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The Russians Are Coming!

anitque Soviet pin in the shape of a star with a hammer and sickle design

The Russkies can’t slip anything past us Yanks. From Sputnik to Cuba to the Democratic National Committee, we stay right on top of what the Kremlin is doing – once it has done it.

We’re just not so good at understanding why the Russians do what they do or at predicting what they might do next.

This is nothing new. When Nikita Khrushchev declared “We will bury you” in 1956, some analyst probably warned of a plan to seize control of America’s graveyards. We tend to see communist plots behind every corner, even now that there are a dwindling number of official communists left in modern Russia. Any tovarishch (that’s “comrade” to you and me) will attest to that.

Director Norman Jewison highlighted our shortcomings in the 1966 documentary “The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!” Oh, you’ll read in IMDb that this was just a Hollywood comedy set in the fictional community of Gloucester Island, Massachusetts, but U.S. intelligence agencies still study this treatise on military duplicity. The cover story is that a Russian submarine accidentally runs aground, leading small-town Americans to hysterically conclude that they are being invaded when the stranded sailors ask to borrow a motorboat to free their ship so they can go home. Such is the brilliance of Russian deceptive tactics.

In actuality, after the scare they got from Barry Goldwater’s nomination in 1964, the Soviets were determined to make certain we Americans never again risked putting the nuclear trigger in the hands of someone so unstable and unpredictable. This remains Kremlin doctrine today. Which, of course, is why the Russians were bent on ensuring that Donald Trump would triumph over Hillary Clinton. It was all a commie plot.

I have offered to sit in on the daily intelligence briefings that President-elect Trump chooses to skip, but thus far my presence has not been deemed necessary. As a result, I have no direct knowledge of the evidence that our intelligence agencies have reportedly found to confirm that it was Russian-sponsored hackers who penetrated the DNC’s email fortress, or who purloined the correspondence of Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. I similarly do not know how our folks famously determined that there was no evidence that any of Clinton’s own emails were acquired by the Kremlin from her personal server. Maybe it was because nobody bothered to write “Dmitri Kilroyevich was here.”

For the sake of argument, I am willing to grant that the Russians probably did hack into the aforementioned emails, and even that they were the ones who leaked some embarrassing material to WikiLeaks. (This although any number of other parties may also have had access to the hacked emails – or might have pulled off the coup of hacking the Russian hackers to get at the material. As long as we’re speculating, we might as well go all the way.)

The question that is really vexing much of official Washington, as well as Democrats still searching for explanations of how they lost a “can’t-lose” election, is why Vladimir Putin’s minions would have done what they did. Supposedly, according to information leaked to The Washington Post (by the Russians?) last week, it was to help Trump defeat Clinton – in which case the Kremlin’s political pundits were just about the only ones who actually saw that result coming.

But how much sense does that make? Did they not like the color of the big red reset button with which Clinton presented them when she became secretary of state? Were they concerned that a President Clinton would behave radically differently from President Obama? The Russians have done awfully well during Obama’s term. They seized Crimea, proxy-invaded Ukraine, violated the territory of every country in the Baltic region, rattled the Poles, salvaged the Assad regime in Syria and stifled opposition at home. About the only failure was the near-miss at grabbing the World Chess Championship from Norway’s Magnus Carlsen; Russia’s Sergey Karjakin lost the match on a tiebreaker in New York City last month. Maybe the Kremlin blamed Clinton for that – although in that case their intelligence must be awfully good, because the match was decided three weeks after our election.

The Clinton campaign peddled the line that Trump is soft on Putin, based on comments Trump made – with greater objective basis than some of his other statements – that Putin is an effective leader who has the support of most of his own people. I am not sure how this translates into an assumption that Putin therefore would prefer to deal with Trump rather than Clinton in the Oval Office. The rationale for this reasoning is beyond my security clearance.

Trump also has a point that the same intelligence community that is ascribing political motives to Russian intervention in the election is the one that apparently missed Russia’s intentions in Crimea, in Syria and in cyber-snooping on our political parties in the first place. Or didn’t anyone think it was worth suggesting to the DNC that it was not a good idea to write emails about its plans to bias the primary process in Clinton’s favor against Bernie Sanders?

Journalists are also in high dudgeon about Kremlin interference with our democracy. Many of these journalists have no qualms about publishing material derived from leaks by American intelligence analysts (just Google the names Snowden and Manning, for a start), or from a Panamanian law firm (the source of these leaks is unknown, so we might as well blame Putin for this too). Every leaker has a motive; journalists usually just don’t care. The newsworthy information is typically the story, not the objectives of the party providing it.

Maybe Vladimir really does love Donald. I don’t know. It seems just as likely to me, however, that Putin is simply annoyed at what he sees as American interference in Russia’s democratic process, such as it is. He has moved harshly against nongovernmental organizations that were supported by us and our Western allies to promote democracy in Russia. It would be perfectly logical that Putin chose to mess around in our election just to show us how it feels, regardless of any impact on the results. (Our intervention didn’t come close to stopping him from gaining and keeping power.) And if such interference gets us blathering about sovereignty and national security and the rights of every nation to choose its own leaders, all the better; he can throw that stuff right back in our faces next time Russians go to the polls. Right, tovarishch?

Yes, the Russians are coming. Actually, just like in the movie, they seem to have come and gone. No sense panicking about it now.

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