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Why Did Russia Attack The 2016 Election? This Week’s Whirlwind Offers New Clues

President Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin attend a joint press conference after a meeting in Helsinki Monday.
President Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin attend a joint press conference after a meeting in Helsinki Monday.
Credit Brendan Smialowski / AFP/Getty Images
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A pyrotechnic week of geopolitical intrigue has yielded new clarity about the whys and wherefores of the Russia imbroglio, including one insight straight from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Why did Putin order the campaign of “active measures” that have been directed against the United States and the West since before the 2016 election?

There appear to be many reasons, but the latest one to break through may be how strongly Putin feels the United States had been waging such a campaign against him and Russia.

Specifically, Putin appears to believe that Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, was personally directing these kinds of operations against him.

He could believe it so strongly that Putin suggested to President Trump in their one-on-one meeting in Helsinki on Monday that Trump allow Russian investigators to come to the U.S. to question McFaul — in exchange for Putin allowing U.S. investigators to travel to Russia to question 12 recently indicted military intelligence officers accused by the Justice Department of hacking and dumping emails associated with the Democratic Party back in 2016.

Putin also complained in public about another individual, Bill Browder, who has spearheaded a global campaign of sanctions against Russia’s elite but who Russians say is a tax criminal and a money launderer who was behind an alleged illegal plot to send financial support to Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid in 2016.

The Russian leader wants Browder in Russian custody; Russia has used its influence with Interpol in the past to have Browder arrested. Browder was born in the U.S. but renounced his U.S. citizenship years ago; he resides in the U.K., making it difficult for the U.S. to assert jurisdiction over him as Putin apparently wants.

Browder has denied the many Russian allegations against him. And recent reporting by The New York Times suggested there is no merit to Putin’s claim that Browder helped orchestrate hundreds of millions in financial support for Clinton’s 2016 White House bid. Speaking to NPR on Wednesday, McFaul called the Russian allegations against Browder which have also ensnared McFaul a “cockamamie” scheme and suggested they were part of Putin’s broader “conspiratorial fantasies.”

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders was asked on Wednesday about how seriously the Trump administration took Putin’s requests; she told reporters they were being evaluated.

McFaul, for his part, said on Twitter that he is worried about the prospect of becoming a bargaining chip between the two powers.

“I hope the White House corrects the record and denounces in categorical terms this ridiculous request from Putin. Not doing so creates moral equivalency between a legitimacy US indictment of Russian intelligence officers and a crazy, completely fabricated story invented by Putin,” McFaul wrote.

By Wednesday evening, a growing chorus was suggesting that the administration should reject Putin’s offer out of hand.

“We’re not turning @McFaul or any other American public servant over to Russia to be prosecuted for non-existent crimes. The White House should make that clear immediately,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee wrote on Twitter. Similar sentiments were expressed by Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., former Florida GOP Gov. Jeb Bush, and former Obama U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power.

However, Putin got the impression that McFaul was running a counter-revolution against him, and he has evidently believed it for years. McFaul told NPR’s Terry Gross about two occasions on which he and just one other American went in for a meeting with Putin in Moscow — once with then-Secretary of State John Kerry and another with then-national security adviser Tom Donilon.

“He looked straight at me in the eye,” McFaul remembered. “And he said, ‘We know what you’re doing. We know that you’re, you know, trying to support the opposition. And we’re going to stop you.’ ”

The watcher

Putin, as international observers often say, believes there is a web of plots directed against him by the West. For whatever intelligence work the United States and its allies might be doing against Russia, McFaul said he was not there to support Putin’s opposition.

It has become commonplace, however, for Putin’s supporters to say that, in so many words, “everyone does it,” i.e. all nations interfere in all other nations’ affairs. That was the line, for example, taken by Russia supporter Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., in an interview with Bloomberg News.

“We meddle in their elections,” he said. “We meddle all over the world at a much higher rate than what Moscow does, and maybe it’s all wrong.”

Russian leaders also have pointed to the American involvement with the Ukraine revolution.

In 2014, Russian intelligence leaked a recording of a phone call between two American diplomats that appeared to depict the United States stage-managing events in Ukraine from behind the scenes — and which sought to drive a wedge between Washington and the European Union.

That episode proved to be a preview in microcosm of the broader active measures the Russians launched against the West and which continue today. According to special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of the Russians charged with social media agitation efforts during the 2016 cycle, Russian intelligence officers began reconnoitering the United States in the same year as the Ukraine revolution.

Official denials by McFaul and other American officials about this kind of interference fall on deaf ears inside Moscow — especially Putin’s.

“As he frequently asserts in both public and private, he believes there are plots and conspiracies by the United States and the West directed against him and against Russia,” wrote Russia expert Fiona Hill in 2016.

“Such conspiracy thinking is consistent with his logic. The plots make sense in terms of his frame of reference — as seen through his filters of the Cold War, his time as a KGB operative in East Germany in the late 1980s, and the prevailing political views of conservative Russia circles.”

Hill now serves as the National Security Council’s top hand on Russia and sat in one of the meetings with Russian leaders in Helsinki on Monday.

Through a glass, darkly

Putin said Monday that he supported Trump in 2016 because of Trump’s positions on improving the U.S.-Russia relationship. The U.S. intelligence community also said Putin had a personal animus against Hillary Clinton that prompted him to do all he could to hurt her presidential bid.

But misapprehensions in the East about the West run deep and have for decades. One, as described by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin in The Sword and the Shield, their history of the KGB, was a long-held belief within Moscow that sounds like what today is described as “the deep state.

It was the notion that affairs in the United States were run from a secret “control center,” a belief held by leaders in Russia including those of its intelligence agencies in what Andrew and Mitrokhin called Moscow Center.

“Accustomed to strong central direction and a command economy, the Center found it difficult to fathom how the United States could achieve such high levels of economic production and technological innovation with so little apparent regulation. The gap in its understanding of what made the United States tick tended to be filled by conspiracy theory. The diplomat and later defector, Arkadi Shevchenko noted of his Soviet colleagues:

“Many are inclined to the fantastic notion that there must be a secret control center somewhere in the United States. They themselves, after all, are used to a system ruled by a small group working in secrecy in one place …

“However much the Center learned about the West, it never truly understood it. Worse still, it thought it did.”

The United States really does send intelligence officers to Russia and demonstrated on Friday, in Mueller’s indictment of 12 officers in Russia’s military GRU spy agency, the depth of its vision into the workings of Russian intelligence.

That doesn’t necessarily mean Washington could influence events in Russia in the same way Moscow has in the United States. Russia has no free press or open Internet in the way the West does, for example. So if the CIA stole information about Putin and tried to release it inside Russia — in the way Russian cyberspies allegedly did about American targets in 2016 — the Russian government could likely exercise much tighter control over it spreading.

Then-President Barack Obama and leaders within his administration reportedly debated a cyberattack or other strategies along those lines to retaliate against Putin in late 2016, but ultimately decided not to attempt it.

At least one story from outside of Russia did get Putin’s attention, however — the release earlier in 2016 of the “Panama Papers,” which documented a number of offshore companies controlled by Putin’s friends.

Putin blamed the leak not on the reporting consortium that obtained the materials and circulated them to news organizations around the world, but on Russia’s Western “opponents,” which he said were “attempting to rock us from within, to make us more obedient.”

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