Robert O’Brien, President Trump’s national security adviser, revealed this week that he had recently met his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev, in Geneva and warned him that “there would be absolutely no tolerance for any interference” in the November election.
This was a pointless exchange. It misrepresents how Russia actually interferes in our affairs. The Russian state does not meddle directly. It delegates to proxies, who amplify our divisions and exploit our political polarization.
And the truth is, Americans must recognize that the United States is ripe for manipulation. With a month to go before Election Day, we are ripping ourselves apart.
When I was at the National Security Council, I had similar meetings with Mr. Patrushev and other Russian officials; we met in Geneva, in Moscow and in side rooms at international summits. With the national security advisers H.R. McMaster and John Bolton, we called them out for intervening in our 2016 elections. We warned them not to repeat their operations in 2018 and 2020.
Our Russian counterparts never admitted to anything. They professed surprise at the uproar in American politics. They had done nothing. The United States, they said, had “gone mad.”
The uproar, we countered, was their fault. They had lost the entire American political class. Their actions pushed our bilateral relationship into a destructive spiral.
We would then run through the now widely reported facts about what Russian operatives had done. Russia’s 2016 campaign was a creative mix of old-style propaganda techniques and new cybertools. On the one hand, Russia state-backed media outlets magnified the most divisive U.S. political conflicts. On the other, Twitter bots and WikiLeaks spread disinformation and revealed hacked emails. Russia’s Internet Research Agency analyzed U.S. public opinion and hired individuals to pose as Americans on Facebook.
But the Russian officials asked how could these actions — hypothetical, of course — possibly have had such an impact? Apart from the use of cyberhacks and social media, what we were describing was a textbook “active measures” operation. Everyone used to do this in the Cold War. What was the big deal? Was the United States really so vulnerable? Could America be so fractured and fragile that one “bad election” would plunge it into political chaos?
In fact, the United States was vulnerable in 2016. The Russian operation was sophisticated and audacious, but it took advantage of our mistakes and what Americans did to fellow Americans.
Russian operatives did not invent our crude tribal politics; they invented internet personas to whip them up. American politicians reduced the country to red and blue states; Russian operatives purchased online ads to target voters on both sides of the domestic divide. American commentators pinned vitriolic labels on our national leaders; Russian bots spread the offensive comments around.
I stressed in one side meeting that the Russian security services had taken things to a new level of dirty tricks. Their “hack and release” of the Democratic National Committee’s emails and efforts to penetrate Hillary Clinton’s emails were especially damaging. With an arch of the eyebrow, the Russian interlocutor pointed out that no Russian persuaded Mrs. Clinton to use a private server. She and the Democratic National Committee made themselves vulnerable to hackers by not taking proper precautions. He reminded me that it was the F.B.I. that reopened the investigation of Mrs. Clinton’s emails just before the election, because they were on Anthony Weiner’s computer when he was arrested. “We didn’t invent Anthony Weiner,” he retorted.
He brushed off my further protests and objections at his cynicism. “Perhaps you should direct your complaints elsewhere.”
Moscow, like everyone else, expected Mrs. Clinton to win in 2016. Russian operatives wanted to weaken her, but they were surprised — and delighted — when she lost. They were even more delighted when many Americans exaggerated their role in the outcome. Some of my own foreign policy colleagues suggested the Russians had changed opinions on a mass scale as well as affected votes on the margins. American politicians and commentators declared President Trump illegitimate. They said Vladimir Putin “elected” him.
Truth is, the idea that Russia determined the election is overstated. It would never have resonated so loudly without our deep polarization — and our structural issues, including the vast discrepancy between the popular vote in favor of Mrs. Clinton and the narrow Electoral College win for Mr. Trump.
These issues were rooted in our system and had already played out in 2000. By overplaying Russia’s ability to influence the vote, American politicians and pundits conceded victory to Russia and its intelligence agencies. Instead, we should have focused on fixing our own faults.
Today, we are even more fractured than in 2016. What was then a vulnerability is now a full-blown national security crisis.
Our partisan strife has contributed to the botched handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. It has eroded our international reputation. It has made us susceptible to manipulation by any foreign or nonstate actor that wants to weaken us. Our own political actors are undermining our democracy in a gambit to sway the election.
The United States has set international standards for free and fair elections for decades. But President Trump, not President Putin, has repeatedly declared our electoral system “rigged” and questioned the integrity of the ballot.
As I came to realize while I was at the National Security Council, working directly with colleagues from the Department of Homeland Security and other government agencies, the structure of our electoral system is complex and decentralized. Since 2016, the federal government has worked with state and local government officials as well as tech companies to harden our critical infrastructure. Early voting, online voting, in-person voting and paper and mail-in ballots all increase physical election security. If there is full voter turnout, and every vote is counted in every form, then it is much more difficult for anyone — domestic or foreign — to mess with the margins. If we want to restore our democracy, we need to heal our divisions and get out the vote.
The biggest risk to this election is not the Russians, it’s us.
Fiona Hill, a senior fellow at Brookings, was deputy assistant to the president and senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council from 2017 to 2019.
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