The Trump election saga continues, like a never ending serial, even two years after he was installed in office with protracted debates and contentions about the election being remote controlled from elsewhere. The Robert Mueller report that enquired into the allegations has not been made public and has also been caught in procedural wrangles. Seemingly far fetched though that the Russians would have worked against Hillary Clinton and helped in the installation of Donald Trump in the White House, the suspicions and debates these have given rise and the many theories that are being spun just do not seem to go away.
And what could be the Russian motives anyway in meddling in the elections of democratic countries when they themselves do not believe in the concept of adult franchise and a free and open society? Or is it that Russia is paying it back to the Western world for plotting and facilitating in the break-up of the erstwhile Soviet Union?
This theory gains some credence in the light of the French President Emmanuel Macron’s accusation that Russia was trying to destabilise his republic by its support to the ‘yellow vests’ movement that had held Paris to ransom for some time. And it is no coincidence that the Notre-Dame fire happened around this time. Then there is the Catalonia separatist movement in next door Spain that seems to splutter and quieten down periodically, ever since it first erupted during Franco’s time before World War II.
As early as 2016 when Britain voted to move out of the European Union that also coincided with the Trump elections, perceptive observers could see the deep game that Russia is playing and leaving its finger marks all over. The Brexit debate and voting still continues and Premier Theresa May seems to living a charmed life.
These suspicions gain credence when one witnessed some of the other elections that had taken place in as diverse places as Turkey and Indonesia. In Ankara the loss of many city elections for the firmly entrenched President Erdogan had come as a shock for that Turkish strong man and also for political pundits. In Venezuela the move to remove the incumbent Madero with his foe is also being seen as being manipulated by Russia and the US in equal measure, with the innocent people caught in the prolonged blackout and sanctions that had reduced that country to abject misery.
In the US, Trump said Mueller had found no evidence that he had colluded with the Russians after an investigation that lasted 22 months. There is no evidence that Trump had obstructed justice either, despite the Democrats asserting their right to determine his guilt or innocence apart from many other issues, the report said. Trump tweeted ‘No collusion, no obstruction, complete and total exoneration,’ and remarked in Florida that Mueller’s probe was ‘an illegal takedown that failed.’
Mueller, a former FBI director who was appointed in May 2017 to conduct ‘one of the most consequential investigations in US history,’ had not spoken a word leaving it to the indictments he had filed to build the case. Beyond Russian meddling he also had investigated possible collusion in the operation and whether Trump sought to obstruct justice in what he had always maintained was a ‘witch hunt.’
Moscow predictably welcomed the Mueller report. ‘The long awaited report has proved that we in Russia knew long ago; there was no conspiracy between Trump and any member of his team and the Kremlin’, said a Russian diplomat. He blamed the US media and anti-Russian sentiments and said they expected the US to increase pressure and they must be prepared for more sanctions.
The head of the foreign affairs committee of the Duma said innocently that ‘all these myths about the infamous Russian meddling were simply invented as a pretext to continue pressure against our country.’
According to the Director of the Carnegie Center, Dmitri Trenin, ‘the situation would get worse before it’s worse’ with the US focus shifting from elections to meddling in other points of conflict such as Ukraine and Venezuela. Though the Mueller report might be good news for Trump, Russia will remain toxic for most of the US establishments and the media, he said ominously. Other issues will become pronounced like the meddling in Crimea to Ukraine to Venezuela.
In Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, even with the military in his camp, still leads a precarious existence - with 50 countries backing the opposition leader Juan Guaido - counting on the continued support of friendlier nations like Russia, China and Turkey. Russia has come to Maduro’s aid by offering to refine the country’s heavy crude as well as increase its wheat sales and continue its delivery of badly needed medical supplies. There is also talk of a delegation going to Moscow to discuss Russian investments in the country’s mining, farm and transport sectors.
The landing of two planeloads of Russian military personnel in Venezuela recently to help service their Russian purchased S-300 air defence systems that might have been damaged during the blackouts has been closely followed by reports of Russian mercenaries or private military contractors operating as security for the beleaguered regime. This has made the Brazilian foreign minister Ernesto Araujo say that ‘if their idea is to keep Maduro in power for longer that means more people starving and fleeing the country and more human tragedy for the country.’ And the US national security advisor John Bolton has said the ‘introduction of Russian military personnel and equipment into Venezuela is a provocative act and a direct threat to international peace security for the region’.
Russian officials have laughed away these responses and said their actions were consistent with Moscow’s military and technical agreements with Caracas and third parties need not worry about bilateral relations. ‘We do not interfere in Venezuela’s domestic affairs and expect other countries to follow the same practice.’
A spokesman for Moscow, Dmitry Peskov, said pointedly that ‘the United States is present in many parts of the world but no one tells Washington where it should be and where it shouldn’t.’
But that argument has not gone well with the US and one right-wing daily even declared that Vladimir Putin has ‘piled a Syria in Venezuela’ a reference to the Russian intervention in the Syrian civil strife of 2015 which tilted the tide in favour of Bashir Assad’s regime. ‘It is an ideological chess game and Russia does not seek Venezuelan oil. It is far from their supply lines. It is an opportunity to stick a finger in Uncle Sam’s eye in their backyard.’
When Indonesia conducted the world’s third largest election in one day that was an unprecedented exercise that also took its own toll, with over 310 election officials dying due to exhaustion and overwork as the counting and declaration of results took an unprecedented two months. But even this election was not without its foreign hand involvement with claims and accusations of Chinese and Russian hackers infiltrating the lists. Reports of hackers making unrelenting efforts to ‘manipulate and modify’ the electoral rolls were going the rounds much before the election exercise had been set in motion. This included the data of nearly 187 million voters and that also included ‘ghost voters’. Despite the denial by an infrastructure consultant that there had been constant hacking attempts from countries like China, Russia and even the US, there were reports that these probably had originated at home. ‘Most local hackers are using jump points in those countries to cover their trail,’ said one expert.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo had accused the opposition of utilising Russian propaganda to spread disinformation and even as Facebook had banned foreign advertisements in the run-up to the elections their security team has said frequency and sources of attempted hacks on the voter database has remained unchanged since the 2014 elections.
In contrast, the world’s largest election that is taking place in India presents quite a different picture. Though the process of campaigning has been going on for nearly one and half months, and the polling is being held in seven phases, the counting is set for one day. The foreign hand is not palpably present in the election and there has been no reports of hackers at work, though there is worldwide interest and the heat it has raised has been noticed everywhere. Surprisingly, the award of the highest Russian honour for Prime Minister Modi during the election period had not received any adverse comment and had not been viewed as some kind of endorsement. In fact the report barely attracted notice.
Despite all the professing of innocence the US cannot be free of the charge of meddling in other countries affairs. As early as the fifties the State Department had admitted to manipulations in the elections in Germany in the 50s and in Italy as early as the 40s. It had also helped overthrow the rulers in Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s, but since the fall of the Berlin Wall there has been a subtle change. While the US has been pursuing the path of strengthening the democratic processes the Russians have been meddling to ‘sow chaos.’ As a former chief of CIA operations said comparing them is ‘like saying that cops and bad guys are the same because they use the same weapons.’
(The opinions and ideas expressed above are those of the author.)