With President Obama saying the United States will retaliate against Russia for meddling in the 2016 presidential election, the White House must make public “conclusive evidence in a form that can be independently analyzed,” as a leading technology website argues.
Until then, claims that Russia hacked Democratic Party emails remain unverified allegations based on anonymous sources. And that is extremely shaky ground to ratchet up a conflict with the most heavily armed nuclear power in the world given how the Vietnam War and Iraq War began as lies fomented by previous presidents.
But lost in the shadows of cyberwarfare and espionage is another critical debate: What would Russia’s motive be in undermining the U.S. electoral system and by extension its legitimacy, power, and global standing?
Hillary Clinton says it’s because Russian President Vladimir Putin “has a personal beef against me.” That vendetta is supposedly based on Clinton, in her role as secretary of state, repeatedly criticizing Russian parliamentary elections in December 2011 as fraudulent. She is blamed for encouraging the tens of thousands who subsequently demonstrated in Moscow yelling, “Putin is a thief” and “Russia without Putin.”
This tale of comic-book villainy papers over a complicated history, however. With protesters in the streets, Putin likely feared he would be the latest regional strongman toppled by a U.S.-backed uprising. There was the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia, the 2004 Orange Revolution in the Ukraine, and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan in 2005—all promoted by the United States and West Europe. The color-coded revolutions fit into a pattern of U.S.-engineered regime change around the world. This goes back to the emergence of America as a global power by the early 1900s, with its most recent incarnation being the “war on terror” under the Bush and Obama administrations.
By the time Russia’s ally in Kyrgyzstan, President Askar Akayev, was deposed in March 2005, the United States had invaded and taken control of Afghanistan and Iraq, sponsored a successful coup in Haiti and an unsuccessful one in Venezuela, was beating the war drums against Iran, and had spread across Russia’s underbelly with military bases and agreements in Central Asia.
Russia’s 2011 parliamentary elections also followed on the Arab Spring and came weeks after Muammar Gaddafi was nastily dispatched in a U.S. and NATO war that’s turned Libya into a morass of militias, criminals, and jihadis.
The Western outcry against Russia’s 2011 elections, which some observers say was not unusually fraudulent, sent U.S.-Russia relations into a nosedive. Two analysts write in the Washington Quarterly, “The U.S. administration cut off talks with the Russians on missile defense, did not invite Putin to the 2012 NATO summit, eventually stopped pursuing arms control, signed into law the Magnitsky Act (even though the Obama administration had initially objected to this law; it was designed to punish Russian officials for the death in prison of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky), cancelled a two-day summit planned in Moscow in September 2013, met with human rights activists on the sidelines of Putin’s G20 summit in St. Petersburg in 2013 (the only head of state to do so), and then sent a White House delegation to the Sochi Olympics in February 2014 with a strong message of support for LGBT rights in response to Russia’s ‘anti-gay propaganda’ law.”
This was a prelude to the Ukrainian crisis in 2014 that began with another U.S.-backed ouster of the president, which Putin called a “coup.” It ended with Russia annexing the Crimean region and fomenting a proxy war against the new government. Obama hit back with atypically strong actions compared to previous Russian and Soviet intrusions in the region. Russia was booted out of the G8, stung with economic sanctions, and NATO expanded its military presence in the East, including a special “high-readiness force” that can be deployed within 48 hours to Russia’s border states.
Now, this is just a brief overview of why Russia might feel just a bit paranoid. A fuller picture would note NATO was founded as an anti-Soviet military alliance in 1949, a full six years before the Soviet-formed Warsaw Pact was established. Despite losing its reason for being with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, NATO has expanded eastward for more than 20 years over vociferous Russian protests. High-level Western officials are well aware their policies are viewed as belligerent. Last year the UK foreign secretary admitted “we have to recognise that the Russians do have a sense of being surrounded and under attack.”
Then there is the U.S.-designed “shock therapy” in the 1990s, which battered Russia. In a three-year period, as the economy was privatized, unemployment soared, and the safety net shredded, the life expectancy of Russian men plunged a staggering five years, and resulted in millions of excess deaths according to a Lancet study from 2009.
This is the missing background to the hacked U.S. election. It shows Russia has every reason to take the United States down a few notches. It’s important to emphasize none of it proves the hacking was tied to Russia, much less Putin himself as Washington now alleges. (Neither should Western aggression detract from Putin’s autocratic, thuggish, and brutal rule.) The proof that Russia was behind the hacked emails must be made public. But it won’t change the fact that with Donald Trump about to enter the White House, Putin will reap a political windfall.
Arun Gupta contributes to The Washington Post, YES! Magazine, In These Times, The Progressive, Telesur English, and The Nation. He is author of the forthcoming, Bacon as a Weapon of Mass Destruction: A Junk-Food Loving Chef’s Inquiry into Taste, from The New Press. Follow him @arunindy or email at arun_dot_indypendent_at_gmail_