Russian Interference and the Need for Campaign Finance Reform
Widely considered a fallen giant
since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 and a market-shaking sovereign default in 1998, Russia has quietly emerged as a resurgent superpower in the midst of what could become the greatest election scandal in American history. As the Eurasian giant begins anew its foray into Western politics, it is building upon a history of disseminating lies and financing rogue activists while succeeding in its aim to weaken rivals by undermining trust in institutions and deepening the divides between their citizens.
Escalating as the Cold War reached its height in the early 1960s, Russia has crafted a tradition of aggressively cultivating resentment between Americans through the work of its State intelligence service. Shortly after Lyndon Johnson ascended to the Presidency, the KGB-funded Liberty Book Club published the first piece of literature claiming that JFK’s assassination was a conspiracy – a belief surprisingly popular in many circles today. Less than a decade later, it forged provocative pamphlets intended to spark an ultimately nonexistent conflict between the Black Panthers and the Jewish Defense League. Even as the Soviet Union teetered on the brink of collapse in the late ‘80s, the KGB began the still-circulated, InfoWars-esque, rumor that the CIA created HIV in a biological weapons lab. Eventually, as Mikhail Gorbachev implemented Perestroika, active psychological measures against the West went into hiatus in an effort to reconcile with the more prosperous side of the Iron Curtain. However, this never stopped the Kremlin from working against former Soviet states and other vulnerable nations, most notably during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and in its ongoing support of the Assad regime in the Syrian Civil War.
Having engaged in tumultuous relationships with Russia for centuries, France and Germany have taken point in Western resistance to Putin’s grand ambitions in America’s absence. Though vague, Chancellor Merkel threatened “consequences” in the event that Russia were to interfere with the German election process while President Macron publicly accused Russia Today and Sputnik of being State propaganda channels. Preferring to handle the matter internally, Sweden and Finland rolled out media-literacy initiatives, with the former guiding students to create their own “Fake News” campaigns in order to develop a better understanding of the dynamics behind disinformation. Most recently, English Prime Minister Theresa May gave 23 Russian diplomats one week to leave Britain, suspended all “high level bilateral contacts” and confirmed that no members of the Royal Family would attend the World Cup in Moscow this summer in the wake of the Novichok nerve agent attack on former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, a city roughly 20 miles off the country’s southern coast. Across the Atlantic, however, little has been done to combat Russian interference outside of Robert Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russian nationals until Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced sanctions against five Russian entities and nineteen individuals for “attempted interference in US elections, destructive cyber-attacks, and instrusions targeting critical infrastructure”. Rather than personally take an active stance against Russia, President Trump appears to view allegations of election interference not so much as a threat to American democracy but as a personal attack against his legitimacy - an insinuation that he would not have won without Putin. This has prompted waves of “Deep State” rhetoric out of the Alt-Right, who believe a Shadow Government run by career officials working in conjunction with the media is undermining the current administration. One could even make the argument that the President’s dismissal of unfavorable reporting as “fake news” has made the country more vulnerable to disinformation by increasing the electorate’s distrust in both parties. In fact, proof of Russian success has sewn additional skepticism toward government actions but, on a very positive note, could ultimately lead to campaign finance reform, especially in regard to soft money.
Campaign contributions have also played a major role in Russia’s re-ascendance to geopolitical prominence. Whereas the Sanders, Stein and Trump campaigns were the main beneficiaries of the American propaganda campaign, the Kremlin has taken an active role in financially supporting a number of European parties as well. In Italy, where dismal public trust in authorities has led to potent disinformation, Putin has openly backed the neo-fascist Forza Nuova and ethnic-nationalist Northern League, the latter of whom signed a cooperation agreement with Putin’s United Russia party in March of 2017. Austria’s hard-right FPÖ, which controls the country’s foreign, interior and defense ministries, signed a similar agreement in December of 2016, shortly before their party leadership met with Lt Gen Michael Flynn, the President-elect’s National Security Advisor. Russia has also supported Germany’s far-left Die Linke, which descended from the East German communist party, as well as the far-right AFD, which counts Germans of Russian descent to be a major part of its base and even published its 2017 yearbook in Russian. However, direct funding of sympathetic parties is rarely proven even if it is frequently rumored. Czech President Miloš Zeman, a far-right populist, narrowly won re-election in January after the deployment of a massive ad campaign whose sources of funding remain mostly unknown. Prior to that, an investigation of the source of $12,000,000 to the pro-Brexit leave.EU campaign came up inconclusive. Tracing money in the United States will be equally difficult as donors are permitted to contribute unlimited sums of money to Super PACs and parties, thus making the determination of election tampering by foreign powers nearly impossible without a lengthy investigation.
Looking ahead to the Fall, intelligence professionals expect Russia to attempt to influence the American midterm elections in favor of populist candidates on the fringes of their respective parties as “establishment” incumbents, especially Democrats, are far more likely to show interest in further investigations into their meddling. Supporting far-right and far-left candidates will also lead to further polarization of American politics and sew more chaos and division in the West’s most affluent leader. Some states, including Pennsylvania and Virginia, have already reverted to paper ballots in an effort to prevent electronic interference while Georgia’s legislature is currently considering a bill that would do the same. Ultimately, the American election process needs far more than basic ballot security and must further consider the perils of soft money and the unprecedented influence of social media, both of which have done irreparable damage to the diverse array of political identities of the electorate. It may take what Lawrence Lessig, author of Republic, Lost, calls a “Roger Bannister moment” - referring to the first man to run a mile in less than four minutes - to show the nation how positive the effects of limiting the ability of external resources to impact campaigns are. Not only would such a moment devastate Mr. Putin’s Western influence, it would also put the country back on the road to electing men and women with great values rather than increasingly massive bankrolls, which is surely an ideal that nearly every American can agree on.