EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published on June 26, 2017, and has been reposted given the recent conclusion of Robert Mueller’s investigation into issues related to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
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Day by day, it is becoming more clear that Russia has far bigger ambitions than interfering with elections abroad. The popular charge is of collusion between Russia and Trump’s campaign in 2016, though the charge remains unfounded. Another accusation, although less popular, is of collusion between Russia and the recently failed French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen.
However, the popular talk is underestimating the Russian government’s intentions and actions. They are missing the fact that Russia is playing a game that doesn’t fit the traditional definition of political gamesmanship.
Russia has deployed many tools that have damaging results akin to war like actions, but do not fit traditional definitions of “war.” Interfering with elections is only one tool to “injure the United States, disrupt NATO, and discredit democracy,” argues James Andrew Lewis of the Canter for Strategic and International Studies.
Cyber attacks can be as threatening as the Cuban missile crisis. Disinformation on a wide scale can also be dangerous, fueling political uprisings that divide citizens and elect extremist leaders.
War, as Clausewitz writes, is an extension of politics. Nations go to war when other non-kinetic means fail to achieve certain political goals. Russia has shown it is willing to achieve its interests without actually fighting (kinetically) by reshaping the definition of war.
For example, Russia has funded and favored extremist political movements and leaders in Europe. Those parties elected with Russian help are more likely to fall in line with Russia’s agenda and not question its actions. It has also spread disinformation—making citizens wary, divided, and mistrustful. This ultimately weakens nations politically.
Russia’s Effects At Home
The current confusion among Americans at large can be directly linked to Russian disinformation. It is becoming increasingly clear that Russia did not collude with the Trump campaign. However, Russian influence operations further polarized Americans at large through creating confusion and mistrust.
It is plausible that Russia didn’t actually care who became the US president. It would only need to pander to one side’s political fears about those they disagree with, further alienating Americans on both sides.
If this is the case, Russia has already won. The American president has brought an obstruction of justice investigation onto himself by overreacting to a collusion investigation that wouldn’t have amounted to much. Further, half of the country believes a flimsy collusion story, and the other half has grown dangerously closer to their hallmark adversary.
Russian officials must be good students of American history, because they are acting on a warning issued by Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln famously said that “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Nuclear weapons or conventional war may not decide the fate of America and its allies. However, deep schisms within these nations, fueled from within and without, may become fatal.