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Not Putin’s day: Why Russia’s president is the losing side in the U. S. presidential election

Этот материал также доступен на русском языке.

Joe Biden has secured a gruesome and, therefore, even more convincing victory in the American presidential election. After Donald Trump became president in 2016 by winning three Rust Belt states – Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin – by a margin of 100,000 votes, many rushed to call his victory “impressive” and even “overwhelming”. This time, Biden won these states by a margin of over 200,000 votes.

There is no shortage of debate around the presidential election results, but the aspect that deserves our special attention is the Russian interference. Contrary to widespread skepticism over the matter (“Yeah, right, as if Russian trolls could have elected the U. S. President!”), I call on you to take this subject seriously, as I’m convinced that the Russian interference was one of the crucial contributions to Trump’s victory in 2016 and that the lessons the Democrats learned thereafter played a significant role in their success in 2020.

It wasn’t just the trolls – even though they had their part to play as the “tip of the iceberg”. Since Trump’s victory was, as we mentioned above, the consequence of a small margin in three competitive states, the outcome was determined by swing voters, whose decision might have been random and not influenced by any systemic phenomena or paradigm. With such small numbers, any factor becomes significant, including the Russian trolls’ activity. Posing as Americans, they aimed to propagate two ideas among confused voters: Clinton’s “dubious reputation” (that she might get arrested or put behind bars after the election and the country would plunge into turmoil) and Trump’s “massive” support (a technique polished to perfection in Russian social media: “Obviously, the entire nation stands with Putin except for 2% of dummies like you.”).

However, I’d like to reiterate that, apart from the eye-catching but fringe-dwelling tip, the iceberg also had a submerged part. What was the centerpiece of Russia’s interference in the 2016 United States elections? The Russian intelligence hacked into Democratic Party officials’ mailboxes and publicly released their stolen emails through WikiLeaks, beheading the party apparatus three months before the elections. The Democrats approached the campaign’s final stage with their headquarters in tatters, having failed to reconcile the conflicting wings or mobilize enough voters to support Clinton.

As many remember, until the very last moment, the 2016 Democratic primaries were marked by a fierce standoff between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, who represented two antagonistic party wings. Sanders is often labeled as socialist or leftist, even though it is an exaggeration, as the Democratic Party’s left wing is no more leftist than the majority of respectable social democratic Western European parties. Nevertheless, his and his supporters’ agenda, which includes tax increases for the rich and expansion of social security programs, is fairly radical by the standards of American capitalism, which is far less regulated than its Western European or Canadian counterparts.

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton
Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton

Like Barack Obama before her and Joe Biden today, Clinton represents the other party wing – the centrists, who realize the importance of an efficient social policy and yet are very far removed from the labels of “socialists” or “communists” that their opponents rush to stick on them. This dominant Democratic Party wing adheres to the principles of striking a balance between business interests and the social sphere: as President Obama said, the markets are efficient and must keep working, but the state has a social function to perform nonetheless. *цитату не нашла ни на русском, ни на английском. Essentially, this is the formula of sober modern-day centrism, without going to the extremes of radical socialism or, for instance, unregulated anarchical capitalism (where, sadly, the Republican Party slid down during Trump’s presidency, completely losing its healthy centrist wing). Besides, the Democratic Party contributes to the work of Centrist Democrat International, a multinational structure that includes, in particular, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and other center-right European parties. In all, sober centrism and synthesis or fusion of ideas are the future; even in today’s economics, the most advanced paradigms stem from the synthesis of previously antagonistic economic schools such as Keynesian and neoclassical economics (look up “neoclassical synthesis”).

Clinton, Obama, and Biden are centrists striving for a balance of interests between the business community and the social sphere

The implacable antagonism between the U. S. Democrats’ leftists and centrists was apparent to anyone following American politics lately. The centrists are winning because of higher credibility and common sense (most partisans realize that the overly leftist ideas of Sanders and the like will fail to appeal to the majority of voters). Still, the left wing is exceptionally active and has curried favor with the youth in its attempts of swinging the party even more to the left. Their confrontation culminated in the 2016 primaries when Sanders lost to Clinton.

This controversy may have been of little importance were it not for the Russian hackers who leaked the electronic correspondence proving that the Democratic Party’s apparatus was partly playing in Clinton’s hands in her struggle against Sanders exactly before the Democrats’ caucus in July. Against the backdrop of the recent painful defeat during the protracted and exhausting primaries, Sanders and the left wing’s supporters were outraged. The scandal reached such a scale that Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), had to resign on July 28. Can you imagine a beheaded party apparatus three months before the decisive election day? Snickering passers-by who are out of touch with real-life politics may struggle to understand this, but to me, a practitioner with many elections behind his back, the scope of the disaster is apparent.

A beheaded party apparatus three months before the election is a disaster

Although Hillary still had her campaign office, it was the DNC’s responsibility to heal the wounds inflicted by the confrontation between the centrist and the leftist wings and announce universal mobilization in support of a single candidate. After the hack, this endeavor ended in a fiasco. Donna Brazile, the new DNC Chair, has failed to demonstrate any efficiency, only aggravating the situation in the subsequent three months. As a result, Hillary failed to inspire sufficient enthusiasm among voters and lost by a handful of votes. Just one hack of the DNC’s mailboxes proved to be a resounding success for Putin.

Why was Putin invested in Trump’s victory? A primitive answer to that question is Trump’s presumed intention to remove anti-Russian sanctions. An attempt to that effect indeed took place but was too straightforward and unsuccessful. With military candor, Michael Flynn, Trump’s National Security Advisor and retired U. S. lieutenant general, offered Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak to lift the sanctions. Once it became known, Flynn was immediately dismissed, and the anti-Putin Republican establishment in the Congress took precautions to block the possibility of the unilateral lifting of sanctions in the future.

Sanctions are not the only aspect, though. Putin and his entourage view Trump as a disruptive player who strives to dismantle both the established Western democratic institutes and the liberal world order at large. Trump’s four years in office have shown just that: he has sown unseen discord in the relations with America’s NATO allies and introduced many Russian-style elements in the American political culture, such as lack of financial transparency, nepotism, ubiquitous favoritism in decision-making, disdain for the rule of law, and so on. His entire presidency has been marked by a record escalation of conflicts and domestic political confrontation, from interparty to interracial conflicts.

Putin and his entourage view Trump as a disruptive player

I do not doubt that Putin had anticipated Trump’s style of governance. It is unknown what the 45th U. S. President was doing during his stay at Ritz Carlton in Moscow, but we know for a fact that Soviet authorities pursued a partner relationship with him as a businessman back in 1987. (At the time, Anatoly Dobrynin, Soviet ambassador to the U. S., personally invited him to visit the Soviet Union, and the trip organizer, state-run monopolistic tour operator VAO Intourist, was almost explicitly affiliated with the KGB.) The Russian intelligence services have known both Trump’s personality and his political methods for decades. Moreover, he never tried to hide them, running in the 2015–2016 Republican primaries with an agenda of declaring open war against the Washington establishment. Expectedly, such a candidate was a treasure trove for the Kremlin, as Putin pins his highest hope on similar political forces in Europe, favoring those who undermine the political establishment and the democratic world order. Even if Trump had lost the election, he would have continued his attacks on Clinton, weakening her positions from the first days of her presidency with a trail of scandals and contested election results.

The operation carried out in 2016 had a flip side: since the Russian secret services showed their hand, Americans came prepared for the scenario to repeat itself in 2020. In February 2017, the DNC welcomed its new Chair – Tom Perez, former U. S. Secretary of Labor of the Obama Administration who had shown commendable efficiency when organizing the nationwide mobilization campaign – something Clinton lacked in 2016. At the early stage of the primaries, two other centrist Democrats – Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar – endorsed Biden’s candidature, effectively ending the primaries in early March and avoiding a lengthy and exhausting confrontation like the one that destroyed the DNC back in 2016. They also prepared for Russian hacks and disinformation attacks.

Many American observes justly conclude that the Russians would never have succeeded had it not been for domestic trouble and controversy. While this is true, Putin isn’t strong enough to win in an open fight but artfully exploits existing contradictions, targeting the painful cracks in the foundations of developed democracies. Hitting the bullseye in 2016, he saddled the U. S. with a scandalous president who seriously undermined both the situation at home and the Transatlantic unity over his four years in office.

Putin isn’t strong enough to win in an open fight but artfully makes use of existing contradictions, targeting the painful cracks in the foundations of developed democracies

Why did the Russians fail to interfere in the 2020 election? “So where is your proverbial Russian interference?” many say sarcastically. It is precisely where it should be after the barely veiled machinations of 2016. Putin and Trump’s opponents had prepared for the situation, reinforced their apparatus, ensured unity within the party, including the early election stages, and secured themselves against cyberattacks. I do not doubt that Putin had planned to sow discord within the Democratic Party in 2020 as well; I refuse to consider the hypothesis that the Russian authorities did not attempt to interfere at all because of its complete implausibility. Whatever they tried to do, they failed. The Democratic Party managed to avoid any scandals, making a meaningful contribution to Joe Biden’s solid victory.

Along with the failed Alexei Navalny’s poisoning with Novichok and a major falling-out with European leaders over the matter, the failure to secure a desirable U. S. elections outcome has been yet another painful defeat for Putin within mere weeks. Hopefully, this will become a tradition and, coupled with the imminent political change in Russia, will set the tone for a new foreign policy vector – and we will see the Russia of the future, a country known for maintaining good-neighborly relations and civilized partnerships instead of showing aggression and interfering. Putin’s defeat in the 2020 U. S. elections is an essential milestone on the road towards that goal.

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