It’s a classic destabilization tactic that Russia has long employed in Ukraine, feeding the local establishment’s internal conflicts.
The news that Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee paid for former U.K. spy Christopher Steele’s investigation into Donald Trump showed one thing: Rarely have two political candidates been so worthy of each other in terms of cynicism as Clinton and Donald Trump. No wonder Russian President Vladimir Putin, another world-class cynic, dealt himself in.
Democrats were indignant when it turned out that Donald Trump Jr., the candidate’s son, was willing to accept damaging information about Clinton from a Russian source. No dirt was forthcoming in that case, though: Instead, a suburban Russian lawyer fighting for the interests of her client, sanctioned under the Magnitsky Act in the U.S., apparently came to see Trump campaign officials to lobby against the law, not to share intelligence.
In the Clinton case, Fusion GPS, the firm working on the Trump opposition research, paid Steele, a foreigner, with the campaign’s money. The U.K., of course, is a U.S. ally; Russia is an adversary. But the information Steele produced came mainly from Russian sources. Unlike lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, who once did legal work for the FSB domestic intelligence in a minor property dispute, these sources were really well-connected, if Steele is to be believed. They included, according to the version of his dossier published by BuzzFeed, “a senior Russian Foreign ministry figure,” “a former top level Russian intelligence officer still active inside the Kremlin,” “a senior Russian financial official” and “a senior Kremlin official.”
In Moscow’s paranoid political climate, with the Kremlin seeing foreign agents everywhere and the FSB eager to earn its bread, what was the upside for these sources in sharing explosive secrets with a foreigner? The downside is clear: The standard prison sentence for espionage, handed down in recent spying cases, was 12 years — at the lower bound of the Russian criminal code’s range of 12 to 20. As a private operative, Steele couldn’t even offer his informants the thin protection that comes with working for a foreign intelligence agency, which might help a valuable agent if push came to shove.
But if the FSB and the Kremlin knew of Clinton’s interest in putting together a dossier on Trump, all these people had an excellent reason to talk, and especially to provide nonsensical information — such as that Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, and not anyone in Russia’s intelligence community, was the keeper of a top-secret file on Trump. It was always obvious from the Steele reports that his sources were having fun spinning tall tales for him; since he wasn’t required to verify them and vouch for their accuracy — that’s the nature of raw intelligence — Steele faithfully wrote them down on GPS Fusion’s time.
Russia has never hid or denied its propaganda campaign during the U.S. election — except the elements of “active measures” it included: The rallies Kremlin trolls attempted to organize in the U.S. hinterland through Facebook ads, perhaps (but not definitely) the distribution of Democrats’ stolen emails to the media. These fit in nicely with the possible use of a Brit on Clinton’s payroll as a disinformation channel. Now that the nature of Russian activity on social networks has come to light, it’s likelier than ever that the goal of the whole exercise was to sow discord and instability in the U.S. Pushing Russian-generated kompromat on Trump to Clinton would have served that purpose brilliantly.
The Clinton campaign and the DNC reportedly started paying Fusion GPS in April, 2016, which was several months after the FBI warned about potential Russian hacking and several months before the DNC publicly confirmed that its network was breached by groups tied to Russian intelligence. It’s likely that, even before that announcement, the Democrats had been planning to use the Russian angle against Trump. That should prompt further investigation of Russia-related conclusions by CrowdStrike, the cybersecurity firm hired by the DNC, which was the only organization to examine the servers that had allegedly been hacked. It should also prompt the U.S. intelligence community to release more information about the sources of its conclusion that an arm of the Russian government had hacked the Democrats. Since the Steele Dossier made the same conclusion — adding that Trump’s team helped — an obvious question follows that has not been answered: Did U.S. intelligence rely at least in part on the information Steele had obtained while his employer was being funded by the Clinton campaign and the DNC?
Of course, collusion between the Trump camp and the Kremlin still cannot be ruled out. Putin’s people courted former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, and campaign chairman Paul Manafort had business ties to Kremlin-friendly billionaire Oleg Deripaska (who, however, is not part of Putin’s close circle). And in any case, the Russian efforts to diligently and creatively amplify Trump’s divisive messages gave him an advantage.
It’s looking increasingly likely, however, that the Kremlin was playing both sides against each other, giving each something it wanted. That’s a classic destabilization tactic that Russia has long employed in Ukraine, feeding the local establishment’s internal conflicts.
That it got the opportunity to do so is a problem for the U.S. Both of its main parties need candidates that aren’t so easy to ensnare in international intrigue (at best) and collusion (at worst). Until that happens, Russia — and everybody else interested in humiliating the U.S. — will keep coming back to do more harm.