DANIEL VAUGHAN: Pundits have been wrong on Russian meddling for four years, and they’re still wrong

We need to sit the professional political commentariat class down to talk about Russia and their meddling in the United States elections.

News broke this week alleging that the Russians are allegedly trying to aid Donald Trump’s re-election campaign. A few days later, just before the Nevada caucuses, another story broke that alleged the Russians are also trying to help Bernie Sanders.

And since this is cable news we’re talking about, everyone ran back into the Trump–Russia conspiracy hoax and retreaded old arguments.

If it’s not clear by now, who gets elected in the United States from Russia’s vantage point is a secondary issue; all the Russians want to do is sow discord and distrust in America. Vladimir Putin’s overarching goal here isn’t some nefarious plot to install a Russian asset, as MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell was telling his viewers this week; it’s simply chaos.

Vladimir Putin is a man from another time, who opposed the fall of the Berlin Wall and wants some form of the old USSR. He’s fundamentally an evil man. But he’s not some all-powerful leader on the world stage.

Putin can’t even keep one aircraft carrier running in his barely-there Navy. In December, his last carrier broke down while in dry docks being repaired and caught on fire, injuring several people. In 2017, it had to be towed back home because it broke down.

It’s worth reading the list of accomplishments of Russia’s only aircraft carrier for the last few years; Sean Gallagher reports:

The Kuznetsov has had a long string of bad luck, experiencing fires at sea, oil spills, and landing deck accidents — including a snapped arresting wire that caused a landing Sukhoi Su-33 fighter to roll off the end of the deck and into the ocean. Its boilers belched black smoke during the ship’s transit to Syria in 2016, and it had to be towed back home after breaking down during its return in 2017. Then last year, as it was undergoing repairs in a floating drydock in Murmansk’s Shipyard 82, the drydock sank and a crane on the drydock slammed into the Kuznetsov, leaving a gash in the ship’s hull.

Russia is nowhere near the military power it was at the height of the Cold War. Communism destroyed the USSR across the board, and several decades later, Russia still hasn’t recovered from it. And Vladimir Putin has no real plan to fix those problems.

But what Putin does have is an outsized, menacing boogeyman appearance in the American media. That’s what you’d think, anyway, listening to the parade of experts on national cable shows peddle the idea that the only reason Donald Trump won in 2016 is that the Russians put a massive amount of support behind him.

The reality of it was Russia undertook two primary forms of attack. The first was hacking political parties and government agencies, and then leaking that information to places like WikiLeaks. The second was trolling on social media platforms through memes and fake news links.

The Russians had a clear goal: they wanted to sow discord online and expose tensions in U.S. politics to cause them to boil over, if possible. That’s it. It has nothing to do with electing any one candidate over another.

Indeed, as Noah Rothman points out, “if Russia remains as invested in President Trump as it was in candidate Trump, it’s not immediately clear what Moscow is getting out of the deal.” The U.S. has pursued harsh policy stances toward the Russians, even if the president’s rhetoric hasn’t always matched that policy.

It’s not just politics, though. The Russians want to sow discord on issues like race. They pushed propaganda that sought to inflame racial tensions in America, especially when there were news events that pressed the issue. It’s estimated by Robert Mueller’s investigation that the Russians spent as much as $1.25 million per month to influence the election.

Still, in political campaign terms, that might as well be zero. Donald Trump got the nomination and won the general election, in part, because he knew how to generate free media coverage. It’s estimated that Trump got the media to give him $5 billion in free press. Hillary Clinton and her super PACs raised and spent somewhere around $1.2 billion.

At the time I’m writing this column, former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg has already sunk $431 million into his Democratic primary campaign — and he’s losing. About $220 million of that was spent in January alone, and he’s pouring more in every day. Bloomberg may well spend a billion dollars by the time the convention comes around, only to lose to Bernie Sanders in the next few weeks.

The idea that Russia’s paltry $1.25 million each month had any impact on the U.S. presidential election is nonsense on stilts. Do we want them involved in any way in our elections? Of course not. But the threat here is mainly hacking political parties and posting that information online — not internet trolling and memes.

Russia doesn’t care whether Americans vote for Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders. The Kremlin only wants us to distrust our institutions and each other.

We’re doing that task by ourselves just fine. And many cable news shows are helping out by pushing talking points that likely make the Russians smile with glee as they are described in far more nefarious terms than they’re actually capable of being.

We need our intelligence community informing us of when this happens, of course. But these leaks about the Russians “helping” Trump or Sanders are not the way to do that. These leaks only help the Russians and exacerbate the situation.

Russia is a unique threat to U.S. security, but they’re not the boogeyman cable news that paints them as being. We need these cable news pundits to learn something from 2016, not repeat the same stupid mistakes of the last four years.

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