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The Return of Kremlinology

Whatever the truth about who knew what and about whom, it is clear that the Kremlin sees itself locked in an ideological war. 

by Peter Rutland 12 January 2017

The intelligence report released last week was, in the apt words of Kevin Rothrock of The Moscow Times, “deeply disappointing” to those who believe that Russian disinformation is a problem that needs to be taken seriously. The report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) was poorly argued and thinly sourced. It contained no new information, and seven of its 12 pages were devoted to a report from 2012 about Russian propaganda efforts. For example, it takes at face value the claims by Russia Today, the international television station created in 2005, for audience share, when it seems likely that RT’s purported one billion hits on Youtube are largely driven by human interest stories or cat videos, hardly a threat to U.S. national security. It may also be boosted by paid trolls or automated bots pushing up the viewing figures in order to meet the Kremlin’s targets.

 

The release of confidential information from hacked communications that fed in to the mainstream U.S. media is much more important that the antics of Russia Today, and it is a pity that the DNI document conflated the two, and emphasized the latter.

 

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has insisted that the leaks did not come from Russian government sources, though his credibility is in shreds given his record of working with the Russian authorities – hosting a show for Russia Today in 2012, for example, and advising NSA leaker Edward Snowden to seek asylum in Russia in 2013. On 6 August 2016, RT published an English-language video called “Julian Assange Special: Do WikiLeaks Have the E-mail That’ll Put Clinton in Prison?”

 

The latest twist in the tale was the release on Buzzfeed on 10 January of unconfirmed reports from an intelligence operative allegedly hired to investigate Trump’s ties with Russia (who was initially paid by Trump’s Republican rival candidates, then by the Clinton campaign.) The reports rely on juicy gossip from unnamed Russian intelligence sources. They allege sexual cavorting by Trump during his visits to Russia for the Miss Universe pageant (incidents which, if they took place, would surely have been recorded by the FSB, as is their standard practice). It also discusses the business connections in Moscow of Trump’s former Russia advisor Carter Page, and his former campaign manager Paul Manafort (who resigned in August 2016).

 

The anonymous informants claim that the Trump campaign knew about the DNC hacking from the Russians, and that intelligence sharing was a two-way street – in return, Moscow asked the Trump people to gather data on Russian oligarchs living in the U.S. They also suggest that the Kremlin was getting cold feet about the hacking operation – fearful that Russia would incur the wrath of the U.S. once the leaks were made public, especially if Hillary Clinton won the election (which looked increasingly likely, right up to the end). Another interesting (but again, speculative) titbit was the suggestion that Sergei Ivanov, Putin’s long-standing friend and colleague, stepped down as presidential chief of staff in August 2016 because he was the main advocate for the aggressive hacking policy. This swirling cloud of possible facts, half-truths and lies is reminiscent of the Kremlinology of days past.

 

Whatever the truth about who knew what, it is clear that the Kremlin sees itself locked in an ideological war with the United States that dates back at least to the color revolutions of 2003-05. They see intervention in U.S. elections (which they officially deny) as a legitimate response to Washington’s own involvement in foreign elections (including in Russia) in the name of spreading democracy, something that has been an official part of U.S. foreign policy both during and since the Cold War. The rise of new digital media over the past decade has given Russia new opportunities to promulgate their “information war” through the likes of Youtube (created in 2005) and Wikileaks (launched in 2006).

 

My own experience with Russia Today was not particularly encouraging. Back in June 2014, I got an email from Russia Today inviting me to be interviewed on Oksana Boyko’s program “Worlds Apart.” The program aired on 19 June 2014, under the title “Bears, donkeys, and elephants.” (It can be watched here). Initially, I was told that the topic of the interview would be the role of the natural gas trade in Ukraine in the wake of the Crimea crisis. At that time, the United States and European Union were discussing the imposition of tougher sanctions to penalize Russia for the annexation of Crimea three months earlier. 

 

However, the day before the interview, I got an email saying the topic had changed – we would be discussing U.S.-Russia relations in general and the U.S. presidential race of 2016. This struck me as a little odd – the election was two years off, and anyway I am not a specialist in U.S. presidential politics. But now, in retrospect, I see it as one additional piece of evidence for the central claim in the DNI report – that the Putin administration was obsessed with Hillary Clinton and fearful of what would happen if she became president. 

 

I agreed to go ahead with the program, which went off well enough – Ms. Boyko is an astute interviewer, a kind of Russian Megyn Kelly. In the course of the 25-minute conversation I made some criticisms of U.S. foreign policy in Ukraine and the Middle East, balanced by some criticisms of Russian policy. However, in one section I criticized Putin’s role in the Crimean crisis, and that three-four minute segment was cut from the interview when it was aired (“for reasons of time,” I was told later) – even though in the pre-interview email exchange I had been told that the interview would be aired “completely unabridged.”

 

That accords with something that two Russian colleagues have told me during the past year. In publications and media appearances, criticizing Russia is perfectly OK, but mention Putin and your disloyalty will be noted, with possible dire consequences.

 

So while the U.S. media drowns in a tidal wave of clicktivism and fake news, the Russian media remain tightly controlled and focused on serving the national interests as personified by Mr. Putin. This state of affairs has worrying implications not just for the future of U.S. democracy, but also for the fate of the civilians trapped in conflict zones in Ukraine and Syria, where Russia increasingly will be calling the shots.

Peter Rutland
 is a Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and visiting Leverhulme professor at the University of Manchester. 

 

Ivory Tower is a new TOL column that will focus on insights into the region’s politics from academic events and publications.  

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