We Need a Smarter Conversation About Russiagate

Any honest observer of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign could see that it had suspicious ties to Russia, and anyone who followed U.S.-Russia relations prior to 2016 should have known that the allegations of Russian interference were plausible. A strain of denialism about this on the left has only gradually abated as more evidence has emerged, but a tendency to dismiss the story as overblown persists, motivated to a large extent by contempt for the Russiagate-obsessed liberal and centrist “Resistance.” And much of that contempt is deserved; the popular narrative that nefarious Russians subverted the otherwise pure American Republic is wishful thinking. Russian interference was real and significant, but it only worked because something had gone terribly wrong with U.S. political institutions.

Writing about Russia for an American audience is frustrating. Cold War rhetoric can seem inescapable, not least because officials in both Washington and Moscow routinely encourage it. Associate yourself with almost any mainstream publication or think tank and you’re a CIA spook; associate yourself with critics in independent media and you’re an FSB plant (assuming, of course, that whoever is complaining is aware that it’s the FSB and not the KGB). Everyone has opinions about Russia, regardless of whether they’ve ever been there or know anything about it beyond clichés. Sometimes it feels like Vladimir Putin is the only person in the whole vast country. To both critics and apologists, Russia the metaphor for the West’s deepest insecurities competes for attention with Russia the country and geopolitical actor, and very often the metaphor wins.

This was all true before the 2016 election, but once the Hillary Clinton campaign and its allies in the media began alleging links between Donald Trump and the Kremlin, it became even more difficult to have a serious conversation about Russia. For many supporters of Bernie Sanders, the whole scandal sounded paranoid and far-fetched before the election, and like an attempt to skirt blame following Clinton’s defeat. Most of these supporters hadn’t closely followed Russia’s previous efforts at political interference in countries like Ukraine, Georgia, or Estonia. Many had a well-earned distrust of the national security establishment, the source of all the anonymous leaks about Russiagate, and thus interpreted real warnings about a national security threat as a new Red Scare. And a few left-leaning writers had appeared on RT and were naturally defensive about the idea that the Kremlin-owned news network might compromise their reputations.

In fairness, all of this denial occurred against the backdrop of a new wave of paranoid conspiracy theories promoted by cable news networks, mainstream publications, and Twitter. Charlatans and fake experts like Louise Mensch and Eric Garland enjoyed almost inexplicable popularity among liberal pundits and centrist national security wonks who had lost their bearings following Trump’s victory. If you didn’t enjoy the gross misuse of Cyrillic fonts, the conflation of the Kremlin with St. Basil’s Cathedral, or debating the fictional “Gerasimov Doctrine,” 2017 was a rough year.

The popular conceit on the left that Americans are unhealthily obsessed with Russia is questionable. Maybe they are now, but they certainly weren’t a few years ago. As shocking as Trump’s victory was, the idea that the Democrats who couldn’t be bothered to campaign in Wisconsin were able to coordinate a giant conspiracy with the Deep State and mainstream media to dupe the public into believing in a Russian plot is so absurd that it’s incredible anyone not employed by Donald Trump ever believed it.

My frustration with all these competing lazy narratives last fall inspired me to pitch an op-ed to The New York Times in which I made the case that the left, rather than ignoring the increasingly obvious implications of Russiagate, should recast it as a story about the dangers of global capitalism. For the most part my argument was well-received, and the next day I heard from Katrina vanden Heuvel, the editor and publisher of The Nation, whom I had lightly criticized in my piece. She wanted me to expand on the point that a rising generation of young progressives should articulate a new approach to Russia that could actually be implemented by a left-leaning president, and a few months later I produced my fullest description to date of what that might entail.

In The Nation, I argue against the DC foreign policy Blob’s consensus that Russia must be confronted militarily. I am agnostic on the use of sanctions, information warfare, and diplomatic expulsions, all of which are certainly reasonable responses to 2016 but none of which are likely to solve the underlying problem. But I am firmly against NATO expansion, deeper involvement in the wars in Ukraine and Syria, and the general impulse to hold Russia primarily responsible for what are ultimately crimes committed in the U.S. by the current administration. As I anticipated, some more hawkish critics have accused me of calling for appeasement or regurgitating Kremlin talking points, while some critics on the left continue to shrug off the scandal altogether. What I’m really trying to argue is that the left needs to clean up the rot in our political system exposed by Russian hackers and operatives, and to take on the corruption and kleptocracy that unite rather than divide Moscow and Washington.

Both of my articles were commissioned before Fellow Travelers launched, but like this blog, they are responses to a widespread desire for a more robust and substantive left-wing discourse on foreign policy. Anti-interventionism and anti-imperialism are a starting point, but the left should not underestimate its own strength; we need policy proposals now, and we need to pressure Democratic lawmakers and presidential candidates to read and grapple with them. The policy approach I outline is broad and I don’t expect anyone to agree with every part of it, but I hope it helps to reframe Russiagate on terms the left can appreciate and engage with. The mainstream debate over Russia in Washington is exhausted and in need of fresh insights, and I hope Fellow Travelers can play a role in providing them.


David Klion has written about US-Russia relations for the New York Times, The Nation, the Guardian, and other publications. He tweets .

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