3 Questions: Historian Elizabeth Wood on election interference

Elizabeth Wood is a professor of history and the author of three books on Russia: “Roots of Russia’s War in Ukraine” (co-authored; Woodrow Wilson Center and Columbia University Press, 2016); “Performing Justice: Agitation Trials in Early Soviet Russia” (Cornell University Press, 2005); and “The Baba and the Comrade: Gender and Politics in Revolutionary Russia” (Indiana University Press, 1997). She is also co-director of the MIT-Russia and Eurasia Program (through the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives), coordinator of Russian and Eurasian Studies, and advisor to the Russian language program.

Recently, SHASS Communications asked Wood to share her perspective on U.S.-Russia relations and the implications of Russia’s interference in U.S. elections as highlighted in the Mueller Report.
Q: As an expert on Russian history and the rule of Russian President Vladimir Putin, can you comment on the historical context that may have influenced Russia’s attempts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election?

A: Many have expressed disappointment in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s complex conclusions on the question of President Trump’s collusion with Russia in the matter of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. But in his televised speech on May 29, Mueller left no room for doubt about the interference itself:

“I will close by reiterating the central allegation of our indictments, that there were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election. And that allegation deserves the attention of every American.”

The short answer to why Russia interfered in U.S. elections is that the two countries have been rivals on the world stage since World War II. Russia has a long history of spying, money laundering, and issuing propaganda to further its own interests, and the United States is not innocent of interference in other countries. The challenge in answering a question about the historical roots of Russia’s specific interference in the 2016 election is that there were at least three different issues at play at that moment in time, each with its own etiology and consequences for U.S. democracy.

Russian interference, as shown by the Mueller Report and numerous investigations by journalists, has taken three principal forms: 1) fake news and articles on Facebook and other social media sites orchestrated by the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, Russia; 2) cyberhacking into files belonging to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee [DCCC] and the Democratic National Committee [DNC] by the internet persona Guccifer 2.0, who distributed the spoils with the assistance of WikiLeaks; and 3) longstanding ties between members of the Trump campaign organization (and some people who joined his administration) and Russian oligarchs.

In the Mueller Report, these are shown to violate U.S. laws in the first case through “conspiracy to defraud the U.S., conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud, and aggravated identity theft”; in the second case, conspiracy to hack into the computers of the Clinton campaign, the DCCC, the DNC and other individuals, plus conspiracy to hack into the computers of 2016 election officials [punishable under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, 18 U.S.C. 1030]; and in the third case, violation of the Foreign Agent Statutes, especially the Foreign Agents Registration Act and Agents of Foreign Governments, 18 U.S.C. § 951, and making false statements to government investigators. 

All of these forms of meddling have long roots in Russian history, as 1) propaganda and disinformation; 2) a wide range of “dirty tricks” for information gathering and dissemination of ill-gotten gains; and 3) financial machinations designed to protect the wealth of individuals, the KGB (later renamed the FSB), and the state itself by moving money that should belong to the Russian people into and out of the country through shell corporations, offshore accounts, and money laundering.

These tactics have been researched by excellent scholars, and they are worth considering in the larger context of Russian statecraft. After all, what I would call the Russian “dark state” — i.e., that part of the state that operates abroad for nefarious purposes, including most recently interference in Ukraine, in Western European elections, and in the poisonings and beatings of both Russians and foreign nationals around the world — has been around for a long time; it is not an invention of Russian President Vladimir Putin, though he has certainly expanded its reach.
In fact, historian Mark Kramer has shown that Soviet secret forces tried to intervene in both the 1968 and the 1976 U.S. elections; they also worked to spread disinformation designed to discredit a range of individuals from J. Edgar Hoover to Martin Luther King Jr., and to foster conspiracy theories on the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the spread of AIDS. Under Gorbachev during the period usually known as perestroika, KGB head Vladimir Kryuchkov is known to have directed his agents to recruit more Americans, especially those in business and politics.

At this time, as Karen Dawisha has shown, his top officials were actively engaged in infiltrating the Western financial system (banks and legitimate companies as well as offshore accounts and shell companies) in elaborate schemes to launder the money of both the KGB and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, convinced that the USSR might follow the path of Eastern Europe and fall into the hands of democrats.

In my view, the core motivation behind this kind of interference is a two-fold belief a) that the most important goal of the Russian state is to achieve world power status, and b) that that status cannot be achieved without recourse to the dark arts of espionage, murder, and manipulation. The latter belief is buttressed by the conviction (and the reality) that other powers, including the United States, are also interfering in and manipulating foreign elections. (For example, the United States has been engaged in such processes in the Philippines and the Caribbean since the 1890s and in Central and South America since at least the 1950s.)

World power status has been considered a leading desideratum for centuries in the face of fears that otherwise Russia will be invaded and stripped of its wealth. A quiet desperation and willingness to use violence abroad has been particularly characteristic of Putin’s regime since the advances of NATO to the Russian borders in 1999 (the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland), 2004 (Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia), 2009 (Albania and Croatia), and 2017 (Montenegro).

Since the 2011-12 protests of tens, even hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens against Putin’s regime, the latter has sought to cultivate a more conservative self-image of the Russian state as a power seeking to promote reactionary values for the sake of Europe itself. For example, the regime holds up Russia as the country that will “save” Europe from its own LGBTQ population.

Q: In recent years, Russia has been promoting nationalistic views and policies not only at home but in Ukraine and elsewhere, including in the United States, in particular among white nationalists who are opposed to immigration. What Russian history or traditions contribute to or help explain this behavior?

A: Journalists and internet scholars looking at the content of Facebook and Twitter posts have expressed surprise that Russian-influenced social media has supported both right-wing causes, especially the candidacy of Donald Trump, and the anti-racist work of groups like Black Lives Matter. This is usually attributed to either eclecticism or a conscious decision to divide the U.S. electorate and thus bring down democracy.

Looking at Russian and especially Soviet history, however, we can see a much simpler and ultimately more interesting pair of explanations. Support for Trump can be explained both by a perception that he can be manipulated and/or blackmailed financially and by an overwhelming desire to bring down Hillary Clinton. (She became a target for her role in supporting the EuroMaidan Revolution in Ukraine and the Russian election protests in 2011-12, as well for making negative comments about Vladimir Putin himself.)

But then why support Black Lives Matter? That effort was a direct continuation of Soviet propaganda geared toward showing the alleged “racelessness” and hence international superiority of the USSR — conceived as the first workers’ state.

Such propaganda has historically included a barrage of critical journalism about American atrocities, particularly lynchings — which claimed the lives of almost 5,000 individuals, most of them black, under the most lurid and horrendous conditions imaginable. Whatever the USSR’s shortages and hardships, Soviet propagandists could always claim they were a more civilized country than the barbaric United States with its violence and mayhem.

This pattern continues: Just this summer, Ria Novosti, a leading news agency in Russia, made sure to give prominent coverage to a report from the Chinese Society for Human Rights Studies called “The Deep-Rooted Racial Discrimination in the U.S. Highlights Its Hypocrisy on Human Rights.” While racial discrimination is genuinely an important topic — and one urgently needing action and remedy within the United States — for Chinese and Russian state outlets it serves to underline the United States as two-faced and not worthy of respect, even as such research also calls attention to practices that their own societies have failed to address.

On the question of immigration, Russian support for anti-immigration populists in Europe, the United States, and most recently Canada over the past 20 years is rooted not in any particular views about immigration, I would argue, but rather in an attempt to ally with groups aiming to break up the European Union and stir dissension in North America. A dismantled European Union, which removes the power of a united bloc, would be a gain for Russian power in the region. A secondary goal of these efforts is to weaken the societies in question by ensuring that pro- and anti-immigration forces become deadlocked.
Q: MIT President L. Raphael Reif has said that solving the great challenges of our time will require “bilinguals” — a term adapted from language abilities to mean people who have expertise in both technical and humanistic fields. How can knowledge from the field of history help us navigate such geopolitical challenges as the ones presented by Russia’s election meddling?

A: The more we know about the history, language, and customs of other countries, the more we can anticipate why they are taking the actions they do, and the more we can consider possible responses.

Underestimating the dark side of Russian history is extremely dangerous. Western leaders, both European and American, have been caught off-guard at multiple points in recent history (especially in the Georgian War of 2008 and the invasion of Crimea and Ukraine in 2014). The Trump administration, meanwhile, continues to believe that it can make “deals” with Russia (as well as other countries), an approach that seems to play to the advantage of Russian oligarchs and the Russian state.

Most recently, Congress was persuaded to lift sanctions on Rusal (the leading Russian aluminum company) on the grounds that the oligarch Oleg Deripaska had been removed from leadership in the company. Yet, according to a Reuters report, he still owns a 44.95 percent share in En+, the parent company of Rusal, which itself holds a 56.88 percent stake in the latter entity. Together with allies, that makes it easy for Deripaska to control Rusal. The leading U.S. beneficiary of lifting sanctions has been the state of Kentucky, whose senator (Mitch McConnell) made a “deal” to bring the aluminum company to his home state. This is very concerning.

Nevertheless, I still feel passionately that we should not cut off contact with Russia, but rather encourage engagement in a reasoned way. For Russia to return to its Soviet isolation (probably impossible anyway) would be a tragedy both for the country and the world.

As I regularly tell my students, if you focus only on the challenging sides of Russia and its Soviet past (the gulag, the gross mistreatment of dissidents, the manipulation of the press), you miss the stunning beauty and power of the culture, which is famous, of course, for its great writers, but which also deserves unstinting praise for the hard work of its people, their rich spirituality, their warmth and hospitality.

There is also much we can learn from becoming both bilingual, in the original sense, and bicultural. Learning to drink tea and sit and talk, learning to care deeply about a collective community that is larger than oneself, learning hospitality and generosity — these are all central to understanding what it means to be Russian.

But more broadly, experiencing other cultures and interacting with other peoples expands our understanding of what it means to be human. Binary thinking — us versus them — clouds our thinking, making us as U.S. citizens more susceptible to demagogues and small-minded individuals interested only in short-term and often extremely mercenary gains. Conversely, immersion in other cultures gives us greater nimbleness in our thinking, opening our eyes to multiple ways of seeing and learning from the world.