When the US Defence Secretary Mark Esper named China this week as the US’s leading antagonist, followed by Russia, it should have sparked alarm. Not because he is right, but because he is wrong, and possibly deliberately so.
Trump and the people he appointed to his administration have consistently down-played the Russian threat, often using a Chinese “threat” as a decoy or distraction.
The threats are qualitatively different. And the Russian threat to US democracy is likely to be worse in 2020 than it was in 2016. Russia and President Vladimir Putin will do everything possible to help Trump’s re-election because without it, Putin will face the greatest existential threat to his leadership in the 20 years since he took power.
Yes, as Esper points out, China is a nasty dictatorship that represses its own people, steals western technology, and seeks greater military and economic influence in the world.
But, it is a competitor that wants to play a greater part in the world and the world economy. It engages in UN peace-keeping. It has not invaded Hong Kong or any other outside territory. It has a diverse economy.
Its leaders are determined to stay in power, but do not engage in stealing national assets for personal enrichment. If anything they are trying to weed out corruption.
Since the death of Mao in 1976 China has given up the position that a nuclear war that defeated capitalism and imperialism would be worth it, even if it left the world in ruins.
Russia and Putin are different. Putin wants to disrupt and destroy democracy and western economic and security structures so that elected kleptocracy run by a strongman (like his) becomes a more dominant method of government throughout the world.
Putin has murdered or disfigured political opponents, dissidents and journalists at home and abroad. He has stolen the fortunes of legitimate businesspeople who competed with the industries – particularly oil and gas – that he and his cronies stole from the state. He often jailed those businesspeople on trumped up charges.
He undermined democracy in all the former Soviet republics, particularly Ukraine. He was desperate for Ukraine not to do what its people wanted – eventual membership of the EU. And was terrified that something like Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution which toppled a pro-Russian Government could happen to him.
He sent Russian soldiers in civilian clothing to invade Ukraine’s oil-rich eastern provinces and brutally annexed Ukraine’s Crimea and incorporated it into Russia in March 2014.
Crimean was the turning point. In the lead up to Putin’s invasion his Internet Research Agency (a troll farm housed in a non-descript four-storey office block in St Petersburg) posted massive amounts of misinformation on the internet alleging Ukrainian atrocities in Crimea. The bigger the lie and the more often it is repeated the more it is believed.
Earlier the agency was used to undermine Ukrainian elections by posting falsehoods about pro-European Ukrainian politicians. Putin sought to undermine the EU whenever he could.
The Crimean annexation led to tougher sanctions. These blocked Russia’s importation of western oil technology. It stopped Exxon-backed drilling in the Arctic. At the time, Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State and led criticism of the annexation. Putin never forgave her.
In the lead up to the 2016 Brexit referendum, Putin, emboldened by his troll farm’s success in Crimea, put it to work to help the leave campaign.
And again in 2016 he used it to undermine Clinton by training trolls to disguise themselves as US bloggers and to pump out misinformation exploiting racial tension, concern over immigration and any move to clamp down on guns.
Tough his primary aim was to undermine Clinton, for Putin Donald Trump was a godsend. Here was an autocratic, alliance-busting, law-disrespecting strongman just like himself. Moreover, Putin had kompromat (or compromising material) on Trump from Trump’s hotel antics during a 2013 visit to Moscow for the Miss Universe pageant.
One of the first acts Trump did as president was to override the requirement for oil and gas companies to disclose all payments (bribes) in foreign countries. Trump also appointed as Secretary of State former Exxon chief Rex Tillerson who had earlier signed oil and gas partnership deals with Russia.
In the lead up to the 2016 election and afterwards, Trump always praised or excused Putin and never attacked him. Trump wanted to lift sanctions, but very early in Trump’s presidency, Congress made the sanctions law, not just presidential orders (issued by Obama), by a huge majority that would override any presidential veto.
Republicans in Congress have been bullied by Trump on many issues, but most have refused to cave in on Russian sanctions. Nor have many in the Trump administration. Just this week US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ordered more sanctions against a Russian oil company.
Russia has some of the largest oil and gas reserves in the world. But the businesslike oil and gas companies have been stripped by Putin and his cronies and incorporated in the state-run outfits which are still basically using Soviet-era technology.
Bear in mind, that Putin sees the oil and gas companies more or less as his personal assets. Also, Russia has precious little industry outside oil and gas, so he really wants these sanctions gone, minimised or at least not extended, lest his leadership is undermined by protests against a worsening economy. He sees Trump as an ally in this, even if many in the Trump Administration and Republicans in Congress support the sanctions and despite the fact that many unethical US oil companies have set their lawyers to finding loopholes in them.
Putin is furious. And he has a weapon – misinformation trolled through the internet. It is much cheaper and more effective than the old Cold War spy networks. And a greater threat to western democracy than anything China is doing. The bear is more dangerous than the dragon.
Expect Putin’s trolls to interfere on the Trump side in a big way this election. Internet misinformation is becoming as corrosive of western democracy as corporate donations – unfortunately because many voters are so easily duped.
Oddly enough, however, one thing is fairly certain. Putin will never make the 2013 hotel video public. If he did, it could destroy Trump and Putin’s best chance of getting sanctions eased.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 22 February 2020.