealing, and profiteering off the presidency, while further enriching our plutocrats and weakening our international commitments — which fits perfectly into this story.
More broadly, in this telling, liberal democracy and international institutions — reformed along the lines Sanders advocates for, of course — are our best hope for securing humanity’s future against the severe international threats it will face, such as climate change, mass migrations (which may well worsen along with the climate crisis) and the depredations of global capitalism.
For Sanders, that’s the larger context in which Russian sabotage of our democracy should be seen — as a threat not just to candidates like Biden and Hillary Clinton, but to all of us.