Critical thinking is never a strong point of those strange bedfellows from the right and left who champion Russia’s cause at the expense of the West, but as more revelations emerge about US presidential candidate Donald Trump and his aides’ ties with Russia, it’s tempting to ask what would be their reaction if the boot was on the other foot.
Let’s lay out some of what we know so far. The furore began just before the Democratic convention in July when WikiLeaks released about 19,000 emails that were stolen from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) servers by hackers and passed to the whistleblower site.
A self-styled hacker going by the moniker “Guccifer 2.0” claimed to be the source of the leaks, and US intelligence along with numerous cybersecurity experts and firms have concluded that the leak was part of a series of cyberattacks on the DNC committed by two Russian intelligence groups. The Russian government said it had no involvement in the theft, while Wikileaks founder Julian Assange said there is no proof Russia was behind the attack.
Even so, Trump took the unusual step of calling on a foreign power, including presumably Russia, to hack into the email server of Hillary Clinton, his Democratic opponent in the presidential race, to find some 30,000 emails that she allegedly deleted.
In the weeks since then, the links – confirmed, reported and speculated – between Trump and Russia have proliferated.
First, there are the already known and confirmed financial links between Trump and Russia. Since the 1980s, Trump, his family members and executives of his serial bankrupt firms (Chapter 11 four times) made numerous trips to Moscow in search of business opportunities, relying on Russian investors to buy their properties around the world, according to the Washington Post and other media outlets citing official documents.
“Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” Trump’s son, Donald Jr, was quoted by eTurboNews, a trade publication, as telling a real estate conference in 2008. “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”
The ties became more personal when Trump brought his Miss Universe pageant to Russia in 2013, where Aras Agalarov, a Moscow billionaire and real estate mogul served as a liaison between Trump and the Russian leader when the latter didn’t turn up to the pageant, instead sending a decorative lacquered box as a token of regret.
Agalarov and his son, Russian pop musician Emin Agalarov, told the Washington Post that they befriended Trump after the pageant and listened as he described his views of US-Russia relations. “He kept saying, ‘Every time there is friction between United States and Russia, it’s bad for both countries. For the people to benefit, this should be fixed. We should be friends’,” the Washington Post cited Emin Agalarov as recalling.
Then there is his longstanding partnership with Bayrock, a New York property developer founded by a Soviet-born newcomer to the US named Tevfik Arif, which the Financial Times examines in depth here.
Trump’s affinity to Russia’s president has continued down the years and into his campaign. He has publicly backed Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula; stated that there’s no Russian troops fighting in eastern Ukraine with separatist forces despite clear evidence to the contrary; and even thrown into doubt the foundation on which all European security is built, namely Nato’s Article 5, that says an attack on one member is an attack on all – no doubt to Putin’s great delight.
As the historian Timothy Snyder put it: “Putin is the real-world version of the person Trump pretends to be on television.”
Worse, said former CIA acting director Michael Morell, “in Putin's mind, I have no doubt that Putin thinks [Trump’s] an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation, although Putin would never say that."
Manifest links of Manafort
The controversy has mushroomed with the past few weeks’ growing revelations about Trump’s (suddenly replaced) campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and his paid work for the ousted pro-Russian president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych.
The New York Times linked, using leaked Yanukovych administration documents, Manafort to some $12.7mn in payments from the ousted pro-Russian Yanukovych government in Ukraine when he was acting as an advisor to it. Citing Ukraine's National Anti-Corruption Bureau, the NYT reported that Manafort featured 22 times in a secret ledger that details the $12.7m in undisclosed cash payments designated for Manafort from the Yanukovych administration between 2007 and 2012.
The Associated Press then reported on August 18 that emails it has obtained show that a firm run by Manafort and an associate Rick Gates directly orchestrated a covert Washington lobbying operation on behalf of Ukraine’s ruling political party, attempting to sway American public opinion in favour of the country's pro-Russian government. Manafort and Gates never disclosed their work as foreign agents as required under federal law, AP said. The FBI is now investigating.
And on August 19, the Financial Times reported that when Manafort arrived in Ukraine a decade ago to advise Yanukovych on his presidential bid, he relied on a Russian citizen, Konstantin Kilimnik, to “be his ears and voice as an interpreter”. But, the FT reported several people who used to work with him as saying, it was an open secret among the Manafort team that Kilimnik had a background in Russian military intelligence.
Manafort has said he never performed work for the governments of Ukraine or Russia. Gates previously told AP, “At no time did our firm or members provide any direct lobbying support”.
Under the US Foreign Agents Registration Act, people who lobby on behalf of foreign political leaders or political parties must provide detailed reports about their actions to the Justice Department. A violation is a felony and can result in up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
The phrase “foreign agents” is important here, because in 2012 Russia introduced its notorious “foreign agent” law, which requires non-profit organizations that receive foreign donations and engage in “political activity” to register and declare themselves as foreign agents, which inevitably brings with it raids, harassment, fines and jail sentences from the authorities.
The law was criticized in Russia and internationally as a violation of human rights and as being designed to counter opposition groups, which of course was its whole point, as seen by how it’s been applied over the ensuing years.
By early 2016, Human Rights Watch said the Justice Ministry had labeled more than 100 organizations “foreign agents”, including dozens working for charitable purposes, environmental protection and education. As a result, some organizations had to discontinue their work and close their doors. Among those that were shut down were St Petersburg's Anti-Discrimination Center, the Committee Against Torture and Memorial – the latter a famous Russian historical and civil rights society that focuses on recording and publicising the Soviet Union's totalitarian past.
Given Putin’s Russia is increasingly becoming Abraham Maslow’s eponymous “hammer” – to a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail – you have to wonder what would happen if, ahead of the Russian Duma elections in September and the presidential election in 2018, the authorities and the slavish media were to discover similar ties that opposition candidates had to the US that Trump and his aides have to Russia.
Alexei Navalny, a serially harassed and oppressed activist and opposition leader, who famously described the pro-Kremlin United Russia as a “party of crooks and thieves”, found himself under house arrest in 2013 and his brother in jail after he began investigating the corruption that surrounds Putin and his close circle of fabulously wealthy friends.
Serving a three-year suspended sentence for fanciful charges that made little sense, Navalny lives an odd life neither in jail nor house arrest, but constantly under surveillance and perpetually harassed by the authorities; Russia's Federal Penitentiary Service just failed on August 1 to have him thrown in jail for regularly violating his responsibilities under the suspended sentence.
If Navalny were allowed to run in the upcoming Duma elections – which of course he isn’t – it’s hard to underestimate the opprobrium that would rain down on him if it were to be revealed that he had had close business ties with leading US Republican businessmen and donors; his aides worked for shady US organizations promoting and supporting anti-Russian candidates in elections in, say, Georgia and Ukraine; and he called for foreign agents to hack into Russian government servers.
Boris Nemtsov, another leading Russian opposition politician, found out the hard way what such ‘treasonous’ actions bring about in today’s Russia: while working on a report detailing Russia’s military involvement in eastern Ukraine, he was killed by four shots to the back in February 2015 as he walked across a bridge next to the Kremlin.
Putin has often said: “Moscow won't tolerate any meddling in our internal affairs, any forms of pressure on Russia”. But for Russia and its supporters, it seems, it’s just fine to meddle in everyone else’s.