In the 2016 American presidential campaign, Russia attacked the United States democratic process. In February of 2022, Russia attacked Ukraine. To date, the Russian attack on the United States has been far more successful.
The basic facts of both attacks are not in dispute. In 2015 Vladimir Putin ordered an operation known as project Lakhta with the goals of undermining faith in our electoral process and to help Donald Trump win the presidency. Both of these goals were accomplished. By contrast the Russian effort to seize Kyiv and decapitate the Ukrainian government has failed. The final outcome of the war is still unknown but the war has shattered the image of a superior Russian military, pushed Finland and Sweden toward NATO and united Western governments and populace in mutual defense of democracy unlike any time since the end of World War Two.
While the effort to propel Trump to the presidency in a covert operation is of a vastly different nature than a brutal invasion, the two should not be seen as isolated events. Both are part of Vladimir Putin’s war against the West, which is in itself a continuation of the Soviet Union’s efforts to discredit democratic processes and replace self-governance with totalitarianism. Like the period between the World Wars of the 20th century, the years from the collapse of the Soviet Union to the rise of Putin have proven to be only a pause in an existential struggle of world views.
One of the most glaring failures of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine is their inability to control the narrative. Based on their previous successes selling lies about the 2014 Ukrainian invasion and the attack on the United States, it’s no surprise they expected to once again mold their chosen fiction into a useful alternative reality. Accusing a Jewish president of being a Nazi may seem absurd but none less than denying the 2014 invasion of Crimea. On February 28, 2014, Putin declared “We have no intention of rattling the sabre and sending troops to Crimea.” That was four days after Russian troops had invaded Ukraine. The Russians success continues every time a Western journalist writes of “separatist forces” fighting Ukrainians on the side of Russia.
Russia’s ability to transform the invasion and occupation of a sovereign state’s territory into a regional dispute was a triumph but it’s audacity and scope was a modest propaganda victory compared to the Russian success in recruiting Americans to defend their attack on American elections. For decades, Republican party conservatives were the most consistent and loudest critics of the Soviet Union. But following the successful Russian attack of 2016, it was American conservatives who became the most ardent defenders of Russia. It is hard to believe that even the most confident Russian operative dared believe their attack would be dismissed as a “Russian hoax” by their former adversities. It would have been no less a triumph had German intelligence been able to convince the Churchill element of British politics to defend Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Even after every US intelligence agency agreed that the Russians had attacked American democracy, the fact that a criminal case of “collusion” was not pursued gave much of the American right a pretext to dismiss the attacks and defend the Russians. Part of this was driven by a loathing of Hillary Clinton, part of it was driven by the right’s embrace of Putin’s Russia as a white Christian nation where there are only heterosexuals and no women are in power. The end result was that Putin had only to make almost mockingly casual denial. “I have President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia,” Trump said in Helsinki standing next to Putin who looked like he might laugh in public for the first time.
So just how successful was Putin’s attack on America? Even before Trump won, under the guidance of Putin ally and Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort the Republican platform’s reference to Ukraine was changed from “providing lethal defensive weapons” to offering “appropriate assistance.” When Ukraine was desperate for American weapons to defend against Russia’s attacks, Trump withheld support for months, trying to leverage Ukraine’s needs for survival against his own political survival. It’s fair to say that many Ukraine’s have died who would still be alive had those weapons been delivered earlier. Where once “soft on Communism” would have been disqualifying in a Republican primary, the GOP is nominating candidates who defend Putin and oppose support of Ukraine.
The near century long goal of the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation to discredit American democracy as a fraud has now been realized with the majority of the Republican party. The official position of the Republican Party is that President Biden is an illegally elected president, which means America is not a democracy but an occupied country. Trump, of course, still asserts he won but that’s a view shared by every candidate mentioned as a possible 2024 Republican candidate. For the first time, the 2024 election will be not a choice between two parties with different governing philosophies but instead an effort by one party to depose an occupier. For Republicans, “restoring democracy” is to replace the president who received more votes than any president in US history.
In November 2024, it may well be that Vladimir Putin has suffered a grievous defeat in Ukraine while securing a glorious victory in the United States. There is much America can do to help Ukraine but little Ukraine can do to help America. We must save ourselves.