With new revelations about the possible connections between the Russian government and Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign emerging every day, Public Seminar contacted some specialists to answer the question: “What do Americans need to know about Russia to understand why Vladimir Putin interfered with an American election?”
On Monday, Richard D. Anderson argued that carefully managed conflict with the United States allows Putin to balance the competing demands of kleptocracy and nationalism without giving in to forces on his left or his right. Today, historian Abby Schrader explains that eliminating economic sanctions may be critical to the stability of Vladimir Putin’s presidency — and that American conservatives may have an investment in stabilizing his power.
Why would Vladimir Putin take a keen interest in the 2016 United States presidential election — and possibly authorize using soft power either directly or indirectly to intervene in its outcome?
We can be certain that Russia’s involvement in Trump’s elevation to the presidency is inspired by practical considerations: according to many analysts, the sanctions that the US government imposed on Russia both with the 2012 Magnitsky Act and in the wake of its 2014 invasion of Ukraine, in addition to targeting Putin and his allies, have hurt the Russian economy. The energy sector, which makes up a disproportionate percentage of the economy, was especially hard hit by asset-freezing and sanctions rendering it impossible for firms like Rosneft and Gazprom to secure Western technology and financing for developing new energy resources in the Arctic and through deep-water drilling.
Any slow down in the Russian economy threatens Putin’s power. Almost two decades ago, he embarked on a grand bargain with a Russian people weary of post-Perestroika fiscal strains. Even with Russian officials skimming off the top, high revenue from the energy sector has provided Putin with the resources to facilitate the spread of middle-class consumer goods to a broader sector of the population. In exchange, Russians allowed him to ramp up domestic repression; decimate his political opposition; curtail freedom of the press and assembly; rig elections; and install loyalists — many linked to the Soviet security apparatus — in positions of power. A return to the crises of the late 1990s — including non-payment of salaries and the collapse of the social safety net — might destabilize this bargain.
A more inclusive Europe and NATO also threatens Putin’s power. Since the end of the Cold War in 1990, Europe and NATO have absorbed most of the Warsaw Pact countries and the Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Georgia has also taken active steps towards membership. This expansion — particularly the potential that Ukraine will join the alliance — undercuts Russia’s domination in the region and deprives it of critical buffer states.
Equally significant, as Richard Anderson noted on Monday, part of Putin’s popularity rests upon “Making Russia Great Again.” This involves both reviving national myths of greatness, and also efforts — hard and soft — to reconstitute parts of the Soviet Empire. Georgia and Ukraine are pivotal to this endeavor, through both the deployment of military forces and sophisticated Kremlin-backed propaganda that justifies reabsorption of the “near abroad.”
Given this predicament, one can see why Putin might contribute towards efforts to install a friendly president in the White House and an influential former Exxon CEO in the State Department, men who would roll back nasty sanctions and might even look the other way while Russia occupies parts of Georgia and Ukraine. This would also keep Ukraine so unstable that European and North American companies would not risk investing in developing its natural gas resources to make it less energy-dependent upon Russia.
There is also a longer pre-history to Russia’s desire to destabilize the West that is worth considering, because it helps explain not only why Putin has embraced Trump but also why Western conservatives, who conceived of Russia as a godless “Evil Empire,” have cuddled up to Putin. In the 16th century, Russian monk Filofey allegedly proclaimed that Moscow, which had inherited the mantle of Orthodoxy from Byzantium (the “second Rome”) would be the “third and final Rome.” It was the Grand Prince’s role, Filofey argued, to protect the true church from Islamic invaders and the decadent Western powers. In the second half of the 19th century, Russian leaders “rediscovered” this mythic formulation to justify the expansion of the Russian Empire and Pan-Slavism as alternatives to Europe, which was racked by nationalism, socialism, and other corrosive forces.
More recently, the doctrine of the “Third Rome” has proven to be a useful fiction in Putin’s arsenal. It constitutes the ideological cornerstone for Russia’s version of the alt-right, justifying efforts to protect Russia against the invasion of various “Others”, including Caucasians (from Chechnya, Dagestan, etc., and not white folks); Muslims; Jews (rootless cosmopolitans, and also disproportionately represented among the wealthy Oligarchs); homosexuals; Westernized urban elites; and meddlesome journalists. But it does more than this: it simultaneously constitutes the basis for Russian nationalists’ claim to great power status, even in the absence of an actual empire and provides European and North American populists with a narrative alternative to corrupt Western liberalism, with its dissolute agenda and destructive multiculturalism.
It’s no wonder that Putin backed — and quite possibly directly intervened on behalf of — a presidential candidate whose own chief strategist, Steve Bannon, shares this worldview. But the attractiveness of this formulation to domestic conservatives also explains why the Republican Party, increasingly dominated by the religious right, has shied away from taking allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election seriously, even in the facing of increasingly damning evidence supporting these accusations.
Abby M. Schrader is Professor of History at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.