This article at BuzzFeed, from 8 December, is one of the oddest things I’ve come across in some time. It’s so full of little weirdnesses it seems like a parody. And it makes no overall sense, except as a sort of theme-planting exercise for the idea that we are in urgent need of an agreement with Russia to not interfere in each other’s elections.
The short version is that Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov met with Under Secretary of State Tom Shannon on 17 July 2017, and offered him a proposal for the agreement in question. This has been a secret until now.
U.S. officials reviewed the proposal – described as “sweeping” in terms of non-interference – and turned it down (apparently with polite comments about this not being the time to deliberate such initiatives).
Which sounds to me like the proper response. Without bark on it, the concern is that there’s no telling what Vladimir Putin would define as “interference,” plus the Russian record of honoring such pacts is a poor one. (Plus, of course, with the cyber component to consider, how do you effectively monitor compliance at all?)
At any rate, the whole tone of the article is naïve and credulous, as if a proposal of this kind would be a normal good-idea transaction between nations, instead of something extraordinary and peculiar. The BuzzFeed article reads as if Mickey Rooney and the boys suggested putting on a show in the barn, and Judy Garland for some reason said no this time.
Parts of the piece sound like they were written by Russians – and more specifically, Russians who write op-eds for Russian state media properties.
We have the Russians as helpful partners in stamping out the scourge of election interference:
Russia first broached the subject in July, when one of Vladimir Putin’s top diplomats arrived in Washington with a sheet of proposals aimed at addressing a top concern of the US government: A resurgence of Russian meddling in the 2018 elections.
And we have the Russians invoked impressively in veiled warnings about what will happen to us if we don’t make the pact:
The decision to walk away from the offer could prove fateful. Signs of Russian meddling in foreign elections continue to flourish, with allegations of new Russian influence operations in Spain and other Western democracies. Of particular concern to election security experts is the US intelligence community’s January 2017 assessment that Kremlin-directed meddling in the US will only grow more sophisticated.
We have an unnamed U.S. official approvingly citing the great and wise dealings of FDR with the Soviet Union:
The US official described the Russian proposal in historic terms, likening it to the 1933 accord between President Franklin Roosevelt and Soviet Commissar for Foreign Affairs Maxim Litvinov that ended 16 years of American nonrecognition of the Soviet Union in exchange for a pledge not to interfere in US politics.
Ryabkov proposed “that we come to terms and agree not to interfere in each other’s internal affairs,” said the senior US official. “Historically, it relates back to the agreements that were done at the beginning of Franklin Roosevelt’s administration when we were establishing a relationship with the Soviet Union for the very first time,” said the senior official.
Alert readers will remember that the reasons for discussing non-interference in 1933 included U.S. participation in the brief war against the Bolsheviks after the 1917 revolution (four presidencies back), and the metastasizing activities of the Soviet-commanded Communist Party in the United States.
The Soviets’ use of the CPUSA as a proxy inside America continued unabated after diplomatic normalization in 1933. But it would be perfectly characteristic of Putin’s theme-shop to write as if the reference to the 1933 accord meant the opposite of that.
The general sense continues of the BuzzFeed piece being consonant with a Russian perspective. From a top-level view, what stands out is a mirror-imaging depiction: of U.S. programs that promote democratic political values as counterparts of Russian computer intrusions and furtive propaganda campaigns. To read the article, you’d think the U.S. might be hacking people’s user accounts and buying “fake news” ads on social media, to promote democratic values in Russia.
If that’s not what the article means to convey, then it’s a really good question why it frames mutual non-interference as meaning that Russia stops the hacking and the ad-buying in America, and the U.S. stops backing think-tanks and NGOs – which publish articles, and make the case for democratic practices in forum discussions, in Russia.
But that’s not the weirdest thing. The weirdest thing is this interesting pairing: first, the central premise that “Russian interference” in the U.S. election in 2016 is a national emergency – a prior theme being flogged by opponents of Trump, for whom an integral feature of the theme is that Russia is an evil Rasputin with sharp hooks in the new president.
But that premise is paired, secondly (and quite oddly), with the implication that Trump, sharp-hooked though he may be, has rejected the overture of his Rasputin. And all the arguments for why he shouldn’t reject it look strangely like a sugar-coated extortion note from Moscow.
In theory, Trump’s opponents inside the U.S. would have no use for agreements concluded by Trump with Russia. The proposal tendered by Ryabkov in July would be allowed to languish in obscurity, if those opponents were at work (i.e., tailoring leaks to the media) in good faith with their own political themes.
Yet instead, the proposal gets a big roll-out exclusive at BuzzFeed, with experts quoted saying things both sensible:
“I don’t think Russia’s offer is workable,” said Adam Segal, a cyberspace policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “I don’t know how you would enforce it, and the political costs to the US would be too high.”
“Ultimately, Russia is unlikely to exercise self-restraint absent some form of an agreement,” said Samuel Charap, a former State Department official and Russia expert at the RAND Corporation. “The only other tools we have are to harden our own defenses or threaten a major retaliation, two options that won’t likely be sufficient.”
BuzzFeed cites the director of Columbia University’s program on U.S.-Russia relations, to this effect:
Putin’s paranoia about US meddling in Russia’s upcoming election could produce serious negotiations with Moscow. Putin “will almost certainly win another six-year term, unless the United States disrupts things by, say, releasing a cache of compromising material that turns the Russian population against him,” she wrote in a recent article. “To avoid that possibility, Putin might just find an anti-doxing agreement to be useful.”
Which, I am sorry to say, is one of the least-realistic things I have seen in a long time. Besides describing a virtually impossible sequence of events – as regards either alternative – this comment suggests the U.S. would “release a cache of compromising material” on Putin during the Russian election. Who other than Putin believes that?
And why would Putin believe it, if, as Trump’s opponents daily remind us, Putin leads him around on a dog collar?
None of this parses. There’s no mistaking what we’re being sold; i.e., the urgency of preventing the next electoral cyber-Armageddon in America, with the collateral impression that Trump has just turned down an opportunity to do that.
But no internally coherent case is made for that bill of goods.
The thing to do seems to be to bookmark this mishmash of weirdly Putin-gratifying impressions, and recall the bottom line – that they make no sense – when the target theme is reiterated as if we’re supposed to take it for granted, down the road.