Should the U.S. Meddle in Russia's Election?

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Why you should care

Because maybe it’s time for America to offer Vladimir Putin a bit of payback.

This week: Should the U.S. Meddle in Russia’s Election? Let us know by email or in the comments below.

Russia leveled a seemingly stunning allegation against America back in January. The U.S. Treasury Department had sought an extension of sanctions imposed against Russian entities in the wake of Moscow’s efforts to swing the 2016 U.S. presidential elections in favor of Donald Trump. But the timing of the proposed extension of sanctions, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov claimed, was aimed at influencing Russia’s own upcoming presidential elections.

At a time when many European nations also have raised concerns over Russian meddling in their elections, the Kremlin’s allegation didn’t cut much ice. But perhaps the U.S. should give Russian President Vladimir Putin — expected to win a fourth term on March 18 — a taste of his own medicine?

The U.S. wouldn’t be breaking new ground if it did interfere in Russia’s elections. Dov Levin, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, counted 81 instances of “partisan electoral interventions” abroad by the U.S. between 1946 and 2000, in a September 2016 paper published in the Conflict Management and Peace Science journal. That includes successful efforts to get Boris Yeltsin re-elected in Russia in 1996 and Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic defeated in 2000, and omits overt coups backed by the U.S. — like in Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s. The Soviet Union and Russia, by comparison, made 36 such attempts in the same period, according to Levin.

This [interference] should be done openly, not through election trickery on either side.

Loch Johnson, American intelligence scholar

But in most of those elections, the American efforts were more public, less hidden. And Washington should continue to avoid replicating Russia’s cyber-age model of hacking into election databases and email servers to influence outcomes while not publicly taking sides, says veteran American intelligence scholar Loch Johnson. “We may wish to criticize the Russian system, of course, and that is our right — and theirs to criticize us,” says Johnson, who teaches political science at the University of Georgia. “But this should be done openly, not through election trickery on either side; unless one takes this position, matters degenerate into what we have now.”

Arch Puddington, a distinguished fellow for democracy studies at Freedom House, suggests that the United States should intervene abroad, even beyond public criticism, especially to support democratic movements in nations led by authoritarian regimes. This can be done by supporting specific political parties, lawyers’ bodies and organizations advocating minority rights and press freedom, he says. In December 2011, Putin had accused then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of instigating mass protests against his regime. But Puddington, like Johnson, argues for U.S. efforts to be made publicly. “I don’t see anything insidious as long as you do it in the open,” says Puddington. “I’m certainly not in favor of following the Russian model.”

In the weeks leading up to Sunday’s election in Russia, the United States has publicly taken a critical view of the Kremlin’s efforts to crush opposition candidacies. But because the credibility of the Russian elections is already fairly low, it probably doesn’t make sense for the U.S. to invest too much in also trying to influence results, says Puddington.

Will U.S. restraint stop Russia from trying to secretly influence future American elections, though? Johnson argues that it’s possible to strike an agreement under which both nations would commit to not interfering in each other’s elections clandestinely. He cites the example of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) treaties that the U.S. successfully negotiated with the Soviet Union and then with Russia, committing both military powers to restrictions on multiple-warhead capacities and nuclear weapons. “We should not adjust to this, but rather negotiate an international treaty to ban such activities against any regime’s electoral processes,” says Johnson. “Hard to do, but possible. After all, we managed to do this with SALT. We can do it here as well.”

Others are less optimistic. Puddington says he believes others — even if not the U.S. — will try to replicate the Russian model. Non-state or quasi-state actors may try to influence elections abroad, he says. Digital-era tools may also make it hard, in such cases, to verify with full certainty the extent to which such attempts at interfering are actually sponsored by a particular government. “I absolutely believe that this year there will be interference in elections, and it won’t be restricted to Russia,” he says.

In a year full of crucial global elections and the U.S. midterms, Puddington’s fears will be tested again and again. As will America’s own approach to elections elsewhere. Stay tuned.

But in the meantime, what do you think: Should America try to deal Putin a blow at the ballot box? Let us know by emailing thirdrail@ozy.com or by answering in the comments below.

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