by Gordon Adams
As the stories about Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election begin to swell, it seems possible that Vladimir Putin may have succeeded in the U.S. where the U.S. failed in Moscow: regime change in the adversary country.
What the Russians appear to have done is outrageous – to try to manipulate the elections of their primary adversary through intrusion and fake news. It is worth asking, however, why Putin would choose to do so. There may be no way to prove that electing Donald Trump was his goal, but Putin must have envisioned that a Trump presidency, based on the candidate’s words, could be more favorably inclined toward Russia than a Clinton presidency.
U.S. Aid Backfires
It is worth asking whether there is a deeper explanation for Putin’s actions, one that may make no sense to us, but may have been persuasive to him. While the U.S. government has, for decades, valued its programs to strengthen democracy in the former Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact countries, it is not clear that these investments were welcomed by everyone in those former communist countries. From the Russian perspective, 25 years of U.S. “intrusion” in Russian politics may have contributed to the backfire we see today.
In 1992, as part of U.S. efforts to shore up the shaky Russian regime and its economy, Congress passed the Freedom Support Act, authorizing a number of U.S. assistance programs to Russia. As the new Associate Director at OMB for national security programs, my days and in-box were often filled with briefings about the many activities we were creating or supporting in Russia.
We wanted to do something really revolutionary: support the regime change Gorbachev allowed, bringing democracy and free markets to the former Soviet Union. We wanted Russia to have a freely-elected parliament, a reformed tax code, and lots of independent non-governmental organizations. I signed off on all those programs in the President’s budget.
Between 1993 and 2007, the US taxpayer (and associated purchasers of Treasury notes) spent $2.2 billion in foreign assistance on and in Russia (of a total $28 billion for all 12 states of the former Soviet Union). Between 1992 and 1999, with strong urging, as I recall, from then-Treasury Undersecretary Larry Summers and Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank provided $5 billion in loans to the Russian government to support their budget, while US taxpayers put another $9b. in lending guaranteed by the US government.
We knew what we wanted to achieve. As the Congressional Research Service analysis put it: “fostering the transition from authoritarianism to democracy,” as well as “free markets,” non-proliferation, and support in the global “war on terror.”
We used public funds to send experts to Russia to teach them about democracy. We made hundreds, if not thousands of grants to indigenous organizations to strengthen their role in Russian society and politics. We gave technical assistance to political parties, to parliaments, to an independent media, to non-governmental organizations. We wrote new laws for a free market, gave credit to firms, made equity capital investments in new companies, sent more advisers to tell Russians how to create a stock exchange and run a company. According to CRS, by 2007 there were more than 20 US government agencies involved in economic, social, and democratization programs in Russia.
In the 1990s, we would all sit around the huge wooden conference table in the Vice-President’s gaudy Eisenhower Building ceremonial office briefing Vice-President Al Gore for his upcoming meetings on all these activities with the Russian Prime Minister, Victor Chernomyrdin. Hope was in the air; the agencies all had contacts inside Russian ministries, with new business startups, with small democracy groups, you name it.
We were excited; we were changing history. We saw a democratic, capitalist Russia as a gift to the world, and to American national security. To put it another way, we wanted to make the regime change that had happened in Moscow as strong, stable, and permanent as we could, and we were prepared to put a lot of effort, people, and money directly into Russia to achieve this goal. This was our best kind of regime change, as we saw it – peaceful, democratic, and productive. Russia had the potential to be free and we were the good guys, cementing the global changes that emerged with the end of the Cold War.
The US assistance program for Russia (along with similar programs for the former Russian republics and former Warsaw Pact countries) constituted one of the most significant, active and intrusive non-military interventions in the politics of another great power ever seen, all in the service of what we saw as a great goal.
The Goal Not Achieved
How American of us. How un-Russian. How dangerous, it may have turned out. Even the normally staid Congressional Research Service registered concern about the risks. Although the agencies implementing the Russian assistance were trying to be careful, CRS warned, “all US democratization support carries the danger of charges of US interference in a country’s internal affairs,.,,[I]f the government is authoritarian, then democracy aid may be viewed as inherently subversive.”
Enthusiasm for this assistance in the executive branch and the Congress began to fade as corruption, waste, and the decline of democracy spread in Russia. In 1999, when Vladimir Putin began to rotate, as he has for 17 years, between the Prime Minister’s office and that of the President, the Moscow axe came down on this assistance program, particularly the parts that focused on democracy and civil society.
Putin made it clear, year after year, as he tightened his authoritarian rule in Moscow, that he did not like what he saw as U.S. interference in Russia’s internal affairs. He cracked down on non-governmental organizations, obtaining a law in 2012, which tightened registration and disclosure requirements, particularly for NGOs that had foreign funding. That same year, he threw USAID, one of the main providers of such external funding, out of the country altogether.
However well-intentioned our effort, it seems clear that Putin, and conceivably other parts of Russian society, saw US political assistance as interference, and could profit politically from attacking it. As relations have worsened, an effort to respond, tit-for-tat, with Russian intervention in American politics may have become very attractive.
In the 2016 U.S. election, Putin may well have seen his opportunity to give back as good as he thought he was getting. If the intelligence community is right, he seized the moment to conduct a massive intrusion. The motives may never be entirely clear, but the regime change that came out of the election is staggeringly visible, especially as concerns the President-elect’s view of Putin and relations with Russia. Probably as part of a global strategy to create more authoritarian and Russia-friendly regimes, Putin may have doubled down on what he saw as US intrusion through democracy and free market efforts in Russia.
There is a broader, underlying lesson here. U.S. efforts at democracy promotion and free market creation in other peoples’ countries may not always be welcome. They may contribute to blow-back, as other governments and peoples interpret our efforts as intrusion and an effort to meet U.S. national security interests, and not just “good American intentions.” As unacceptable as the Russian intrusion into the U.S. election is to all of us, we may be, in their view, getting a taste of our own medicine.
Gordon Adams is Professor Emeritus at American University and a Distinguished Fellow at the Stimson Center. He was the senior White House national security budget official from 1993-97.