Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at NYU and Princeton, and John Batchelor continue their (usually) weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments, now in their fifth year, are at TheNation.com.) Cohen’s contribution follows:
For nearly two years, mostly vacuous (though malignant) Russiagate allegations have drowned out truly significant news directly affecting America’s place in the world. In recent days, for example. French President Emmanuel Macron declared “Europe can no longer rely on the United States to provide its security,” calling for instead a broader kind of security “and particularly doing it in cooperation with Russia.” About the same time, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin met to expand and solidify an essential energy partnership by agreeing to complete the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia, despite US attempts to abort it. Earlier, on August 22, the Afghan Taliban announced it would attend its first ever major peace conference—in Moscow, without US participation.
Thus does the world turn, and not to the wishes of Washington. Such news would, one might think, elicit extensive reporting and analysis in the American mainstream media. But amid all this, on August 25, the ever-eager New York Times published yet another front-page Russiagate story—one that if true would be sensational, though hardly anyone seemed to notice. According to the Times’ regular Intel leakers, US intelligence agencies, presumably the CIA, has had multiple “informants close to…Putin and in the Kremlin who provided crucial details” about Russiagate for two years. Now, however, “the vital Kremlin informants have largely gone silent.” The Times laces the story with misdeeds questionably attributed to Putin and equally untrustworthy commentators, as well as a mistranslated Putin statement that incorrectly has him saying all “traitors” should be killed. Standard US media fare these days when fact-checkers seem not to be required for Russia coverage. But the sensation of the article is that the US had moles in Putin’s office.
Skeptical or credulous readers will react to the Times story as they might. Actually, an initial, lesser version of it first appeared in The Washington Post, an equally hospitable Intel platform, on December 15, 2017. I found it implausible for much the same reasons I had previously found Christopher Steele’s “dossier,” also purportedly based on “Kremlin sources,” implausible. But the Times’ new, expanded version of the mole story raises more and larger questions.
If US intelligence really had such a priceless asset in Putin’s office—the Post report implied only one, the Times writes of more than one—imagine what they could reveal about Enemy No. 1 Putin’s intentions abroad and at home, perhaps daily—why would any American Intel official disclose this information to any media at the risk of being charged with a treasonous capital offense? And now more than once? Or, since “the Kremlin” closely monitors US media, at the risk of having the no less treasonous Russian informants identified and severely punished? Presumably this why the Times’ leakers insist that the “silent” moles are still alive, though how they know we are not told. All of this is even more implausible. Certainly, the Times article asks no critical questions.
But why leak the mole story again, and now? Stripped of extraneous financial improprieties, failures to register as foreign lobbyists, tacky lifestyles, and sex having nothing to do with Russia, the gravamen of the Russiagate narrative remains what it has always been: Putin ordered Russian operatives to “meddle” in the US 2016 presidential election in order to put Donald Trump in the White House, and Putin is now plotting to “attack” the November congressional elections in order to get a Congress he wants. The more Robert Mueller and his supporting media investigates, the less evidence actually turns up, and when it seemingly does, it has to be considerably massaged or misrepresented.
Nor are “meddling” and “interfering” in the other’s domestic policy new in Russian-American relations. Tsar Aleksandr II intervened militarily on the side of the Union in the American Civil War. President Woodrow Wilson sent troops to fight the Reds in the Russian Civil War. The Communist International, founded in Moscow in 1919, and its successor organizations financed American activists, electoral candidates, ideological schools, and pro-Soviet bookstores for decades in the United States. With the support of the Clinton administration, American electoral advisers encamped in Moscow to help rig Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s reelection in 1996. And that’s the bigger “meddling” apart from the decades-long “propaganda and disinformation” churned out by both sides, often via forbidden short-wave radio. Unless some conclusive evidence appears, Russian social media and other meddling in the 2016 presidential election was little more than old habits in modern-day forms. (Not incidentally, the Times story suggests that US Intel had been hacking the Kremlin, or trying to, for many years. This too should not shock us.)
The real novelty of Russiagate is the allegation that a Kremlin leader, Putin, personally gave orders to affect the outcome of an American presidential election. In this regard, Russiagaters have produced even less evidence, only suppositions without facts or much logic. With the Russiagate narrative being frayed by time and fruitless investigations, the “mole in the Kremlin” may have seemed a ploy needed to keep the conspiracy theory moving forward, presumably toward Trump’s removal from office by whatever means. And hence the temptation to play the mole card again, now, as yet more investigations generate smoke but no smoking gun.
The pretext of the Times story is that Putin is preparing an attack on the upcoming November elections, but the once-“vital,” now-silent moles are not providing the “crucial details.” Even if the story is entirely bogus, consider the damage it is doing. Russiagate allegations have already delegitimized a presidential election, and a presidency, in the minds of many Americans. The Times’ updated, expanded version may do the same to congressional elections and the next Congress. If so, there is an “attack on American democracy”—not by Putin or Trump but by whoever godfathered and repeatedly inflated Russiagate.
As I have argued previously, such evidence that exists points to John Brennan and James Clapper, President Obama’s head of the CIA and director of national intelligence respectively, even though attention has been focused on the FBI. Indeed, the Times story reminds us of how central “intelligence” actors have been in this saga. Arguably, Russiagate has brought us to the worst American political crisis since the Civil War and the most dangerous relations with Russia in history. Until Brennan, Clapper, and their closest collaborators are required to testify under oath about the real origins of Russiagate, these crises will grow.