t sounds like the plot of a paranoid political thriller from the 1970s. A major party nominates a businessman for the presidency of the United States. Unbeknownst to most of his entranced supporters, the nominee has extensive ties to Russia, whose leaders take an active interest in his once long-shot campaign. Hoping to tilt the race in his favor, the KGB illicitly seizes his rival’s correspondence, and through a cut-out, publicizes a series of embarrassing messages precisely at the moment their revelation will cause her the most damage. Through its propaganda channels, manipulation of communications technologies, and various other forms of subterfuge, Moscow tries to pull off in the United States what it theretofore had achieved only in Eastern Europe or the Third World: bring to power someone amenable to Russian foreign-policy aims.
Unfortunately, the preceding scenario is not a précis for a work of fiction, but an accurate assessment of the ongoing American presidential race. It is no exaggeration to state that, in the form of Republican nominee Donald Trump, voters are presented with a campaign more heavily penetrated by Moscow than any other since Henry Wallace’s 1948 bid on the Progressive Party ticket. Wallace, however, never had a chance of winning, and so by capturing the nomination of one of the country’s two major political parties, Trump’s campaign must rank as one of the most successful Russian influence operations in American history.
Arriving at this conclusion does not require any secret knowledge or special understanding of Russian espionage methods, for the evidence is entirely in the public domain and has been for months. Indeed, the brazenness of the whole affair reached a startling apex when, during a live televised press conference, Trump implored the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton’s email for the purpose of abetting his presidential ambitions. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump declared. He was referring to the personal messages that the former secretary of state and Democratic presidential nominee had deleted from a private server before turning it over to State Department investigators as part of their inquiry into her use of a non-government email account. After facing a deluge of criticism for suborning espionage against his own country, Trump insisted he was being sarcastic. What had seemed like gleeful goading of an adversarial power to hack his opponent was really just encouragement of Russia to cooperate with the FBI, and any confusion lay at the feet of duplicitous reporters. “If Russia or any other country or person has Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 illegally deleted emails, perhaps they should share them with the FBI!” Trump later wrote on Twitter.
That Russia (or any other foreign intelligence service) is in actual possession of Clinton’s deleted emails is pure speculation. Announcing the results of his investigation into Clinton’s use of private servers, FBI Director James Comey revealed that the bureau had found “no direct evidence” of a hack by hostile actors, though he did allow that “it is possible” such a breach occurred. What led Trump to enlist the help of the Russians, whether sarcastically or not, was their suspected involvement in a confirmed hack against the Democratic National Committee that had been publicized only a month earlier. Beginning in the summer of 2015 and continuing for almost a year, two teams of highly sophisticated hackers pilfered the party’s internal communications and opposition-research files, including those on Trump. According to a private cyber-security firm hired by the Democratic Party to conduct a forensic investigation, the hackers worked on behalf of the Russian government, a conclusion later endorsed by American intelligence officials.
The knowledge that Russia was in possession of such material hung ominously over the American political landscape until it came crashing down with a thud on July 22, the day after Trump accepted the Republican nomination and just three days before the Democrats gaveled their convention to order in Philadelphia. That morning, the radical Internet “transparency” collective Wikileaks released some 20,000 emails from members of the Democratic National Committee. Alongside the sort of petty embarrassments one might expect to be revealed with any collection of private workplace communications, the correspondence indicated a clear preference on the part of DNC officials for the campaign of Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders. The release of the emails—expertly curated with a mind toward dividing the American left against itself—elicited precisely the sort of response that someone hoping for a Trump victory in November would want: Sanders supporters were outraged, convinced more than ever by their icon’s perennial lamentation that the “system is rigged” against them. A day before the convention began, DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigned, the first of several Democratic officials to step down on account of the email hack.
Asked how Wikileaks had obtained the stolen messages, the organization’s founder, Julian Assange, responded as would any journalist questioned about an anonymous source: He refused to say. But it was obvious what had happened: Whatever Russian intelligence services pilfered the emails passed them along to Wikileaks, which duly published them. It’s not only common sense that dictates this conclusion, but a whole history indicating that Wikileaks, no matter its pretensions to being some sort of anarchist, anti-surveillance–state hacktivist group, is for all intents and purposes a front for Russian special services. Consider that shortly after taking up residence in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London (on the lam from a Swedish extradition request demanding he face sexual-assault charges), Assange hosted his own talk show on RT, formerly Russia Today, the Kremlin’s premier international propaganda outlet. Moreover, it was Wikileaks that facilitated fugitive National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden’s entry to Russia, where he was assisted by one of the organization’s representatives at Sheremetyevo Airport. “He preferred Latin America,” Assange said in August 2015. “But my advice was that he should take asylum in Russia despite the negative PR consequences, because my assessment is that he had a significant risk he could be kidnapped from Latin America on CIA orders. Kidnapped or possibly killed.”
Trump’s Russophilia—and Putinophilia, in particular—appears to hinge more upon a general esteem he holds for strongmen than any sort of ideological disposition or strategic vision.
Whatever its motives may be in damaging Clinton, Wikileaks is only acting as conduit for a broader effort by a hostile foreign government to influence the American election. Nor was this the first time that private information has been publicly disclosed in furtherance of a Russian foreign-policy agenda. In recent years, leaked tapes have caused political destabilization in Ukraine, Poland, Georgia, and elsewhere across Europe, and in every case Russian secret services likely had a hand. In light of this well-coordinated assault on the West and its democratic institutions, the question for Americans is why would Moscow want the standard-bearer of Ronald Reagan’s party, whose previous nominee declared Russia America’s “number 1 geopolitical foe,” to win?
ike nearly every other issue he has ever pronounced upon, Donald Trump has hardly been consistent on the matter of American policy toward Russia. As recently as last September, he told a conference of pro-Western Ukrainian businessmen that “our president is not strong and he is not doing what he should be doing for the Ukraine. I don’t think you’re getting the support you need.”1 A year prior, he said that Russia’s annexation of Crimea “should never have happened” and that the United States, “should definitely do sanctions” against Moscow. Days later, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, he said that Russia had stolen “the heart and soul” of Ukraine.
Trump’s criticisms of Russian foreign policy, however, have always coexisted with admiration for Vladimir Putin, which is significant in that Trump personalizes foreign policy to an extreme degree. As early as 2007, Trump lavished praise on the Russian president, telling CNN’s Larry King, “Whether you like him or don’t like him, he’s doing a great job in rebuilding the image of Russia and also rebuilding Russia period.” When Trump brought his Miss Universe pageant to Moscow in 2013, he earnestly tweeted, “Will [Putin] become my new best friend?” Trump’s Russophilia—and Putinophilia, in particular—appears to hinge more upon a general esteem he holds for strongmen than any sort of ideological disposition or strategic vision. (Trump has lauded the Chinese Communists for the Tiananmen Square massacre as well as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for his recent crackdown following a failed coup attempt.) As was the case when he referred to Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine as “so smart,” or expressed awe at North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s murdering his uncle (“You gotta give him credit. . . . This guy doesn’t play games.”), Trump’s observations about international affairs often sound like the commentary of an excited play-by-play sportscaster, utterly detached from any sort of moral or analytical reflection.
But it wasn’t until Putin praised Trump in December of last year, calling him a “colorful and talented person” and “the absolute leader of the presidential race,” that Trump’s admiration went into overdrive. “It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond,” Trump gushed. A hardened KGB man, Putin is excellent at reading people and deciphering their emotional needs, and so he must have known full well that his facile flattery of the narcissistic tycoon would engender a Pavlovian response. Trump’s standard reaction to praise is a simple converse of his standard reaction to criticism; whereas expositors of the latter are met with unrelenting condemnation and ridicule, those who indulge Trump with the former can expect to be acclaimed in kind. Trump could be praised by a convicted rapist (Mike Tyson) or a viscerally anti-American dictator who invades his neighbors; as long as they say nice things about Trump, Trump is going to say nice things about them.
Were we discussing anybody other than the potential leader of the free world, this inability to separate personal acclaim from national interest would be little more than a characterological defect. The problem with Trump is that he’s unable to distinguish between awful people who hate his country and want to harm it and their faux-adulation of him. Asked about his Putin comments on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Trump responded, “He’s running his country and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country.” When co-host Joe Scarborough responded that Putin has been accused of killing journalists and political opponents, Trump responded with the sort of whataboutery one expects from a freshly minted freshman Marxist or an aging Soviet apparatchik: “I think our country does plenty of killing also, Joe, so you know. There’s a lot of stupidity going on in the world right now, a lot of killing, a lot of stupidity.”
Manafort applied lipstick to a pig, advertising Yanukovych and his band of post-Communist kleptocrats to the West as a bunch of heady, liberal-minded reformers.
There has been a great deal of speculation surrounding Trump’s possible financial ties to Russia, but as long as he continues to withhold his tax returns, it is impossible to assess these claims. Since the late 1980’s, Trump and members of his family have traveled frequently to Russia in search of business opportunities (which never seem to materialize), and Trump has relied on individual Russian investors to rent and buy his properties. “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” Donald Trump Jr. told a real-estate conference in 2008.
Trump has a number of close campaign associates, however, whose connections to the Putin regime are well established. Though Trump displayed relatively pro-Russian leanings well before announcing his run for president, his full maturation into a Kremlin sycophant did not occur until after he enlisted Paul Manafort as campaign manager. A longtime Republican operative who cut his teeth as floor director for Gerald Ford at the 1976 Republican National Convention, Manafort went on to make a name for himself in the world of foreign political consulting, working for such distinguished international figures as Mobutu Sese Seko, Ferdinand Marcos, and, most significantly for the purposes of this article, Viktor Yanukovych. A former small-time crook and ruffian twice convicted of assault as a younger man, Yanukovych clawed his way to the top of Ukrainian politics, where he could ply his corrupt practices on a much grander scale. As prime minister, he was a natural ally of Putin, who always prefers to deal with corrupt authoritarians utterly devoid of moral scruple. In 2004, Yanukovych’s attempt to steal an election (comprising dirty tricks up to and including massive fraud and the possible dioxin poisoning of his opponent) was successfully resisted by a popular movement that came to be known as the Orange Revolution, and his sclerotic regime was replaced with a pro-Western government.
Through a pro-Yanukovych oligarch in Eastern Ukraine, Yanukovych’s home territory, Manafort was enlisted to work on behalf of the ousted prime minister’s Party of Regions. Honing the sort of skills he would later deploy in the Trump campaign, and earning an annual salary in the low seven figures, Manafort applied lipstick to a pig, advertising Yanukovych and his band of post-Communist kleptocrats to the West as a bunch of heady, liberal-minded reformers. Meanwhile in Ukraine, at Manafort’s instruction, Yanukovych emphasized ethno-linguistic divisions and railed against NATO, which at the time was conducting joint exercises with the Ukrainian navy in the Black Sea.
Manafort’s rehabilitation of Yanukovych proved instrumental in the Party of Regions’ 2010 election victory, after which Yanukoyvch immediately pursued his chief political antagonist, Yulia Tymoshenko, with dubious legal charges. Tymoshenko would ultimately spend years in prison, her plight becoming an international cause célèbre. After Yanukovych fled Ukraine for Russia in the wake of the 2013–2014 Maidan Revolution, (but not before ordering his security forces to shoot at his own people), Manafort joined the payroll of his former boss’s ex-chief of staff, who had gathered the disparate and demoralized Yanukovych forces into a new party called the Opposition Bloc. Today, this rump, pro-Russian faction commands about 10 percent of the Ukrainian parliament, and according to the New York Times, it is unclear if Manafort is still on retainer.2 A further Times investigation discovered handwritten ledgers denoting $12.7 million in cash payments to Manafort from the Party of Regions. These payments were allegedly part of an “illegal off-the-books system whose recipients also included election officials.” [EDITOR’S NOTE: Three days after this article went to press, Paul Manafort resigned from the Trump campaign.]
anafort is not the only individual with suspect Kremlin connections advising Trump. Former Defense Intelligence Agency head Lt. General Michael Flynn, whom Trump considered to be his running mate, supped at Putin’s table for a Moscow dinner commemorating RT’s 10th anniversary last December. Since retiring from the military in 2014, Flynn has made numerous appearances on the network, emphasizing the line that the United States and Russia should cooperate in the fight against the Islamic State. (RT, like other Kremlin-controlled media, has been an enthusiastic cheerleader of the Trump campaign.) One of the handful of foreign-policy “experts” Trump has publicly identified as part of his campaign is Carter Page, an investment banker, sometime adviser to Gazprom, and current shareholder in the Russian state-owned entity. An unabashed defender of the Kremlin, he has peddled Putinist propaganda, like the accusation that Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland “stage-manage[d]” the Maidan revolution—and that Ukraine is to Russia as Quebec is to Canada. Unsurprisingly for someone who would advise Donald Trump, Page speaks of American foreign policy solely in terms of how it affects his personal bottom line. “So many people who I know and have worked with have been so adversely affected by the sanctions policy,” he told Bloomberg Politics in March. “There’s a lot of excitement in terms of the possibilities for creating a better situation” should Trump win. Days before the Republican National Convention, Page traveled to Moscow, where he delivered a series of speeches lambasting American policy toward Russia. “Washington and other Western capitals have impeded potential progress through their often hypocritical focus on ideas such as democratization, inequality, corruption, and regime change,” he declared.
At the Convention itself, Manafort’s staff defeated an effort to insert language into the party platform proposing the supply of “lethal defensive weapons” to Ukraine. Considering how this policy finds near unanimous backing among congressional Republicans (as well as many Democrats), and how little attention the Trump campaign gave the platform-writing process in general, this specific intervention to alter the party manifesto in a manner more favorable to the Kremlin position cannot be viewed in isolation.
Asked by ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos about this incident and what it reveals about his general policy toward Russia, Trump dodged the question to express incredulity at the very notion of his ever rejecting the fulsome praise of the Russian president. “He says Donald Trump is going to win and Donald Trump is a genius, and then I have people saying you should disavow. I said, I’m going to disavow that?” Once again, Trump demonstrated that in the realm of international affairs, what matters most is not the interests of his country but his own needs and desires.
Stephanopoulos pressed Trump further on why his campaign aides would soften the party platform on Ukraine, and the following exchange is worth reading in full, if only to grasp Trump’s sheer buffoonery:
TRUMP: Well, look, you know, I have my own ideas. He’s not going into Ukraine, okay?
Just so you understand. He’s not going to go into Ukraine, alright?
You can mark it down and you can put it down, you can take it anywhere you want.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, he’s already there, isn’t he?
TRUMP: Okay, well, he’s there in a certain way, but I’m not there yet. You have Obama there. And frankly, that whole part of the world is a mess under Obama, with all the strength that you’re talking about and all of the power of NATO and all of this, in the meantime, he’s going where—he takes—takes Crimea, he’s sort of—I mean . . .
STEPHANOPOULOS: But you said you might recognize that.
TRUMP: I’m going to take a look at it. But, you know, the people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were. And you have to look at that, also.
Whether Trump actually “heard” anything about the circumstances in which Crimea was forcibly seized by the Russians or was merely citing the imaginary third-person source he so often uses to justify his perpetually wild claims, the conclusion is the same: Trump repeated Russian disinformation.
In the month since he secured the Republican presidential nomination, Trump has only amplified his pro-Kremlin statements and policy positions. According to Russian military doctrine and government propaganda, no greater evil exists in the world today than the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the military alliance that protected Western Europe from Soviet Communist predation during the Cold War and that has found new purpose in the era of Putinist sabre-rattling and territorial expansion. For its near seven-decade existence, NATO has enjoyed wide bipartisan support among American political leaders, and its existence was never questioned in a U.S. presidential campaign—until Donald Trump came along. “NATO is obsolete and it’s extremely expensive for the United States, disproportionately so,” he told the New York Times in March, a sentiment he would go on to express repeatedly without ever specifying what percent of the alliance’s budget should be paid for by America.
The day before he formally accepted the Republican nomination, Trump gave another interview to the Times in which he was asked about America’s NATO obligations to the Baltic states in particular. Sounding like a cross between Bob Barker and a criminal racketeer, he declared that under his presidency, the United States would come to their defense only if they “fulfill their obligations to us.” Trump presumably meant that America should meet its treaty commitments only if the price is right, if our NATO allies pony up the alliance-recommended 2 percent of their GDP on defense—money that, either way, is not paid to the United States. Regardless, the only “obligations” NATO members have—as enshrined in Article V of the alliance charter—is to defend one another in case of attack, a clause that, for all of Trump’s complaining about NATO being a strain on American resources, has only been invoked once: in support of the United States after 9/11.
Trump’s disparagement of NATO could not have come at a worse time. Since annexing Crimea and launching an ongoing war against the pro-Western government in Ukraine over two years ago, Russia has dramatically increased its full-spectrum intimidation of America’s allies in Europe. This campaign has included massive, snap military exercises on NATO borders, the frequent violation of NATO airspace by Russian military aircraft, the buzzing of U.S. warships in the Baltic Sea by Russian fighter jets, a relentless stream of anti-Western invective, and an active campaign of political destabilization through covert and overt support for extremist parties across the continent. And in Trump, Russian meddling in foreign politics has now reached American shores.
Many fear that Russia might one day perpetrate in Estonia or Latvia—countries with large Russian-speaking minorities—the same sort of “hybrid war” techniques it employed in its seizure of Crimea: stirring up ethnic tensions and then sending in “little green men” (Russian special forces without insignia) to test NATO’s resolve. Eerik Kross, a former head of Estonian intelligence, writes: “[In Russia,] the security services now operate unrestrained. They are the state. In Russia’s modern hybrid warfare, the Russian military, its diplomacy, its intelligence agencies, its state-run media, its state enterprises—even its sports federations—are part of one machine. And the whole state is conducting subversion operations against the West.”
In Trump, the Russians wisely recognized a potential convergence of interests and seized the opportunity. They listened carefully to Trump and heard someone who views America’s post–World War II global-leadership role with disdain, sees American allies as freeloaders, and generally desires an America that is less engaged in the world.
After the convention, at a press conference in late July, Trump went so far as to entertain the possibility of recognizing Crimea as part of Russia and lifting sanctions on Moscow—a complete and utter reversal of the tough-minded policies he had endorsed in the immediate aftermath of the Russian invasion just two years before. Only a handful of mostly rogue nations (Cuba, Syria, and Venezuela among them) recognize Crimea as a federal republic of Russia, and maintenance of the European Union sanctions against Moscow for perpetrating the first armed seizure of territory on the continent since the Second World War is a baseline Western policy. “Wouldn’t it be nice if actually we could get along with Russia?” Trump asked at a recent rally. Of course it would, just as it would be “nice” to “get along with” Iran, North Korea, and Zimbabwe. But it is these despotic regimes, and not America, that need to change. For any sound rapprochement with Russia to work, Moscow must embrace a democratic form of government and stop threatening its neighbors.
o the extent that Trump’s view of Russia can be afforded an ideological, rather than a purely personal, caste, he appears to embrace a coldly “realist” perspective that sees Moscow as a fellow bulwark of international “order” and potential partner in fighting Islamic extremism. Contrary to every previous Republican nominee, who all ventured to counter and reduce Russian adventurism and global influence, Trump respects Moscow’s pretensions to great-power status. Rather than antagonize Russia with security commitments to pesky democratic allies like Poland and Estonia, Trump believes we should cooperate and “let Russia fight ISIS.” As demonstrated by a basic overview of its bombing missions in Syria, however Russia is not fighting ISIS, but rather the moderate opponents of the Assad regime. As for Moscow’s scorched-earth campaign against Islamic separatists in Chechnya, the sort of policy Trump (whose anti-terrorism strategy consists of little more than “bombing the shit out of ISIS” and temporarily banning Muslims from entering the United States) presumably admires, it is hardly a lasting (or humane) approach to combatting what is a complex and multifarious problem.
It should be stated here that there is no evidence, or really any reason to believe, that Trump or his campaign is taking direct orders from the Kremlin. Trump is not an “agent” of the Russians, at least not consiously. On the contrary, Trump is an abnormally compulsive individual who barely listens to the advice of his own close family members, let alone that of a dictator half a world away. Indeed, contrary to Trump’s own claim that he and Putin were “stablemates” in the 60 Minutes green room, the two have never even met.
Ultimately, Trump’s interest in Russia is far less intriguing and important than Russia’s interest in him. The men in the Kremlin are cunning global strategists with long memories and deep knowledge of how the world works.
What has happened with Trump and the Russians, then, is actually quite simple. For all the talk about how he is a sui generis figure, Trump is just the latest proponent of a long American political tradition: populist isolationism. In Trump, the Russians wisely recognized a potential convergence of interests and seized the opportunity. They listened carefully to Trump and heard someone who views America’s post–World War II global-leadership role with disdain, sees American allies as freeloaders, and generally desires an America that is less engaged in the world. Furthermore, Trump is himself the embodiment of, and faultlessly echoes, the cynical Russian message that American democracy is a sham, no less corrupt at home or destructive abroad than Putin’s own regime. Jeb Bush’s characterization of Trump as the “chaos candidate” must have sounded like music to Kremlin ears, as chaos is precisely what Russia wants to generate within Western societies. To a Russian government with revanchist territorial ambitions, one that seeks to undermine the liberal world order so carefully constructed by the United States, Trump simply seemed like a good investment. Former acting CIA Director Michael Morrell, in a New York Times op-ed, observed: “In the intelligence business, we would say that Mr. Putin had recruited Mr. Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation.”
Therefore, to the extent that they can help Trump, the Russians will do so. To explain the mutually beneficial relationship that now exists between the Republican presidential nominee and the Russian government, we may need to resurrect a term from the Cold War. In a 1998 CNN interview, former KGB General Oleg Kalugin discussed the Soviet art of psychological warfare, and one especially devious element of it in particular. “The heart and soul of the Soviet intelligence,” he said, “was subversion, not intelligence collection, but subversion: active measures [emphasis added] to weaken the West, to drive wedges in the Western community alliances of all sorts, particularly NATO, to sow discord among allies, to weaken the United States in the eyes of the people of Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and thus to prepare ground in case the war really occurs. To make America more vulnerable to the anger and distrust of other peoples.” What is Trump if not a walking, talking attempt to “sow discord” throughout the West and discredit it abroad, the cooptation and endorsement of his campaign the embodiment of an “active measure”?
1 Trump’s usage of the Soviet-era definite article before “Ukraine” appears to have been an unintentional slight, the result of ignorance rather than a deliberate affront.
2 This is not the full extent of Manafort’s involvement in questionable business practices with less than salubrious, post-Soviet oligarchs. In 2007, he set up a private-equity fund in the tax-sheltering Cayman Islands with Oleg Deripaska, a Russian aluminum magnate who has since accused Manafort of stealing some $19 million. (A representative for Deripaska told the Washington Post in April that eight years after the tycoon demanded his money back, his “accountants and lawyers are looking at this right now.”) The following year, Manafort joined with a Ukrainian businessman named Dimitro Firtash in an attempt to convert the site of Manhattan’s Drake Hotel into a private club and spa called the Bulgari Tower. Firtash had made billions as a middleman for Gazprom, the Russian state-owned natural-gas giant, purchasing energy at a deep discount, reselling it to Kyiv, and funneling a portion of the profits to pro-Putin Ukrainian politicians like Yanukovych. Their development project, which was never completed, was accused of being a money-laundering operation by Tymoshenko, though the case was eventually thrown out for lack of evidence.