Why Putin’s Foes Deplore U.S. Fixation on Election Meddling


Mr. Volkov and others say they have no doubt that Russia did interfere, at least on the margins, in last year’s presidential election campaign. But they complain that the United States consistently inflates Mr. Putin’s impact and portrays his government as far more unified and effective than it really is, cementing his legacy and making him harder to challenge at home.

Ultimately, they say, Americans are using Russia as a scapegoat to explain the deep political discord in the United States. That has left many westward-leaning Russians, who have long looked to America for their ideals, in bitter disappointment that the United States seems to be mimicking some of their own country’s least appealing traits.

The hunt for a hidden Russian hand behind President Trump’s election victory has caused particular disquiet among liberal-minded Russian journalists.

“The image of Putin’s Russia constructed by Western and, above all, American media outlets over the past 18 months shocks even the most anti-Putin reader in Russia,” Oleg V. Kashin, a journalist critical of the Kremlin, wrote last week in Republic, a Russian news site. He complained that the American media has consistently misconstrued the way Russia works, presenting marginal opportunists and self-interested businessmen with no real link to the Kremlin as state-controlled agents working on orders from Mr. Putin.

For Ivan I. Kurilla, a professor of history and an America specialist at the European University at St. Petersburg, a bastion of liberal thinking, Russia’s prominent and almost entirely negative role on America’s political stage since the November election reprises a phenomenon first seen in the late 1800s.

Americans use Russia each time they feel their own identity in crisis,” said Mr. Kurilla, the author of a new book on the history of Russian-American relations, “Frenemies.”

Unlike China and India, which are far more distant culturally and geographically from the United States, he added, Russia is a country on to which alarm over America’s own internal problems can be easily projected.

“American liberals are so upset about Trump that they cannot believe he is a real product of American life,” Mr. Kurilla said. “They try to portray him as something created by Russia. This whole thing is about America, not Russia.”

The first time this happened, he said, was in the decades after the American Civil War, when amid deep trauma over the conflict and a series of corruption scandals, Russia suddenly became the focus of feverish discussion as a model of menacing tyranny. This was largely because of the writings and influential public lectures of George Kennan, an American explorer who returned from Siberia in the 1880s with horrific stories, mostly true, of Russian despotism.

Both Mr. Volkov and Mr. Kurilla worry that American intelligence agencies have made it too easy for the Kremlin to deny its interference in the American elections — and, at the same time, also take credit for it — by keeping concrete evidence secret, which has only allowed sometimes wild conspiracy theories to take flight.

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Leonid Volkov, chief of staff for the opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, called the investigations into Russian election interference “not just a disgrace but a collective eclipse of the mind.”

Credit
Eugene Odinokov/Sputnik, via Associated Press

“This helps the Kremlin a lot. It promotes Putin’s image as a geopolitical mastermind, the smartest and strongest man in the world,” Mr. Volkov said. “It hurts us a lot that no evidence has been released. And it helps Russian propaganda because the Kremlin can say it is all just a conspiracy against Russia.”

The state-run Russian news media, while echoing the official Kremlin line that Russia has not interfered in any way, often takes barely disguised delight in American accusations that Mr. Putin masterminded a stealthy campaign to undermine the United States.

Michael Idov, a Russian-American screenwriter, author and former magazine editor, said the idea that Mr. Putin, through hacking, fake news and other tools, could outfox and disorient the world’s most powerful democratic nation makes the Russian president look invincible. But this image of a “globally victorious Putin is hard to accept when you can’t even find decent cheese in Moscow” because of Western sanctions and Russian countersanctions, Mr. Idov said.

Americans often tend to see Russia as a tightly controlled and finely tuned state machine that induces business people, academics and other Russians to subvert American democracy on orders from Mr. Putin. Mr. Putin’s critics instead see a far more ramshackle structure racked by infighting over access to money, favors and the president’s ear.

Mr. Putin’s opponents despair that the United States seems to have been seized by what they view as a Russian-style spasm of paranoia and conspiratorial thinking that puts blame for internal problems on sinister outside forces.

Many Russian liberals, for example, were appalled when the state-controlled Russian news media hounded Michael A. McFaul, America’s ambassador in Moscow from 2012 to 2014, and portrayed him as an agent of subversion bent on undermining Mr. Putin.

By the same token, they were dismayed to see Russia’s own ambassador in Washington, Sergey I. Kislyak, treated in much the same way before he left his post in August, with the envoy being widely depicted as a Russian spy master at the center of a sprawling web of anti-American intrigue.

Tit-for-tat reprisals by the two countries, which included an order that American diplomatic missions in Russia slash their staff by 755 people, have hit pro-Western Russians hard because, unlike many in Mr. Putin’s base, they travel to America and have personal and professional contacts there. They now worry about getting visas and having their association with the United States viewed as treachery.

A decision by the Justice Department to force the American arm of RT, a state-funded television channel targeted at foreign audiences, to register as a “foreign agent” has caused particular dismay as it echoes Russia’s own moves to brand critics of Mr. Putin as part of a traitorous “fifth column” directed by the West.

Alexey Kovalev, a relentless critic of Kremlin propaganda who runs a website dedicated to exposing lies on state-run Russian news outlets, complained that the move would only lift RT’s fortunes and encourage the Russian authorities to give even more money to a little watched venture that has trafficked in outlandish conspiracy theories and has only a minuscule American audience.

“I think this is a stupid politicized decision that will not hurt it in any way, even symbolically,” Mr. Kovalev said of the Justice Department decision. “Precisely the opposite: This is undoubtedly a victory for RT. They now have the status of a victim of censorship, which doesn’t exist in reality, and an excuse to go after their own internal enemies.”

A few independent Russian media outlets have investigated the Russian meddling story, including RBC, a newspaper that recently produced an in-depth report on how a so-called troll factory of paid online agitators based in St. Petersburg had tried to incite street protests in the United States through postings on the internet by a phony group claiming to represent disenfranchised black Americans.

But reporting in the independent Russian news media has often focused on how little real impact such disruptive efforts have had, leaving readers with the impression that the main victims are not so much American voters but Russian taxpayers, whose money has gone to support an array of well-funded but largely ineffective operations.

“The difference between suspicion and evidence has become blurred when it comes to the American election. This makes myself and others very disappointed,” said Maria Lipman, a veteran Russian journalist.

Paul Manafort, Mr. Trump’s former campaign manager, who earned millions lobbying for years on behalf of dictators around the world, “did not need lessons in dirty tricks from Russia,” Ms. Lipman said. All the same, he has, because of his work in Ukraine for former President Viktor F. Yanukovych, become the prime example among Mr. Trump’s critics of Russia’s hidden hand.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, recalled Ms. Lipman, who edits Counterpoint, a highbrow Russian-language online journal, many Russian journalists looked to American news media outlets as models of dispassionate, objective reporting in contrast to their country’s highly politicized and opinionated press.

Now, they see the American media as having an agenda and having their coverage distorted by this agenda,” she said.

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