In the immediate aftermath of the US missile strike on Syria, I said that if it was intended to ease President Trump’s domestic political problems then it was a major blunder.
I said that on the contrary what the missile strike would do was dismay the President’s most vocal and intelligent supporters, whilst failing to appease his enemies.
If the President believed when he launched his missiles that it would end criticism of him and obstruction of his administration by his opponents, then he will be quickly discover that it has done no such thing. The President’s opponents have far too much invested in the narrative of Donald Trump the new Mussolini or Caligula to back off from it now. I doubt they will even back off from the Russiagate allegations, absurd though those are.
Within a few days, once the plaudits for the missile strikes have faded, the President will quickly find that the view of him of his opponents in Washington is the same as always, and that if anything, by launching his missile strike without first consulting Congress, he has given them another stick with which to beat him with. I note that Nancy Pelosi – one of the President’s most vehement critics – is already calling for a full debate in the House to discuss the issue of authorisation for the President’s action.
…….By contrast, if the President has not won over his critics, he has beyond question upset and demoralised the most intelligent and vocal part of his own political base.
One of the most interesting facts about the events of the last few days is that whilst Barack Obama’s liberal supporters continued to back him even as he went back entirely on the anti-war stance he appeared to hold before he was elected, Donald Trump’s supporters take their anti-war and anti-interventionist position extremely seriously, and are not prepared to compromise on it. The result is that far from defending the President for what he has done, they have turned on him and feel betrayed.
As is clear from the above comment, unlike many people I did not expect the Russiagate allegations to go away simply because the President was launching missiles at Syria and was starting to adopt the foreign policy of Hillary Clinton and of his opponents. Hysteria and paranoia are never dispelled in that way.
Russiagate is not driven by rational considerations, and cannot just be switched on or off as it suits some people. If it were it would have collapsed under the weight of its own absurdity long ago. On the contrary the paranoia and hysteria which is driving the scandal is genuine, and there is a large community of people which believes in its truth. This includes people working in the security services, in the media and in Congress. Highly rational people who have seen through the absurdity of the scandal, and who explain it in purely functional terms – as a device to bring President Trump to heel – seriously underestimate the lack of rationality of some of the people they are dealing with.
Beyond that there is the further fact that the officials of the previous Obama administration need to keep the scandal going in order to keep attention focused away from their own role in getting the security services to mount surveillance on the Trump campaign during the election period, despite the lack of evidence of any wrongdoing such as would justify it.
These thoughts have been triggered by the latest twist in the Russiagate scandal, a story from Reuters which has appeared today, sourced from our old friends “three current and four former (ie. Obama administration) U.S. officials”. The story claims the following
A Russian government think tank controlled by Vladimir Putin developed a plan to swing the 2016 U.S. presidential election to Donald Trump and undermine voters’ faith in the American electoral system,….
…two confidential documents from the think tank [provided] the framework and rationale for what U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded was an intensive effort by Russia to interfere with the Nov. 8 election. U.S. intelligence officials acquired the documents, which were prepared by the Moscow-based Russian Institute for Strategic Studies [en.riss.ru/], after the election…..
The first Russian institute document was a strategy paper written last June that circulated at the highest levels of the Russian government but was not addressed to any specific individuals.
It recommended the Kremlin launch a propaganda campaign on social media and Russian state-backed global news outlets to encourage U.S. voters to elect a president who would take a softer line toward Russia than the administration of then-President Barack Obama, the seven officials said.
A second institute document, drafted in October and distributed in the same way, warned that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was likely to win the election. For that reason, it argued, it was better for Russia to end its pro-Trump propaganda and instead intensify its messaging about voter fraud to undermine the U.S. electoral system’s legitimacy and damage Clinton’s reputation in an effort to undermine her presidency, the seven officials said.
The Reuters story then goes on to say that it was the ‘discovery’ of these two Russian strategy papers that played a central role in getting the Obama administration to conclude that the Russians had actively interfered in the US election.
There are so many problems with this story that it is difficult to know where to start.
Firstly, Reuters – or rather the former and current US officials – misrepresent or misunderstand what the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies (RISS) actually is. It is an analytical centre carrying out foreign policy and intelligence analysis for the Russian government, not really a think tank, and it is directly subordinated to Russia’s chief foreign intelligence agency, the SVR. It website in English can be accessed here.
The RISS is not “controlled by Vladimir Putin” and the pictures of Putin meeting with its current chief Mikhail Fradkov and its former chief Reshetnikov which are mentioned in the Reuters article misconstrue the nature of the RISS’s relationship with the Russian President.
Since the RISS is directly subordinated to Russia’s chief foreign intelligence agency the SVR, its chiefs – previously Lieutenant General Reshetnikov, now former Prime Minister and SVR chief Mikhail Fradkov – are serving officials of the Russian government. As such they are appointed to head the RISS by Putin himself in exercise of his power as Russia’s President.
That is why the Kremlin released pictures and details of the conversation between Putin and Fradkov and Reshetnikov, which took place on 31st January 2017 (see captioned picture). As the Kremlin’s summary of the conversation shows, Putin congratulated Fradkov following his decision to appoint him chief of the RISS, whilst thanking Reshetnikov, the RISS’s outgoing chief, for his previous work, and wishing him well in his retirement. This is Putin’s standard practice when he appoints and retires officials to an important post, and this case is no different.
The RISS’s nearest US equivalent is the Rand Corporation, though the RISS is more directly integrated into Russian state structures than is the nominally independent and in part privately funded Rand Corporation, and is far smaller.
The RISS’s chiefs – previously Reshetnikov, now Fradkov – are intelligence service professionals because since the RISS is directly subordinated to the SVR and uses classified information provided by Russia’s intelligence agencies to carry out its analyses it is a part of the Russian intelligence community.
This misunderstanding of what the RISS is probably reflects the poor state of knowledge of today’s Russia in the US and the West more than it does any deliberate intention to deceive. Reuters interestingly seems genuinely uninformed about it.
Since there is so much uncertainty in the US as to what the RISS actually is and what it does, it regularly features in Western conspiracy theories about President Putin and Russia. For example back in 2014 it was credited with planning Russia’s ‘takeover’ of Crimea before the Maidan coup took place, even though it is an analytical not a planning agency, and even though it appears that all it was doing was researching scenarios in case the Yanukovych government fell, which is what as the analytical agency of a Great Power’s major intelligence service it is supposed to do.
That the RISS should be carrying out analyses of US politics and of the likely outcome of the US election is not therefore surprising or sinister. It is its job, which it was set up to do. The same sort of analyses of the internal politics and elections of other countries – including Russia – is routinely carried out in the US by the plethora of analytical bodies and agencies that exist there, which dwarf in size and number anything which exists in Russia.
Secondly, even the Reuters story gives no indication that the RISS documents ‘prove’ Russian meddling in the US election, as regularly alleged throughout the Russiagate scandal.
All that the RISS documents are alleged to do is provide guidance to the Kremlin on how Russian media coverage of the US election should be steered in Russia’s best interests. That suggests nothing more than a media campaign of the sort that regularly happens during elections, and which the US itself does all the time.
There is nothing surprising or sinister about this. Nor is it illegal.
Frankly, it is bizarre – and shows how detached from reality some people have become – that it is considered sinister and dangerous that a Russian agency like the RISS should recommend to the Russian government that the Russian media put to the American people the case for electing a candidate less hostile to Russia, or that the Russian media cast doubt on the integrity of the US election process, something the US media itself regularly does.
In June 2016, when the RISS document allegedly recommending the Russian media promote candidates sympathetic to better relations with Russia that might equally well have meant Bernie Sanders as Donald Trump.
As for concerns about the integrity of the US electoral system, they are a regular topic of discussion in US politics without needing Russia to encourage them, and there is nothing sinister or surprising about the fact that a Russian analytical centre should advise the Russian government to encourage discussion of the subject.
I would add that the US government regularly comments on the supposed lack of integrity of the Russian electoral system, and encourages the US media to do the same, and that this routinely happens whenever there are elections in Russia.
There is no word here of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, or of Donald Trump being blackmailed by the Russians as alleged in the Trump Dossier, or of Donald Trump being the ‘Siberian candidate’ – all things that are said during the Russiagate scandal – and Reuters admits that the two RISS documents make no reference to Russia leaking the emails of John Podesta and the DNC
Neither of the Russian institute documents mentioned the release of hacked Democratic Party emails to interfere with the U.S. election, according to four of the officials. The officials said the hacking was a covert intelligence operation run separately out of the Kremlin.
As it happens, since the RISS is a part of the Russian intelligence community carrying out analyses on the basis of classified information provided by Russia’s intelligence agencies – and is therefore presumably well-informed about what Russia’s intelligence agencies are doing – the absence of any reference in the RISS documents to collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, to Donald Trump being blackmailed by Russia, and to Russia leaking the emails of John Podesta and the DNC, is if anything evidence that none of those things happened.
Thirdly and lastly, both the former and the current chiefs of the RISS – Reshetnikov and Fradkov – say that the documents are being misrepresented.
Here is what Fradkov, the RISS’s current chief, says
Apparently, the authors of this idea failed to correspond the actual reality with the fantasies that their conspiracy theory minds covet in order to draw back the public perception to the issue of alleged Russian ‘participation’ in the US election, which has been fading away lately
Fradkov is also reported to have denied that the RISS possesses either the remit or the means to plan a large-scale disinformation campaign.
And here is what Reshetnikov, the RISS’s former chief who was in charge of the RISS when the RISS documents were allegedly written, says
Of course it’s another piece of fake news, lunacy. RISS never prepared such documents or plans and I doubt it is doing such a thing now. this is not our job.
In summary, this is not exactly a case of ‘fake news’ since the two RISS documents almost certainly exist. Rather it is a case of ‘no news’: an attempt to use the existence of documents that say nothing important to further the Russiagate scandal despite their apparently failing to provide any support for it.
It is characteristic of paranoia that it links together unrelated facts and that it twists facts to correspond with its pre-formed view. The case of the RISS documents is a case in point.
The fact that the Russians were monitoring the US election closely is not surprising or even news. Yet it is taken as proof that the Russians were meddling in the election. Of course it is nothing of the sort.
The fact that Russia’s chief analytical agency recommended that the Kremlin encourage the Russian media to report about the election in a certain way is again taken as corroboration of Russiagate’s outlandish claims of collusion, blackmail etc. In reality it shows if anything the opposite.
Paranoia this strong is not going to be dispelled by a few missiles lobbed at Syria. If closing down Russiagate was indeed the reason for the missile strike, then the sooner President Trump realises that the better.