Politics & Policy

Russia Should Beware the Unintended Consequences of Election Meddling

Russian President Boris Yeltsin (L) and U.S. President Bill Clinton shake hands before leaving a final news conference in the Kremlin in this September 2, 1998 file photo. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)
American efforts to ensure Boris Yeltsin’s win in 1996 are an instructive example.

Whenever commentators, journalists, and politicians begin to talk about Vladimir Putin as a genius, as the frightening man who had the cunning to drive most of America’s governing class into hysterics by intervening in an election, I start to think of Dick Morris and how consequential his work must have seemed in the months before he was busted by the media for using an escort service.

Back in 1996, Morris acted as the middleman between President Bill Clinton and the team of American political consultants deployed to Moscow to make sure that, by hook or crook, Boris Yeltsin won the upcoming Russian election. Polls showed Russians favoring the Communist Gennadi Zyuganov, and Yeltsin in the single digits. Bill Clinton, Prime Minister John Major, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and a number of emerging Russian oligarchs were going to make sure their man won Russia’s first “free and fair” election in the post-Soviet era. The free choice of Russians and the fairness of the election hardly factored into it.

There is much debate about how much these Americans actually helped Yeltsin win. Some Americans bragged about their efforts, which were later memorialized in a comic film. Some Russians dismissed them as harebrained narcissists who were safely locked away from anything real in the campaign. But what wasn’t in doubt was that America’s endorsement of Yeltsin, which came in the form of a giant cash infusion, helped the incumbent at a crucial moment, and allowed Russian oligarchs to coordinate their efforts as well. Reliable numbers are impossible to know, but it may have been the world’s most expensively bought election.

Should the Trump era be marked by surprise reversals of fortune, should America’s mortality rates continue climbing, should there be another economic crash, what will Americans want to do to Russia if Moscow can plausibly be named as one guilty party in our misgovernment?

The U.S. lobbied hard for the IMF to infuse billions into Russia that year. This loan was given on a basis that AEI’s Nicholas Eberstadt then deemed “so implausible and absurd that only a Western government official, or an international civil servant, could possibly believe them.”

IMF loan money that wasn’t directly stolen or traded for favors was used to prop up Russia’s bond market, leading to a profitable bubble for those in the know. Meanwhile, Vladimir Olegovich Potanin of Onexim bank also worked to make sure Yeltsin would win. He and a select few other banks proposed a “loans for shares” program, in which they would lend the government $2 billion to fix a hole in the budget and they would get a chance to buy shares in the country’s leading exporting vehicles. The idea was that once the Communist Zyuganov was defeated, markets would surely rise again, allowing the government to buy back the shares before selling them again at market value. But, of course, the government never did buy back those shares. It instead allowed state-owned assets to go to the favored bankers at three or ten cents on the dollar. Peter Conradi’s excellent book Who Lost Russia relays that under campaign-finance rules, each candidate could receive a maximum of just over $3 million in private contributions. The Yeltsin campaign was estimated to have spent as much as $2 billion.

Even before I come to the point, I can already anticipate readers shouting “whataboutism” at their computer screens. Yes, I do wonder how people who read the above and ready themselves to accuse me of moral equivalence would react if it were revealed tomorrow that Donald Trump had a secret team of Kremlin-directed Russian political consultants working with him throughout the campaign. No matter how ineffective or isolated other campaigners claimed they were, it certainly would raise eyebrows, wouldn’t it?

But that’s actually not the interesting question to ask. In no way should Americans accept Russian election meddling just because we have done the same to Russia. The great-power game is often won by doing things to your rivals that you would never allow them to do to you.

No, the interesting thing to ask is whether Russians have just made the same mistake Clinton did in 1996.

It is possible that the oligarchs and straightforward election fraud would have done enough to elect Boris Yeltsin without the American-encouraged IMF loans, or the team of American spin doctors. It’s also possible that allowing a Communist to return to power in Moscow and then immediately fall on his face, as happened in other post-Soviet republics, might have worked out better in the long run.

But what is undoubted is that U.S. intervention in that Russian election, and America’s repeatedly stated preference for Yeltsin, associated the U.S. with all the enormities of Yeltsin-era Russia. Strobe Talbot recalled with regret that our actions made us “enablers” of Russian corruption. The United States used its resources in a genuine belief that it was saving Russia from backsliding into Communism. What emerged was an oligarchy, a humiliating decrease in living standards for the vast majority of Russians, and a rapid decrease in Russian life-spans. Our interventions in 1996 made us a party to all of it.

We may judge this time by the high intentions of the U.S. government. But many Russians judge it by the results for Russian lives. And understandably many of them have adopted a conspiratorial view of affairs, seeing the hand of international finance or the U.S. State Department in every Russian frustration. In a darkened political culture, wet with paranoia, propaganda finds a hospitable environment for rapid growth. Anti-Americanism and a very old attitude of anger at international finance grow natively in Russia now. Putin is advantaged by this environment at home, and he’s had luck reduplicating it abroad.

It may feel good to have sown more discord and paranoia into America’s political culture, but at what price? So far Trump’s concessions to Russia are entirely rhetorical and theoretical. He wants peace, but the sanctions regime is still in place. He wants to have a good relationship with Putin, but he’s encouraged European countries to invest more in NATO. America’s Democratic party is now becoming as implacably anti-Moscow as conservative Republicans were during the Cold War. The American Left indulges Bircher-like conspiracy theories, giving Russia credit for decades-long plots and schemes to upend the liberal world order. Russia associates many of the Yeltsin-era evils with American-led shock therapy, and manipulation of its prostrate nation. Should the Trump era be marked by surprise reversals of fortune, should America’s mortality rates continue climbing, should there be another economic crash, what will Americans want to do to Russia if Moscow can plausibly be named as one guilty party in our misgovernment?

I imagine it will be a damned sight worse than Facebook memes and leaked emails.

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