The president of the United States fires his director of national intelligence after aides brief a congressional committee on new Russian efforts to interfere in the 2020 election. His acting replacement is a man whose main qualification appears to be his skepticism that Russia is meddling in our politics at all. Meanwhile, intelligence officials tell Sen. Bernie Sanders, the leading candidate to unseat the president, that Russian bots have infiltrated his online army to sow discord in the Democratic Party. They say the goal is to help Sanders, but Sanders thinks it is a leak designed to hurt him.
David Von Drehle is a columnist for The Washington Post, where he writes about national affairs and politics from a home base in the Midwest.
Not sure what to believe? Bingo. This fever of mistrust is the desired symptom of a powerful virus — a confidence-sapping worm of mutual suspicion — that Russia has planted in the operating system of American democracy. At little cost and with surprising ease, Vladimir Putin and his government have exploited partisanship and social media to serve Russia’s long-term goal of weakening the West by encouraging disorder and disunity. Already, eight months before Election Day, the virus is spreading virtually unchecked, because the very existence of a Russian chaos project has itself become a partisan wedge. Democrats see Putin’s hand in nearly every news cycle, while Republicans increasingly scoff that the whole thing is, to quote the president, a witch hunt.
Millions of us are unsure whether elections will be free and fair, whether the news we consume is real or fake, whether our foreign policy serves national or personal interests. This is a massive victory for America’s enemies. A climate of mutual suspicion at home erodes our ability to affect events abroad. Foreign governments lose confidence in a nation whose leaders — and followers — lack confidence in one another.
Putin has watered this invasive species for much of the past decade. Seizing opportunities on the lawless frontiers of social media, the Russian leader has stoked division, spread disinformation, fanned conspiracy theories and generally mind-gamed the American system. Putin probably blessed the Russian military computer hackers whose garden-variety mischief-making morphed in 2016 into a concerted pro-Trump and pro-Sanders project to boost outsider candidates skeptical of the U.S.-led world order. Putin’s crown prosecutor was the purported source of Kremlin assistance dangled before the eager eyes of Trump’s inner circle. (“I love it,” Donald Trump Jr. exclaimed when told that the Russian government wanted to help his dad.) Putin was the source, a number of former Trump aides believe, of the U.S. president’s intense conviction that Ukraine was in cahoots with his political opponents. In the opinion of Russia expert Fiona Hill, Putin’s government engineered a “rabbit hole” from which Christopher Steele pulled out his famous dossier; the substantial doubt thrown over that document allows Putin to shrug and smirk now: Who, me? The strongman from St. Petersburg pops up like Zelig across the broken landscape of U.S. politics.
A national trust is shattered. We’ll miss it now that it’s gone. And the Russian leader is surely pleased to have won a significant geopolitical victory with so little effort and with so much help from American dupes.
It’s ironic that Americans of all political stripes have contributed to Putin’s success — by failing to understand what he wants and why he wants it. His goals are not the goals of the former Soviet Union (though he has described the collapse of the U.S.S.R. as a “disaster”). During the Cold War, the Kremlin pursued the spread of communist ideology. Putin is nonideological, according to former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, now of Stanford University and a Post contributing columnist. “I see him as impulsive, emotional, opportunistic. Putin sees himself as the last great nationalist, anti-globalist leader.”
He assumed power quite suddenly, in the waning hours of 1999. As fireworks began erupting around the world to celebrate the momentous new year, weary Russian President Boris Yeltsin appeared on state television, slowly slurring an unexpected resignation speech. He was turning the government over to Putin, a former KGB intelligence officer serving as his prime minister.
Putin’s rise through the chaos of the post-Soviet period had left him convinced that Western-style capitalism, unrestrained by a centralized controlling authority, was incompatible with Russian greatness. And to be fair, the United States and its Western allies had not done enough to help the Russians build a market economy. Though Americans helped design the stock exchange and other elements of the post-Soviet economy, the state-owned industries that made up the backbone of the old system were swiftly privatized in a frenzy of corruption and opportunism.
Since then, Putin has transformed the anarchic plunder of the 1990s into a centralized structure of state-approved oligarchs, with himself at the top of the pyramid. Putin is believed to be among the richest people on Earth — impressive for a man who has worked his whole life for the government. His palace on the Black Sea was built on a reported $1 billion budget, and that’s just one of his many palaces and retreats.
Many Russian observers believe there was a window when Putin might have become a potential partner of the West. Indeed, around the time he became president, there was some discussion of Russia joining NATO someday, as several former Soviet satellites had already done. In the aftermath of 9/11, he telephoned then-President George W. Bush to suggest that they could be allies in fighting the common enemy of radical Islamist terrorism. Bush famously declared of his first meeting with Putin: “I looked into his eyes and saw his soul.” Putin did not exercise his veto in the U.N. Security Council when Bush sought approval of the 2003 Iraq invasion to unseat the dictator Saddam Hussein.
But Putin’s attitude changed as the West expanded its influence. Later that year, the so-called Rose Revolution in Georgia toppled the government of former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze and replaced him with the pro-Western Mikheil Saakashvili. Other “color revolutions” erupted in former satellite states Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. In 2004, NATO expanded to Russia’s doorstep, adding three former Soviet republics as members: Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
This steady advance hardened Putin’s worldview, and his wariness of the United States “went off the rails,” according to McFaul. The former intelligence officer believed that his old nemesis the CIA was behind the color revolutions, and that ultimately the United States would seek a regime change in Russia itself. Putin believed the United States was abusing its power, acting to “overthrow any people we don’t like,” said the former ambassador. “Once he’s in that mind-set that we are out to get him, everything that happens is further confirmation.”
The uprisings of the Arab Spring? Check. The outbreak of protests over fraud in the Russian parliamentary elections? Check. The overthrow of a pro-Russian government in Ukraine? Check. U.S. opposition to a pipeline to export Russian natural gas? Check. The American crackdown on Russian money laundering and human right abuses known as the Magnitsky Act? Check.
The Russian leader read these and other measures as hostile to nationalism, hostile to Russia and personally hostile to him.
All survivors of the late Soviet era learned the lesson that Russia cannot compete with the West by conventional means. Large and powerful in terms of geography, culture and nuclear weapons, Russia has never approached its economic potential. This sprawling, beautiful country has known power but has never known real prosperity — even the czars built châteaus in the French style from wood painted to look like marble. The almost unimaginable sacrifice of Soviet lives in World War II produced victory over Hitler, but communism limited much of the industrial vitality that survived the war.
Today, Russia’s economy, rich in fossil fuels, languishes under the tug of low energy prices. Though per capita gross national product is higher than ever before, the average Russian citizen is still poorer than the average Lithuanian or Malaysian.
Unable to push back against the West overtly, the opportunistic, improvisational Putin has grasped at unconventional, even unlikely, weapons. Putin annexed Crimea in 2014, exposing the West’s unwillingness to stop him. He plunged into the appalling chaos of the Syrian civil war, gambling correctly that the war-weary United States would not push him out. He rolled the dice again in America’s backyard, propping up the Maduro regime in Venezuela. “These are very risky moves," McFaul said, "but he’s not afraid to pay a price to weaken the West and remain in power. That’s what makes him so dangerous.”
A unified United States, pursuing a bipartisan, pro-democracy foreign policy is Putin’s biggest fear. So, he has taken the risk of creating an operation specifically to sow discord through social media. Putin’s computer hackers look for any internal divisions and tensions that tend to erode American unity or discredit American leadership. Though he clearly favored Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016, Putin doesn’t generally favor one point of view over another; he supports whichever candidates are most divisive and amplifies whatever arguments are most bitter. Whoever is freaking out on Facebook or Twitter is a potential ally in his cause. At the State of the Union address, he no doubt enjoyed both the snubbed handshake and the ripped speech.
Russia succeeded once before in turning America on itself. At the start of the atomic age, the discovery that some Americans with access to nuclear secrets were Russian spies helped set off a wild hunt for communists in the federal government — a fever of mistrust known as McCarthyism. Then, too, there were bitter fights over even the most basic facts. A high-ranking State Department official, Alger Hiss, was either a traitor or a martyr, depending on which American voter you asked.
Given enough time, however, the picture came into focus. Today, only the most hardheaded fail to see that Hiss was no martyr, and that the spies David Greenglass and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were, to various degrees, guilty. Likewise, we can agree that Sen. Joe McCarthy never had lists of hundreds of communists in the State Department or the military. So, too, history will eventually confirm the foundational fact of Putin’s deliberate hacking of the West. “The Russian Government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion,” the Mueller report concluded. As spelled out in a detailed federal indictment of the Internet Research Agency, Russian agents employed by a Putin associate began in 2014 to sow inflammatory lies and truly fake news on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Their strategy was simple enough: Find divisive wedge issues and try to hammer the wedge deeper.
Russian trolls and computer “bots” spread phony reports of a Muslim terrorist attack in Louisiana. They stoked racial tensions after controversial police shootings. They touted a nonexistent outbreak of Ebola in Atlanta and fanned baseless rumors of Ku Klux Klansmen loose on a Missouri college campus. Such seemingly scattershot efforts in fact were aimed precisely: anything likely to divide Americans from each other, or divide Americans from the world, was a candidate for amplification. Shake, stir and repeat.
At the same time, Putin went to work on other vulnerable pieces of the Western alliance. By enabling Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s brutal tactics, he helped to send millions of refugees fleeing to Europe. When xenophobic nationalist movements flared up in reaction, the Russians poured on the gas via social media. Russia’s unseen hand wasn’t the only factor in the European backlash. But now the European Union may be coming apart.
These efforts would have been toxic even if Clinton had made a better case to voters around the Great Lakes and won the election in 2016. But the fact that Putin’s hackers went all-in for Trump, who won the electoral college with just 46 percent of the vote, turned a Russian win into a rout. The election itself became a cause of further division. Russia’s role became a new wedge issue, the doubt that keeps on festering.
Whether he planned it or just got lucky, the gambler Putin is on a winning streak. After the election, it appears that Putin’s pro-Trump propaganda (mixed with Trump’s misplaced admiration for Putin) inspired an institutional overreach by the FBI. That conclusion is hard to avoid in light of the report by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz. The FBI investigation in turn created grist for the polarized media of the Internet age. Trump’s prickly response — firing the FBI director and boasting about it to the Russian ambassador — set the Mueller investigation rolling. And by the time Robert S. Mueller III reported his findings more than a year later, it was too late to cool the inflamed constituencies of both parties. The Ukraine coda, with Trump’s cockeyed conspiracy theory playing in one corner and the siren song of impeachment in the other, suggests that the hack of our common trust is now on autoplay.
It’s fitting that Putin’s battlefield of choice is the Internet. In geopolitics, as in business, digital communications have upended the distribution of power. When everyone is a potential broadcaster and information spreads instantly, it’s much easier to tear stuff down than to build it up. Putin is a disrupter; he seeks to break the West’s monopoly. His approach to weakening the United States and its alliances could be borrowed from the young Mark Zuckerberg, whose motto — in his hoodie-wearing days when Facebook was open about its disruptive ambitions — was “Move fast and break things.” Like Zuckerberg and his fellow Silicon Valley swashbucklers, Putin understands that freedom has a pirate streak, while well-ordered institutions can be slow to defend themselves.
The possibility that Putin might have gained an advantage on the United States 20 years after his assumption of power — that the United States and its allies might be too slow and too brittle and too rules-based to take up arms against a fast-moving vandal — was heavy on the mind of the aging Mueller when he testified about his findings to Congress. The decorated Marine, former U.S. attorney and FBI director sought to warn the country of this clear and present danger in what might have been one of his last public statements. “Over the course of my career, I’ve seen a number of challenges to our democracy,” he said. “The Russian government’s effort to interfere in our election is among the most serious.” What’s more, the hack continues. “They’re doing it as we sit here,” he warned the House Intelligence Committee.
“This deserves the attention of every American,” Mueller urged.
One wonders, though: What good is that attention if the national discourse is already infected with Putin’s virus?
As we launch fully into the competition over who will lead the nation for the next four years, we have to ask ourselves whether we’re going to resist Putin’s game or play it for him. Will we believe the worst about one another? Will we amplify the anger? Will we deepen the rifts and aggravate the fault lines? Will we finish Putin’s gambit all by ourselves?
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