Ok, we need to talk about Russia. We've been trying to avoid getting into the daily drama surrounding Russia, the 2016 election, and the current administration, but the escalating tensions between these two formidable powers should be mentioned. The U.S. and Russia have had a long and complicated history, but current relations haven't been this bad since the Cold War. This week, it's everything you should know about the U.S.-Russia relationship.
Most Americans think of Russia as the eternal enemy of the United States. Two superpowers locked in a never-ending fight for global hegemony. This certainly fits the Cold War narrative, but it wasn't always this way. Russia actually helped contribute to the victory of the American Revolution by leading Britain to believe it would contribute troops to fight the Americans (only to withdraw this support when Britain really needed it). And of course, there was the alliance to defeat Hitler in the Second World War (not that Stalin was a much better person). But with the destruction of nearly every other major power in 1945, it was almost natural that the United States and Russia would find it hard to get along.
First of all, the ideological differences were massive. The United States pushed for an American-led global system of (mostly) democratic, free-market nations with deeply interconnected trade relationships. This is essentially the liberal-international order that remains in effect today (despite serious challenges in recent years). At the head of this order is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which is a military and security alliance of major American allies. Russia (at the time known as the Soviet Union) preferred state-dominated communist economies with autocratic systems of government. In addition to consolidating most of Eastern Europe into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), it also created the Warsaw Pact, which was essentially a Soviet version of NATO. When the Soviet Union collapsed, (because communism is kinda lame) the Warsaw Pact went with it. This left the United States in a great position to expand the NATO alliance to incorporate some of these previous members of Warsaw.
But the end of the Cold War hasn't meant the end of Russia. Many believe that the expansion of NATO, though necessary for the protection of some nations, has been one of the driving forces behind Russia's recent push to re-assert its influence in Eastern Europe and the rest of the world. Then there is the perceived lack of respect for Russia from the United States, which until recently had considered Russia a "regional power." However, the ascension of Vladimir Putin to near-dictator status in Russia has drastically increased tensions as well. Putin is an old-school Soviet, and wants to restore the Russian nation to its former glory days. This isn't likely to succeed for a number of reasons, but it hasn't stopped him from asserting Russian interests wherever possible.
One of those interests is Ukraine. Though Russia had launched previous military incursions into former Soviet territory (like in Georgia), the annexation of Crimea was a major turning point and a severe violation of international norms against outright invading other countries for no good reason. In response to this action, the United States (and most of its allies) imposed massive economic sanctions which contributed to Russia's recent financial crisis. Russia has also been accused on several occasions of rigging and meddling with elections of Russia-friendly autocrats in Eastern Europe. Which brings us, at last, to the latest (and possibly biggest) issue in U.S.-Russian affairs.
So the Russian government actively attempted to influence the 2016 presidential election. Many of the facts behind this event are still emerging, but the fact of Russia's attempt is the unanimous conclusion of basically every expert in the entire United States Intelligence Community. (If you still don't believe that at this point, there is nothing I can say that will persuade you.) It's no secret that Putin did not like Hillary Clinton (I know, crazy right?), and probably saw any Republican candidate as a better option than her. The fact that the Republican candidate ended up being a political novice with an apparent affinity for Russia and social and economic connections to Russians was probably just a bonus. But regardless, the Russian government launched a massive misinformation campaign using the power of the internet and social media. This is the actual definition of fake news, where completely bogus websites would fabricate stories designed for maximum social media coverage.
In addition to disinformation, the Russian government also engaged in a successful effort to hack the email accounts of the Democratic National Committee and top Clinton staffers. These emails then ended up in the hands of the Wikileaks organization, which you may recall from other incidents involving Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. Wikileaks (which pretends to not be working in collaboration with the Russian government) then slowly released the emails at suspiciously convenient times. One such email dump was released just twenty minutes after the infamous Access Hollywood tape came to light, attempting to distract from the inevitable political fallout of those revelations.
Now, there is no known evidence so far of Russia actually changing vote totals (which is really hard to do since elections are so decentralized). But it would be foolish to believe that this disinformation campaign didn't indirectly change at least a few people's voting preferences. As to the question of the Trump campaign's role in all this, it's clear based on emails released from Trump Jr. that people connected to Russia were interested in talking to the campaign about removing the economic restrictions of the Magnitsky Act (and that the campaign was interested in receiving information helpful to the campaign). To be sure, more information will almost certainly come out about these connections. But for now, we won't engage in any speculation and will hope that the special prosecutor Robert Mueller will uncover the truth.
So in response to election meddling, the Obama administration issued a whole new round of sanctions on its way out the door. These included more economic sanctions and also resulted in the expulsion of many Russian embassy officials and the closure of several diplomatic buildings in the United States. Russia, for its part, has just expelled hundreds of American diplomats in response to both this action and the latest round of sanctions from the United States. These sanctions, which passed by overwhelming margins in Congress late last month, further increase the economic isolation of Russia's oil and gas production at a time when its economy is already under extreme pressure. However, the sanctions package also sends a clear message to the Trump administration over its perceived coziness with Russia. Unlike many other sanctions packages, this one was designed so that it cannot be altered or undone without the consent of Congress. The administration finally agreed to sign the bill, but the clear threat of a congressional veto override made this decision unsurprising.
What's next for U.S.-Russia relations? Well things will undoubtedly get worse before they get better. Should Mueller's investigation reveal active collusion, it would drastically escalate the situation. And if it does not reveal collusion, it should be clear by now to the Russian government that its efforts at manipulating a new U.S.-Russia detente have backfired. What's certain is that this escalating back-and-forth will continue for quite a while. And this will almost certainly include more attempts at influencing the elections of America and its allies.