The Kremlin did not "attack America” in 2016, but the myth could lead to war between the nuclear superpowers.
Today’s perilous reality is unprecedented and twofold. On the one hand, never have Washington-Moscow relations been so multiply fraught with the possibilities of war. American and Russian forces are in close and increasingly hostile military proximity from Eastern Europe, Ukraine, and Georgia to Syria, and now possibly Venezuela. On the other hand, the "cooperation” and "contacts” known as détente that kept the United States and Soviet Union safe from war in the 20th century, conceivably nuclear war, have been anathematized, even criminalized, by nearly three years of false Russiagate allegations. So much so that a 2018 Trump summit meeting with the Kremlin leader, a traditional presidential practice since President Eisenhower, was called "treason,” and more recently his diplomacy with Russia generally branded "appeasement.”
None of these allegations is more recklessly dangerous or fictitious than that "Russia attacked America during the 2016 presidential election”—an act repeatedly equated with Pearl Harbor and 9/11. If true, America, like any great power, must eventually strike back, which would mean we are now living in a state of impending war with Russia, again conceivably nuclear war.
But it isn’t true. No Russian missiles, planes, bombs, paratroopers, submarines, or warships descended on the United States in 2016. None even threatened the nation from afar. Did Russia "meddle” in the US election? Yes, but not significantly unlike the ways in which both sides have "interfered” in each other’s internal politics during the past 100 years. And certainly not as amply as Washington intervened to help rig Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s reelection in 1996. With the single exception of US military intervention in the Russian civil war in 1918, no one thought to call those acts of habitual, often ritualistic, meddling "war.”
Nonetheless, even—or perhaps especially—after the attorney general’s March 24 summary of the Mueller "Russian investigation” exoneratedPresident Trump of "collusion,” the legion of diehard Russiagate fanatics have doubled down on the pernicious myth of a "Russian attack” in 2016. Leave aside today’s neo-McCarthyites with regular national platforms like Representative Adam Schiff, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, Bill Maher, and too many others. Take instead a progressive magazine journalist who replayed at length his own longstanding fiction of "Putin’s war on America.” Or the foreign editor of The Daily Beast, who warned that "Mueller’s report has Moscow in ecstasy, opening the way for more Putin plots.” These and dozens of other media accounts were doing little more than echoing a US senator who had recently issued a virtual declaration of war against "Putin’s Russia,” which, he insisted, "is an outlaw regime hell-bent on…destroying the US-led liberal global order.”
Still worse, Barr’s summary makes clear that Mueller’s full report includes a major section on "Russian Interference in the 2016 US Presidential Election.” We can only hope that Mueller himself has not merely reiterated the episodes regularly cited as examples of the "Russian attack on America.” Most of these claims, well-known to readers, are hypocritical, mendacious, or outright ignorant of the facts. For example:
§ No forensic evidence has ever been produced to support the allegation that Putin’s Kremlin hacked the DNC in 2016 and gave the incriminating e-mails to Wikileaks. Indeed, then –FBI Director James Comey did not even examine the DNC computers. Nor, so far as is known, has the FBI ever done so. On the other hand, a group of former US intelligence officials known as VIPS has twice produced its own forensic conclusionthat the e-mails stolen from the DNC were not a hack but an inside job, a leak. If so—thus far VIPS’s findings have yet to be given the expert scrutiny they require—there never was any "Russia” in Russiagate.
§ Mueller indicted a group of Russian intelligence officials for hacking and other social-media misdeeds during the election. This allegation has become widely known as the "Russian hacking of the 2016 presidential election.” But indictments are not proof, only accusations. Moreover, two independent journalists examined Mueller’s evidence and found it seriously lacking. Still more, no one has shown that any Russian social-media "attack” had any effect on the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.
§ The infamous Trump Tower meeting between leading members of Trump’s campaign and a motley crew of Russians is invariably cited as part of the "Russian attack.” As a well-informed former Moscow journalist has pointed out, the Russians were hardly "credible as Kremlin emissaries.” More significantly, who is really shocked that a political campaign might seek "dirt” on its opponent? But surely Russian "dirt” is profoundly ominous. If so, at that very time, mid-2016, the now-discredited "dirt” compiled by Christopher Steele, purportedly based on high-level "Kremlin sources” and paid for by the Clinton campaign, was already being circulated to US media. The Trump campaign paid no money and got no "dirt”; the Clinton campaign paid and got plenty of "dirt.” If this was an "attack on America,” it was launched by the Clinton campaign, not Russia. (It seems unlikely, by the way, that Steele actually got any of his "information” from sources inside Russia.) Nor did Trump’s people invent a false cover-story about "orphans” and "adoptions.” The Russian lawyer present really did suggest easing the recent Kremlin ban on American adoptions, depriving many families of the Russian orphans they had all but adopted, in return for sanctions relief for the Russian company she represented. (Evidently, none of the Trump representatives at the meeting or the US media that reported the event as having been exceptionally sinister knew this history.)
§ But surely Paul Manafort’s working for the "pro-Kremlin Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych” was part of a coordinated "Russian attack?” Here we encounter either mendacity or ignorance. At that time, Manafort was advising Yanukovych to pivot away from Russia to the West by accepting a European Union trade agreement that excluded Moscow. That is, at the time of the "attack,” Manafort, later briefly Trump’s campaign manager, was pro-American and anti-Russian. (And, it might be added, his subsequent convictions by Mueller were for financial crimes committed primarily in Ukraine, not Russia, which would suggest Ukrainegate, not Russiagate.)
§ It is widely said that part of the "Russian attack” took the form of corrupting Trump through his long-standing wish to build a hotel in Moscow. But how to explain that many American and other Western franchises have major hotels in Moscow today—Sheraton, Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton, Marriott, Holiday Inn, among others—and Trump does not? His effort failed, apparently for a lack of "collusion.” If the Kremlin really wanted to "attack America,” surely it would have given Trump the hotel he badly wanted. And what does this allegation say about the scores of large US corporations operating profitably in Russia today? Admittedly, their CEOs are not would-be American presidents—except one, Howard Schultz, whose Starbucks franchise is dotted across Russia. Like Trump, all of these American CEOs had to deal with very high-level Russian officials, many of them "Kremlin-linked,” and, yes, "Russian oligarchs.”
§ It is also true that Trump had the Republican National Convention change its 2016 program plank on Ukraine, deleting a section calling for an escalation of US military assistance to Kiev. Surely this is plain evidence of a Russian "attack on America.” But all the change did was to bring the Republican platform into conformity with the official position of the Obama administration, which was resisting pressure to send more weapons to Kiev.
§ Finally, and most often, the "Russian attack” is said to be evidenced by "back-channel communications” between President-elect Trump and his team, notably Gen. Michael Flynn, and the Kremlin. There was nothing wrong or unprecedented in this, whether attempted by Flynn or others on behalf of the incoming president. Every American president-elect since Nixon, possibly since Eisenhower and Kennedy, had opened such secret communications before taking office. It was a long-established practice, even a tradition.
In short, there was no "Russian attack on America” in 2016. And yet, the fiction, the myth, whatever its origins, persists as a profoundly grave war-risking danger, a ticking time bomb wound ever tighter by Russiagate zealots. States have gone to war due to fictions and myths, but not yet nuclear superpowers against each other. If the adage "There is first time for everything” is true, it is long past time to end Russiagate completely.
This commentary is based on Stephen F. Cohen’s most recent weekly discussion with the host of The John Batchelor Show. Now in their sixth year, previous installments are at TheNation.com.