Rumors of a special relationship between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin began to circulate months before election day, but it wasn’t until October 2016 that their long-distance calls, letters and talk of bromance snaked their way into reality. That month, WikiLeaks acquired and published hacked emails from the server of John Podesta, the chairman of the 2016 Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, allegedly via Russian cyberattack. By December, the CIA reasoned that the hacking was done in clear support of Trump’s campaign, an idea repeatedly denied by Trump. Unconfirmed reports this January that suggested Russian officials had compromising information on Trump only further tightened the president’s supposed ties to Putin.
The identity and the intentions of the hackers remain unverified. But as recently as last week, a poll by NBC and the Wall Street Journal found that approximately half of the electorate believe that Russia intervened in the presidential election. In the same survey, 49 percent said that they “are bothered either a great deal or quite a bit” by Russia’s interference, and 31 percent find Trump’s relationship with Putin “too friendly.” In another survey by CNN/ORC, 58 percent felt that “regardless of the information released as a result of Russian hacking, the outcome of the election would’ve been the same.” The American people have spoken: How to judge the impact of Russian interference in the election remains moot.
But some say otherwise. “The answer is actually very simple,” said Masha Gessen, a Russian-American journalist and anti-Putin activist. “We have no idea.” Two days before Trump’s inauguration, Gessen, along with Will Englund, Asia and Russia editor for the Washington Post’s foreign desk, Kimberly Marten, director of the U.S.-Russia relations program at the Harriman Institute for Russia, Eurasian and East European Studies and Paul Sonne, Pentagon correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, gathered at the Kellogg Center, Columbia University for a talk on “The Trump-Putin Connection: What does it mean for journalists and global security?”
While Gessen did not doubt whether Russia hacked the DNC, she questioned the logic that it influenced the election. While some experts say that Russian-English language news outlets like RT and Sputnik published material that stoked the anti-Hillary Clinton fire, Gessen argued that American public opinion is a channel that is and has always been open to outside influence. Despite America’s democratic ideals, the country has never seen a “nationally pure,” untainted election.
The conversation also brought up the issue of transparency. Only a week after CNN and BuzzFeed released reports and a redacted version of the Trump dossier respectively, Sonne stressed that because U.S. intelligence officials are protecting their sources, it is impossible to know if the Kremlin has been supporting Trump for years or if Russia has compromising material on the president.
Deeply rooted in this blame game are two troublesome myths. First, as Marten emphasized, is the idea that logic can be drawn out of Trump’s incoherent record of opinions. Back in March 2014 when POTUS was merely famous for his role on “The Apprentice,” he criticized Russia sharply on both Fox News and NBC. The president’s reversal of opinion on Russia “has to be something individual with Trump,” Marten said. “He’s upending all the ways political scientists have to explain international politics.” This about-face of opinion also resonates with one of Trump’s more pithy declarations from the second presidential debate last October: “I know nothing about Russia. I know about Russia.”
But perhaps more importantly, at least from the historical perspective, is Russophobia, which is practically a reflex for many Americans. Cold War rhetoric has plagued political discourse since the breakup of the Soviet Union 25 years ago, and while contemporary Russian officials are implicated in perpetuating this dialogue and most experts agree that Russians did indeed break into the email servers of U.S. political organizations this election season, the U.S. isn’t exactly a bulwark of fair elections either. In fact, a database organized by political scientist Dov Levin of Carnegie Mellon University found that the U.S. “attempted to influence” 81 presidential elections around the world between 1946 and 2000. And that’s not including the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution where assistant secretary of State Victoria Nuland and U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt celebrated with pro-revolutionary protesters by handing out cookies.
Today, Sonne said of Russia and the U.S., “[t]he assumption is that we are going to hack one another. Only releasing the information to the public is something new.”
Could the country’s fixation on Russian hacking tell us something about the American subconscious? To Gessen, talk of friendship between the two leaders is a conspiracy theory, and one that is only hurting the American psyche. It’s a myth that is repeated ad nauseum “instead of accepting that [Trump] was voted in by Americans,” she said. What’s more, if the relationship leads to détente between the two countries, Gessen hypothesized that without Russia’s historic enemy, Putin’s base of popular support in his own country might be compromised. If U.S. sanctions are lifted but Russia’s economy fails to improve, the Russian president would no longer be able to shift the blame on the States.
“Putin sees opportunity, and he sees that opportunity now [with Trump],” Gessen said. But, she added, “he doesn’t think about what happens after, when the [Russian] economy is tanking and he can’t blame the U.S.”
Marten rejected the idea that the U.S. plays such a significant role in the Kremlin’s foreign policy. “It’s not important what happens in the US, but what happens in Europe,” she said, urging all to look beyond just Russia and the U.S. Europe, which will hold 18 elections this year—including five presidential votes—might become Russia’s new playing field, especially if the Trump Administration champions isolationism, she warned.