The steady drumbeat of Russian contacts with Trump’s team on one level should not surprise. The Russians – like most real and wannabe global powers – assiduously network, hoping to gather insights and make connections that can later be parlayed into access and impact. This is, however, a case study of the way that the dirty little vices of modern democracy, from the inter-connectivity of transnational and untransparent business interests to the use of money and flattery to buy a voice, all the ways in which democracy becomes distorted by money, serve as a force multiplier for predatory authoritarian kleptocracies.
In fact, my view is that for the West today, the greatest security threat is not Russian tanks or Russian disinformation, it is our own corruption – and the ways Russia seeks to use it.
Let’s look at the Trump White House. I still have serious doubts about some of the headline allegations kicked off by Steele’s ‘Trump dossier,’ from the ‘salacious’ stuff (that has become the code word of choice, after all…), to the suggestion that Trump has been given 19% of oil giant Rosneft as the bribe of the millennium in return for lifting sanctions. (Though that would mean we know the market value of the White House: about $11 billion.) Much more plausible is the general picture of regular, lower-level contacts between Russian officials and American movers and shakers, regardless of the serious tensions between their countries.
There are all kinds of contacts which are appropriate, unavoidable, and wholly acceptable. Some of the administration’s more strident critics need to be reminded that not every Russian is a spy or a gangster. However, all the mysterious bouts of amnesia or dependence on covert meetings suggests that even the participants realise they are transgressing the acceptable, and that they are probably not meeting simply to further international cooperation or exchange banalities about the weather.
In a dark past, America was ripped apart by the search for reds under the beds. Much of this was paranoid witch-hunting, but there were indeed those motivated by ideology, a sense that the Soviet Union represented something greater for humanity. Today? Sure, some imbecilic racists and blinkered social conservatives may believe that Putin’s Russia stands for their values, but the people we are talking about, the people who matter, are in the main neither simpletons nor idealists, but pragmatically self-interested.
Those in Trump’s campaign and his administration who retain links with Russians do so not because they are dazzled by Putin, less yet by Tchaikovsky and Dostoevsky. They do so because it suits and pleases them, because the Russians offer something: flattery, information, personal gain.
This is not necessarily the crude corruption of a suitcase of cash in return for documents or a favourable vote. It is rather the more insidious corruption of hooking people on the notion that the Russians can help you get closer to your financial and personal goals. After all, the biggest differences between this new Cold War and the old one is that there is little real ideological dimension, and our societies and economies are now incestuously connected. Russians buy penthouses in London and New York, Americans buy Russian stocks, Russian-funded media buy insert spreads in Western newspapers, and so forth. Much of this is essentially innocent, or at least as innocent as modern capitalism can be, but these are the wellsprings of the global rivers in which Moscow’s spies and agents of influence can freely swim.
In other words, the real story is about the way that the rich and the powerful may regard Russia as a geopolitical antagonist, and yet be happy to cut deals with Russians if it helps them become richer and more powerful.
But this is not just an American story. In Europe, too, corruption is Moscow’s friend. From the lobby groups which agitate against the Ukraine sanctions because they are suffering as a result, to the politicians happy to mobilise anti-US and anti-EU sentiment with the aid of Russian money and airtime to their own ends, this is a widespread issue.
The greatest danger, I would suggest, is not so much the overt ‘Putin-understanders’ such as the Czech Republic’s President Miloš Zeman or Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Of course, they are convenient for Moscow, not least because their words can be retransmitted for propaganda purposes, and their sentiments erode the European consensus on punishing Russia for its aggression in Ukraine. But at the same time, these are not fifth columnists looking to hand over their country to Putin.
The real threats are those motivated not by naïve or contrarian but probably genuine and consistent beliefs, but by corruption. These are the cynics and opportunists, and they are dangerous for several reasons. First of all, unlike the Zemans and Orbans of this world, they may be subtle and covert, couching their lobbying and sabotage in the language of good business sense, or European resistance to American ‘bullying,’ or whatever other rationalisation seems more appropriate. They can also be used as deniable fronts for Russian operations; the continuing (if unproven) belief that then-head of Lukoil in the Czech Republic Martin Nejedly funded Zeman’s campaign on Moscow’s behest (for which he was later recompensed) is a perfect example. Was this just a case of a Czech funding a Czech campaign, openly and entirely within the law, or foreign interference? And how do you prove the latter?
Secondly, they are self-propelled. They do not look to the Kremlin for instructions, although inevitably sometimes Moscow will seek to direct them. They will look for ways to advance their own causes, sometimes actually by seeking new ways to make themselves useful, because usefulness is rewarded. If it is true that members of Trump’s campaign colluded with Moscow to get him elected, did the Russians drive the whole process, or at what point did their American interlocutors begin to make suggestions and requests? You do not need to corrupt those who are already corrupt, and who will instead approach you and see what you are willing to offer.
Thirdly, they not only take advantage of the fluidity of modern capital and ideas, the difficulty modern states have in proving where money came from, where ultimately ownership of an asset lies. They actively seek to protect and extend this system. The drug lord, the spy, the terrorist, and the ruthless financial-political player all have a shared interest in foiling efforts to reverse this process. From the struggle to extend anti-kleptocracy laws in London, to the death-of-a-thousand-amendments facing new transparency laws in Prague, this is a battle being fought across the West, and yet one we have yet properly to appreciate is about security as much as fighting crime or controlling corporate malpractice.
The difficulty in regulating finances, the challenges addressing disinformation, and the failure often to monitor and limit campaign contributions, are all aspects of a common and systemic problem of corruption. The Russians – and not only the Russians – are taking fullest advantage of this, and this makes it one of the most important battlefields of a conflict which is as much as anything else about values, laws and ideas. What is being played out in Washington is as much as anything else a case study in how pernicious and wide-spread the challenge has become.