What Were the Russians Up To?

John has offered his take on the Mueller news just below. Here’s my first pass at it:

The indictment of 13 Russians handed down today by special prosecutor Robert Mueller is going to dominate the news cycle at least through the weekend and likely beyond. This is a “Groundhog Day” event, assuring at least six more weeks (if not months) of the Trump-Russia story line. The indictment provides details of a determined and sophisticated effort costing millions of dollars and involving hundreds of paid individuals, some of whom spent considerable time in the United States gathering detailed intelligence and helping to organize a vast operation to utilize social media. I’m seeing early news reports that deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein says that no Americans were knowing participants in the scheme (the indictment speaks of contacts with “unwitting individuals associated with the Trump campaign,” which I suppose doesn’t rule out witless associates of the Trump campaign like Paul Manafort), and that there’s no evidence that it affected the outcome of the election. Perhaps he read my post from earlier today?

Beyond, as the indictment alleges, trying “to interfere in the U.S. political system, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election” (p. 10 and elsewhere), what were the Russians trying to accomplish with all this? As John says below, it appears to have been simply to “spread distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general.”

The anti-Trump media is going to seize upon certain parts of the indictment (which you can download here) to support the thesis that the Russians favored a Trump victory, especially the tantalizing lines scattered throughout about supporting Trump. There are also a few references (such as one on p. 13) to “a real U.S. person affiliated with a Texas-based grassroots organization.” The “real U.S. persons” are not named anywhere in the indictment.

But when all the details are added up a much murkier picture emerges. First, the effort apparently began taking shape as early as May 2014 (and perhaps as early as 2013), an entire year before Trump became a candidate. Then, as they got underway during the primary season, the indictment says (p. 17) that “They engaged in operations primarily intended to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, to denigrate other candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump,” and instructions to their online “specialists” to “use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump—we support them).” It didn’t take any kind of special intelligence to perceive that Sanders and Trump represented the two most disruptive candidates in the field. Just think of how the political establishments of both parties would have regarded a Sanders-Trump general election in 2016.

Third, the Russian operation organized and promoted numerous pro-Trump rallies, but also attempted to manipulate anti-Trump groups and organize anti-Trump events, especially after the election. On p. 23, for example: “At the same time, Defendants and their co-conspirators, through another ORGANIZATION-controlled group, organized a rally in New York called ‘Trump is NOT my President’ held on or about November 12, 2016. Similarly, Defendants and their co-conspirators organized a rally entitled ‘Charlotte Against Trump’ in Charlotte, North Carolina, held on or about November 19, 2016.”

This is all classic disinformation and grassroots manipulation tradecraft going back to the Soviet era, when we know the Soviets worked diligently and spent lavishly to gin up anti-nuclear grassroots groups in the West, but also manipulated anti-Communist groups behind the Iron Curtain, the better to be able to sow chaos among its enemies.

So let’s restate the likely explanations. Why did the Russians do this? Because they could. It was useful for them to discover how much they could infiltrate the political process in the U.S., and above all to sow chaos. Actually favoring a Trump victory over Hillary makes little sense on substance, because most of Trump’s foreign policy positions—cheaper energy, expanded defense spending by us and NATO, more missile defense—are averse to Russian interests. But an election result that leaves chaos in its wake works perfectly well whether Hillary had won or Trump. In that sense, the Russian operation has been a sweeping success for them. Maybe our media ought to reflect that they are serving Russian interests very well with their rabid sensationalism of the “collusion” story.

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