The Russian Lobby in the United States

In this thorough investigation, historian Laurence Saint-Gilles sketches the contours of the Russian lobby in the United States and identifies its preferred themes, before examining the conditions that have enabled this lobby — whose members have sometimes been established on American soil for many years — to penetrate deeply into American society and politics. We discover that Europe, and particularly France and Germany, does not have a monopoly on pro-Russian networks.

On April 25, 2023, Fox News announced the departure of its star presenter, Tucker Carlson, the true “voice of Russia” in the United States since 2017. This journalist represents an emblematic illustration of those American elites on whom Vladimir Putin exercises such a fascination that they do not hesitate to put themselves at the service of Russian propaganda. Although they are a minority, these Putinophiles constitute an important influential intermediary for Russia because of their position and their reputation; in addition to journalists, they include businessmen, retired generals, former intelligence officers, elected representatives of Congress, diplomats and academics. This variety of people allows the Russian narrative to reach various social classes. Most importantly, the admiration for Vladimir Putin goes far beyond the traditional political division. While Russia’s influence operations with U.S. policymakers are not new, it was only recently, during the investigations into Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, that the presence of a “Russian lobby” was uncovered. Its existence is a crucial issue for the outcome of the war in Ukraine, as the United States is the largest provider of funds and weapons to the government in Kyiv. Since the midterm elections of November 2022, the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives makes aid to Ukraine even more uncertain. In this unstable situation, the “Russian party” is increasing its pressure on the Democratic government to force the Ukrainian ally to accept a peace negotiated on Russian terms. We will try to outline the main features of the Russian lobby and identify its favorite themes. Then we will discuss the conditions that have allowed it to penetrate deeply into American society and political life.

The American Putinosphere: a disparate nebula with blurred ideological contours

The American Putinosphere is composed of several layers: at the top, Russian intelligence officers — who have sometimes emigrated to the United States for decades and adopted American nationality to better blend into society — operate undercover. Disguised as diplomats, professors, journalists or students, they forge relationships, recruit agents and mount special operations that the Russians call “active measures.” Since the Russian interference of 2016, the hunt for spies has intensified in the United States, as in most Western countries. The press periodically unveils the presence of “moles” such as the 37-year-old Russian national, Sergei Cherkassov, indicted for espionage in the United States, where he had been living for two years under a false identity1. Other recent revelations concern “agents”, American citizens “who knowingly and with compensation accept to provide secret information or clandestine support to an officer in charge”2. Finally, the “agents of influence” serve as relays for Russian propaganda and participate in its disinformation campaign. They are chosen according to their position and their capacity to “influence public opinion or the decisions of the authorities of [their] country”3. But unlike the previous ones, they are not all active agents paid by the Kremlin, acting out of greed or complicity with the regime. They are often prominent intellectuals who, out of naivety, vanity or conviction, express ideas that serve the Kremlin’s objectives. Lenin saw them as “useful idiots” because they spontaneously put themselves at the service of Moscow without always being aware of the role they are playing4 During the Cold War, the archetype was “the Western left-wing intellectual manipulated by the Soviet regime to praise its merits and, at the very least, to silence its crimes”5. Today, friends of Russia in the United States are, as in the rest of the Western world, more numerous among right-wing nationalists than among progressives, but they are also to be found in the circles of far-left politics.

“Immortal Regiment” procession in San Francisco, May 2018 // Slavic Sacramento’s Facebook page, screenshot

Among these supporters, it is not always easy to distinguish between agents of influence with real proximity to the Russian regime and those who act out of ideological sympathy. However, American journalists, both right and left, who have put their reputation at the service of the Russian news media RT America, launched in 2005, such as former CNN star interviewer Larry King, Chris Hedges and Bernie Sanders supporter Ed Schultz, have become de facto official propagandists. The fact that RT was banned from cable and YouTube in early March 2022 is a small defeat for Russia, as this channel was not its biggest propaganda tool. The American media and journalists of right-wing nationalism mainly perform this militant function. Since the beginning of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, they have systematically aligned themselves with Moscow’s speech. Although it is difficult to prove, Tucker Carlson is often portrayed by his detractors as a Kremlin agent. Carlson’s idolization of Vladimir Putin is reminiscent of that of another demagogue, the famous radio host Charles Coughlin, who was once devoted to Adolf Hitler. In the daily talk show he hosted from 2017 to 2023, Tucker Carlson Tonight, watched by more than 3 million viewers, “Father Carslon” became the zealous spokesman for the Russian government6. As Russia massed its troops on the Ukrainian border, he presented the conflict as a simple neighborly dispute and justified Russian aggression by “defensive” considerations: Russia could not risk Ukraine joining NATO one day, which would compromise its free access to the Sevastopol base. “How would we react if Mexico and Canada became satellites of China? ” Several themes of Russian propaganda can be noted here, such as the allusion to the alleged (and historically false) “unkept promises” of the West not to extend NATO to the East and the desire to make the majority believe that Russia is a “normal” power which only defends its strategic interests, as do democracies. Another of the demagogue’s tricks is to claim that Western sanctions are dictated by an irrational Russophobia, as if we were confusing the whole country and the Russian people with the current regime. Carlson is also up in arms with his government’s attitude toward Vladimir Putin, who has done nothing wrong to the American people: “Why do I hate Putin so much? Has Putin ever called me a racist? … Has he shipped every middle-class job in my town to Russia? Did he manufacture a worldwide pandemic that wrecked my business and kept me indoors for two years? … Does he eat dogs? These are fair questions and the answer to all of them is no. Vladimir Putin did not do any of that.” The reference to the pandemic and “dog eaters” is clear. According to Carlson, the Democratic administration, obsessed with anti-Russian passion, fails to see that Russia is only a secondary threat compared to China. But should the long-term challenge posed by China dismiss the imminent peril Russia brings to democracies? Carlson’s agreement with the Kremlin’s conspiracy theories has made him the star Western journalist on Russian news channels. Night after night, he contested American aid to Ukraine, a position that faithfully reflects that of the Trumpist camp in the Republican Party, where Vladimir Putin has many allies.

Since the mid-November elections, the Russian lobby has grown stronger in the House of Representatives. The MAGA (Make America Great Again) faction, preponderant within the GOP, has openly expressed its opposition to aid to Ukraine. Republican Kevin McCarthy, the candidate in Florida, warned that if he won, he would not give “a blank check to Ukraine”. The elected representatives of the “Freedom Caucus” (Matt Gaetz, the representative of Florida or Thomas Massie, the representative of Kentucky) militate to stop financing Ukraine, supposedly for reinvesting these funds to secure their border with Mexico, while another controversial but influential figure of the Trumpist clan, Marjorie Taylor Greene, vituperates that the “Nazis of Ukraine” will not get “another penny”. These elected officials are following the line dictated by their mentor, former President Donald Trump. On the campaign trail for the White House, he portrays the war as an “act of genius” by Vladimir Putin and blasts the decisions of Joe Biden, whom he describes as weak, while opposing his efforts to deliver weapons to Ukraine that strengthen the country. Note that Republicans are not alone in questioning American aid. In the fall of 2022, some 30 lawmakers from the left-wing of the Democratic Party (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Pramila Jayapal) described themselves as “responsible legislators” concerned about “the expenditure of tens of billions of US taxpayer dollars in military assistance in the conflict” and wrote to Joe Biden asking him to intensify his efforts to end the conflict, before retracting their letter. This awakening of the “doves” in the House, on both the right and the left, reflects a certain fatigue in public opinion facing the bogged-down conflict. “Time is not on Ukraine’s side”7. While in July 2022, 58% of respondents wanted their government to help Ukraine for as long as it takes, 47% of Americans now think Washington should pressure Kyiv to end the conflict as soon as possible8. President Zelensky’s visit to the U.S. and his passionate plea to Congress were intended to motivate elected officials and public opinion. Since the mid-terms, the Democratic administration has avoided exposing itself to the criticism of isolationists of all sides who denounce the surge in military spending. Before equipping Ukraine with the most expensive and sophisticated weapons, it must first demonstrate that these deliveries do not waste American voters’ money. If the Democratic administration is showing restraint in conducting the war, it is not only because it fears escalation. It now has to deal with the Russian lobby.

Tucker Carlson // Fox News, screenshot

Apart from a few ultra-conservative proselytizers, these “peace advocates” do not openly declare their Russophile leanings. They prefer to hide behind the well-tested arguments of intellectuals who claim to be part of the realist or neo-realist movement in international relations. The latter are certainly not “active agents” but they nevertheless contribute to instilling through their discourse a “soft propaganda”, a little music that reduces the vigilance of the opinion and incites it to take for granted simple assumptions9. They are the third, but not the least important, pressure group because of the influence of their most prominent members in the Washington establishment, such as former diplomat and historian Henry Kissinger. The realist school states that foreign policy should be based on the analysis of facts, and not on ideological convictions or moral principles. The best way to guarantee the stability of the international system is to have a “balance of power” between the great powers so that they neutralize each other and are less likely to be at war. The return to peace would imply that Ukraine, the “bridge” between East and West, should give up its dream of joining NATO and accept its neutralization. This position was expressed at the Davos Forum on 23 May 2022, by Henry Kissinger, who invited both parties to resume negotiations for a ceasefire10. In particular, he urged the Ukrainians to accept territorial concessions, and the West to avoid the temptation to prolong the war unnecessarily to inflict a resounding defeat on Russia and a humiliating peace that would lead Russia to ally itself with China. As a European power, according to Kissinger, Russia is, given its history, a guarantor of continental equilibrium, but it also contributes to the preservation of the world order by counterbalancing the Chinese power. Far from seeking the attrition of Russian power, the West should negotiate peace based on respect for the balance in Eurasia, as Russia is sensitive to the language of national interest. However, this argument has many flaws: first of all, because “Putin’s Russia is anything but a normal power; his game has nothing to do with a classical diplomatic game” and is by no means based on “national interests”11. The claim that Russia is a stabilizing power must also be dismissed, because history teaches us that Russia always tips the balance to the side of the strongest, as the Brest-Litovsk Treaty (1918), the German-Soviet Pact (August 1939) and the Winter Olympics (February 2022) remind us.

In the aftermath of Kissinger, calls for “diplomacy” from various personalities, often from the academic world, have multiplied. Professor Kupchan’s article in the New York Times offers another variation of the realist dogma, one that plays on the fears and divisions of the Western camp. Although he condemns the Russian aggression, Charles Kupchan calls on his government to get Ukraine to the negotiating table to avoid a third world war and a nuclear apocalypse. According to him, the unnecessary prolongation of the conflict, which is a source of energy shortages and inflation, threatens the stability of democracies that, unlike during the Cold War, no longer present a united front against the enemy and are sinking into chaos12. This argument fails to emphasize that it is precisely the “active measures” deployed by Russia that exacerbate tensions in Western societies and encourage the rise of populism. In short, since the Kremlin is endangering the free world, we should do nothing.

Larry King on RT // RT, screenshot

Finally, Professor John Mearsheimer, a leading figure in the neorealist school, simply anticipated the Russian aggression of February 24, 2022, in an article in Foreign Affairs written in the aftermath of the 2014 annexation of Crimea13. Unlike classical realists who see the pursuit of power as governing state action, neo-realists believe that it is the need to survive in an anarchic international system that motivates it: “great powers are always sensitive to potential threats near their home territory… Imagine the outrage in Washington if China built an impressive military alliance and tried to include Canada and Mexico in it14. His philosophy of international relations allows John Mearsheimer to present Russia’s interventions in its near abroad as purely defensive actions. According to him, the invasion of Georgia in 2008 and that of Crimea in 2014 are not due to Russian imperialism or revisionism, as Putin has no intention of restoring the USSR or the former tsarist empire. On the contrary, it was Western encroachments on his neighborhood that persuaded Putin that the United States and its allies were no longer seeking to contain Russia, but to push it out of its traditional zone of influence. The annexation of Crimea, and then the war in the Donbas, were, in his view, a defensive, not offensive, move and a warning that the West refused to take seriously. Shortly after the beginning of the invasion, in an interview with the New Yorker, he reaffirmed that the United States and the European Union, which wanted to turn Ukraine into a Western stronghold, were the real “responsible for this disaster”15. After nine months of war, he once again cleared Russia of any imperialist intentions. The facts, however, demonstrated the limits of his theory of vital interests. If the Russians only wanted to secure their borders and prevent Ukraine from joining NATO, as Mearsheimer claims, they would not have tried to “erase Ukrainian identity from the territories they occupy, to replace Ukrainian textbooks with Russian ones”16.

This position is undeniably a boon to the Kremlin’s propagandists because it supports their victimhood discourse, which validates the thesis of a Western conspiracy. The historian Anne Applebaum suggests that Mearsheimer and a few of his fellow students simply provided the propagandists with the pretextual argument for the invasion of Ukraine. Of course, the fact that Russian propaganda instrumentalizes the theories of the neo-realists does not prove their allegiance to Moscow. But the case of John Mearsheimer is emblematic of those intellectuals who, by ideology or by pride, serve the interests of Russian power. Let us recall that this is not Professor Mearsheimer’s first provocation. The publication of his book, co-written with Stephen Walt, on The Pro-Israeli Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy — which the authors blamed for the U.S. intervention in Iraq in 2003 — sparked the biggest academic controversy since the publication of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations17. The attraction to conspiracy theories, the aversion to interventionism and, above all, the stubbornness to support his thesis of the so-called “vital interests”, which was invalidated by the war in Ukraine, inexorably led John Mearsheimer to justify Russian aggression. Thanks to his notoriety, the “defensive” thesis, although criticized by many experts, appeals to “a large part of the foreign policy establishment”. The video of his lecture to the University of Chicago’s alumni in 2015, posted on YouTube, has been viewed 18 million times.

The “realist” criticism of American foreign policy also finds a favorable echo among the old pacifists of 1968 and their heirs on the new American radical left. Thus, the former anti-war activist Robert Scheer, famous for his interview with Bertrand Russell in Remparts magazine, gives the floor to Professor Michael Brenner of the University of Pittsburgh in his weekly program, Scheer Intelligence. This international relations specialist claims to be the victim of a veritable witch hunt for having contradicted the “fictitious scenario of the war in Ukraine”18. According to him, if the American government was so well informed of the imminent Russian attack in the Donbas in February 2022, it is because it had deliberately provoked it! The dialogue between these American “dissidents” faithfully reconstructs the Russian argument: the United States is the real culprit of the war in Ukraine for having expanded NATO to the East; China is the real challenge to American “hegemony” but not a threat to the country; Putin is “demonized by the West” whereas he has nothing of a dictator and is not interested in territorial expansion. The interview is also an anthology of whataboutism, an old oratorical technique that consists in dodging criticism by referring to the opponent’s own shortcomings. This sophistry is frequently used by Kremlin propagandists. Yet, Brenner has recourse to the same artifice; in the name of rejecting double standards, he comes back to the atrocities committed by the GI’s in Vietnam to minimize the criminal conduct of Russia in Ukraine and qualifies as “ridiculous” the accusation of genocide. However, if Vietnam provoked numerous rebellions within American society and continues to haunt people’s consciences, no contestation of the war is possible in Russia, where the work of historical truth, that democracies engage in, is outlawed.

John Mearsheimer // CIS YouTube channel, screenshot

A nebula with uncertain ideological contours, the Russian lobby does not constitute a homogeneous movement serving the interests of the Kremlin in a conscious or concerted manner. But its iconoclastic character and its lack of a clear political line make its message invasive and effective. Because Putinism is not a doctrine; its discourse, protean, can be easily adapted to the most diverse environments and aspirations: to conservatives, it sells Russia as the guardian of Christian values, while it seduces the far-left with its denunciation of capitalism and neo-colonialism borrowed from Soviet rhetoric. The fact that there is no unified “Russian party” does not, however, allow us to consider Putinophilia as a spontaneous phenomenon due to Russia’s soft power, or the charisma of its leader. On the contrary, it is the result of an effort to infiltrate the American elites, of a long-term undermining whose origins go back to the Détente and which reached a climax in the election of Trump in 2016.

The Putinization of the elites: a long undermining

We know today that the threat of an infiltration of the various spheres of power by partisans of the USSR, which led during the Cold War to the excesses of MacCarthyism, was not pure fantasy. The 1970s, marked by the Détente, were a new golden age for Soviet espionage. As the USSR relaxed its emigration policy, dissidents found asylum in the United States. Among them were some KGB spies. The case of the founder of the Russian lobby, Edward Lozansky, is now well documented19. This famous physicist, a member of the prestigious Kurchatov Institute, who worked on the design of Soviet nuclear weapons, emigrated to the United States in 1977, posing as a dissident. The fact that the USSR had agreed to let a scientist of such a high level and a holder of atomic secrets leave the country did not arouse much suspicion. Thanks to his numerous anti-communist activities, Lozansky gained the trust of conservative circles in Washington: he made solid friendships with senators Bod Dole and Jack Kemp, the evangelist pastor Billy Graham and the famous radio host Mark Levin. With his friend, the sulfurous Paul Weyrich, known for his links with the European far-right parties (including the Hungarian neo-Nazi party), Lozansky helped to reorient the GOP in the most reactionary direction. In the 1970s and 1980s, Weyrich played a key role in the creation of conservative organizations — united in the Council for National Policy — from which most of today’s radical right-wing movements derive. At the same time, Lozansky united the American and Russian far right at the American University of Moscow. On the eve of the disappearance of the USSR, his consulting firm (Russia House in D.C.) allowed him to establish dependencies between the elites of the federal capital and the oligarchs of the post-Soviet era through the World Russia Forum. Lozansky uses a proven technique: “the KGB was very active in recruiting Western businessmen who were persuaded by Marxist ideology that big capitalists ruled in Western democracies, and that through them it was possible to create a pro-Soviet lobby in every Western country […]”20. Lozansky’s case is not isolated. Another “mole”, Dimitri Simes, infiltrated the United States in 1973, posing as a refusenik. Within the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom (The Center For National Interest), which he created in 1994, Simes pleads for American-Russian rapprochement on the invariable theme: “since Russia is a great nuclear power, it is better to have it as a friend than as an enemy” — a position widely supported, among the Republicans, by Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky or Richard Burt, Ronald Reagan’s former advisor, long-time friends of Simes. Thus, these Kremlin’s intelligent officers contribute to debasing part of the GOP, which is now transforming: from a classic conservative party of government, historically hostile to totalitarian states, it is becoming a nationalist formation whose certain leaders do not hide their sympathy for authoritarian regimes. In a word, the GOP has become the “Grand Old Putin Party” and its leaders are ready to pledge allegiance to Moscow21. The Lozansky and Simes networks not only created the conditions for the success of the cyberwar against the United States in 2016, but they were also the kingpins. As the presidential elections approached, new agents were sent to approach Trump’s campaign team, such as the nefarious 29-year-old Maria Boutina. She acts under the orders of Alexis Torshin, president of the Central Bank of Russia, known for his links with the mafia and a long-time member of the National Rifle Association (NRA). This powerful gun lobby, a major provider of funds to the GOP, is the recipient of the Russian money that fuels the Trump campaign22.

Edouard Lozansky // Rossiya 1, screenshot

It was during the 2016 presidential election race that the ramifications of the Russian lobby were uncovered by the investigations of the media and intelligence agencies. The press revealed that the acquaintances of candidate Trump, known for his Russophilia, includes many of Vladimir Putin’s henchmen, of whom his campaign manager, Paul Manafort: a famous conservative lobbyist, who worked for the victory of Presidents Ford, Reagan and G.H. Bush in the primaries before offering his services to foreign dictators. Close to Russian oligarchs, especially Oleg Deripaska, Manafort is the architect of the electoral victory of former Ukrainian President Yanukovych in 2010. This first success convinced the Russians that the methods deployed in Ukraine between 2010 and 2013 (use of social networks, corruption of the elites, a docile head of state) have proved their worth and that Paul Manafort, a specialist in American political issues, is the right man for the job to get elected the man some of the American press is already calling “the Kremlin’s candidate”23.

Donald Trump’s first contacts with Russia date back to the Soviet era. In the 1970s, the Czech services of the STB (close to the KGB) began to take an interest in the career of the American billionaire, recently married to a Czechoslovakian model. The STB, which was already betting on Trump’s presidential victory to improve American-Czechoslovak relations, forced Trump’s father-in-law to become their informant24. The rest is now known: in 1988, Michael Gorbachev’s trip, “to charm the American public” as part of Perestroika, launched Trump’s career in Russia. He was invited to build luxury hotels and even gave his name to a brand of vodka. Although many of Trump’s real estate projects in Russia did not materialize, he acquired a reputation solid enough to frequent the circle of oligarchs, attracting their investments to real estate programs in Florida while the Trump Tower housed many godfathers of the Russian mob25. Dependent on the Russian capital, Trump became the servant of President Vladimir Putin. In fact, once elected, he entrusted the State Department to the boss of the oil giant Exxon Mobil, Rex Tillerson, author of “huge contracts” with Russia, while the direction of the NSC fell to Michael Flynn, the former head of the DIA, discredited because of his proximity to Vladimir Putin. These appointments have provoked a wave of panic in Washington, not seen since the era of McCarthyism. The New York Times spoke of “the worst conspiracy since Kevin Kostner’s No Way Out”: the presidential entourage was largely compromised26. A month after taking office, Michael Flynn was forced to resign following a Washington Post article revealing his telephone exchanges with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. The same newspaper then reported that the President’s son, Donald Trump Jr., had met during the campaign with a Russian lawyer likely to support his father’s candidacy. Then, it was the turn of the Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, to be implicated for his contacts with Kislyak. Finally, the dismissal of FBI Director James Comey by Trump, whom the President had asked to abandon the Russia investigation, caused a political storm in Washington. After these series of cascading revelations, on May 17, 2017, the former FBI director, Robert Mueller, known for his tenacity and independence, was appointed by the Department of Justice as special attorney general in charge of the investigation into the role of Russia in the 2016 presidential election.

After two years of investigation and thirty-four indictments, Attorney General Mueller’s report sent to Congress on March 24, 2019, failed to prove that the Trump campaign team conspired with the Russian government. Regarding the president, “while the report does not conclude [that he] committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” In addition, Muller implicated or convicted six people close to Donald Trump, including his trusted lawyer, Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort, his deputy, Robert Gates, and Michael Flynn. The archives and testimonies published in this 448-page report reveal that Donald Trump’s Russian campaign was orchestrated from St. Petersburg, where the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a troll factory founded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, has been operating since 2013, intending to spread fake news on the Internet to sow confusion among the opponent. As of 2014, several hundred employees focus on “controversial social and political issues in the United States” and a unit of 80 people prepares for the 2016 US presidential election. Agents are sent on missions to the United States to gather information relevant to the operation. The Kremlin troll firms create hundreds of accounts on social networks, some of which have thousands of subscribers. They target “users dissatisfied with the economic and social situation”, exploit the anger of racial minorities, and spread rumors about alleged irregularities in absentee voting. Fake Facebook profiles accuse the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton of receiving money from the House of Saud27. Others support the candidacy of Jill Stein, her Green Party rival. But the Russians don’t just act from St. Petersburg, they intervene directly on the territory of the United States, from their dachas in New York or Maryland, from where they organize demonstrations in support of Trump in American cities. They are particularly offensive in swing states like Florida, where the IRA financed the construction of a cage attached to a truck to display a fake Hillary Clinton in prison garb. According to studies by Stanford and New York universities, in the last three months of the campaign, fake news favorable to Trump outnumbered those benefiting Hillary Clinton by four to one. Facebook also acknowledged, in November 2017, that 126 million Americans had read messages posted by the IRA. Yet 115,000 votes were enough to swing the election28. Vladimir Putin had good reasons for favoring the election of Donald Trump: the arrival in the White House of Hillary Clinton, embodying the liberal interventionist trend, would have ruined his hopes of seeing the sanctions against Russia dismantled.

Thanks to the victory of Putin’s “puppet”, the Republican Party is carrying out a real “revolution” in foreign policy29. The alliance of isolationists, of libertarian inspiration, and nationalist — conservatives ensures that the Trumpists have control over the party and marginalizes the neo-conservatives and, more broadly, the internationalist trend from which Republican presidents, since Eisenhower, have emerged. From this union emerges a new vision of the world in which the United States is no longer the guardian of the liberal international system that it forged in 1945. In the name of defending the United States’ freedom of action, which has been set up as a supreme value, President Trump’s Jacksonian foreign policy rejects multilateralism and, in particular, traditional alliances such as NATO, which is considered obsolete. Yet, this foreign policy program is a godsend for Vladimir Putin, who is calling for “a new Yalta” and a return to the spheres of influence. From the Kremlin’s point of view, Trump is the providential man who will launch his country into a confrontation with China, offering Russia the opportunity to deploy itself in the Middle East and to have a free hand in Europe30. As for the unabashed Russophilia of the American President, who displayed his allegiance to President Putin at the Helsinki summit in 2018, it accelerates the ideological conversion of conservative circles traditionally hostile to the Russian bear since the Cold War. While in 2012, the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, described Russia as the “geopolitical enemy” of the United States, distrust is gradually giving way to admiration for the one that Newsmax nicknamed “Vladimir the Great”.

Favorable to the Kremlin’s international agenda, the election of Donald Trump in 2016 has other implications whose scope is not immediately apparent. It contributes to the discrediting of the American political class by exposing (via the publication by WikiLeaks of the hacked emails of the Democratic Party) the pressures of its National Committee to favor the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. It revealed the flaws in the democratic machinery and undermined the confidence of Americans in their institutions, causing the right-wing of the GOP to become more radical and challenging Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election. From 2016 to 2020, the twists and turns of Russiagate, a veritable political-judicial soap opera, kept American opinion on its toes, exacerbating its internal tensions. Under President Trump, Vladimir Putin has become a divisive issue that polarizes political life. While his image is deteriorating among Democrats (from 69% to 79% of unfavorable opinions), it has evolved positively between 2016 and 2018 in the conservative electorate (1/3 of Republicans declaring themselves favorable to Vladimir Putin)31. The bipartisan consensus on the existence of a Russian danger following the intervention in Georgia in 2008, and the annexation of Crimea in 2014, is now a distant memory32.

Under Trump’s presidency, Russia was able to deploy its influence in society without encountering real resistance from state institutions. Thus, the Russian news channel RT America — the main Russian media involved in the operation — was simply invited by the Justice Department to register as a foreign agent. But the Russian TV channel continued to receive $100 million from the Kremlin until its banning in 202233. And this is only the tip of the iceberg. Between 2016 and 2022, Moscow spent a total of $182 million to fund its influence operations and propaganda in the United States34. In addition to these sums paid in by the government, there were also donations from personalities or foundations close to Putin’s power. Their generosity was not limited to the political sphere. No sector of American intellectual and cultural life is spared. Thus, over the past two decades, 7 of the 12 oligarchs involved in the 2016 interferences have spent between $372 million and $435 million to 200 of the most prestigious American non-profit institutions. Among them are also think tanks such as the Brookings Institution or the Council of Foreign Relations, museums (MOMA, Guggenheim Museum in New York) and universities. Significant Russian money, estimated at, at least, $100 million, is funneled to the college campuses where the American elites of tomorrow are formed (Yale, MIT). The Russian oligarchs hope to make people forget the mafia origin of their fortune by pretending to be philanthropists and to restore the reputation of the Putin regime by investing in the Russian cultural heritage. This generosity allows them to join the boards of trustees and to direct the activities of these institutions: the energy magnate Viktor Vekselberg can thus create a scholarship bearing his name and sit on the board of directors of MIT: “Stalin could not dream of getting such influence in broad daylight”35.

Conclusion

The fact that a foreign power could expand its empire and interfere in the political life of the United States, without the threat being anticipated or countered, raises many questions. A recent espionage case provides the beginning of an answer to this enigma: on January 23, 2023, a former New York FBI agent, Charles McGonigal, in charge of cyber counter-espionage and the Russian investigation, was arrested by his former colleagues. He is accused of having, after leaving the FBI, worked for the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, former employer of Paul Manafort and a key player in Trump’s victory in 2016. The Putinization of the elites had reached such a degree that the services in charge of national security were not able to offer any resistance to Russian interference. In hindsight, it appears that the cyber war of 2016 was designed to petrify the country before the launch of the “special military operation.” In fact, the mastermind of Trump’s victory, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is now sowing death in Ukraine. America, which now measures the extent and price of its compromises, will long be haunted by “the specter of 2016”36.

Laurence Saint-Gilles is an associate professor of history. She teaches the history of international relations at the Faculty of Arts at Sorbonne University. A Fulbright scholar, she dedicated her thesis and numerous articles to Franco-American diplomatic and cultural relations. She is the author of Les États-Unis et la nouvelle guerre froide (Sorbonne University Press, 2019), among other works.

Footnotes

  1. Greg Miller, “He came to DC as a Brazilian student”, The Washington Post, 3/29/2023.
  2. “Les Espions”, Le Monde, Hors-série, May 2023, p. 39.
  3. Thierry Wolton, La France sous influence, Paris, Grasset, 1993, p.13.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Jean-Baptiste de Montvalon, “La seconde jeunesse des idiots utiles”, Le Monde, 15/05/2019.
  6. William Saletan, “Father Carlson,” The Bulwark, 2/23/2022.
  7. Condoleezza Rice, Robert Gates, “Time is not on Ukraine’s side,” The New Yorker, 2/02/2023.
  8. 47% of Americans now want Washington to urge Ukraine to end the conflict with Russia, Le Figaro, 12/12/2022.
  9. Nicolas Tenzer, “Soft propaganda, an invisible and invasive threat”, Desk Russie, 22/06/2022.
  10. Henry A. Kissinger, “These are the main political challenges facing the world right now,” World Economic Forum Annual Meeting, Davos, 5/23/2022.
  11. Nicolas Tenzer, Ibid.
  12. Charles A.Kupchan, It’s Time to Bring Russia and Ukraine to the Negotiating Table, NYT, 22/01/2022
  13. John Mearsheimer, “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault,” Foreign Affairs, September-October 2014.
  14. John Mearsheimer, “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault,” Foreign Affairs, September-October 2014.
  15. Isaac Chotiner, Why John Mearsheimer blames the United States for the crisis in Ukraine, The New Yorker, 1/03/2022.
  16. Anne Applebaum, “To accept the partition of Ukraine would be to accept a genocide”, L’Express, 15/09/2022.
  17. Philippe Grangereau, “Le lobby israélien au cœur de la polémique aux Etats-Unis”, Libération, 4/10/2007.
  18. Michael Brenner, “American Dissent on Ukraine is Dying in Darkness,” Scheer Post, 4/15/2022.
  19. Patrick Simpson, “The GOP’s favorite Professor Spent Decades Building Ties To Moscow,” Stern Facts, 5/17/2022.
  20. Françoise Thom, “The Globalization of Putinism,” Commentaire ,157, Spring 2017, p.151.
  21. Grant Stern, “Edward Lozansky’s Russia Lobby Compromised the Republican Party,” Stern Facts, 5/26/2022.
  22. Greg Olear, Ibid. In 2016, 86% of House Republican elected officials and 43% of senators received NRA funding.
  23. Michael Crowley, “The Kremlin’s candidate,” Politico, 4/27/2016.
  24. “Czechoslovakia Spied on Donald and Ivana Trump”, The Guardian, 12/15/2016.
  25. Franklin Foer, “Trump, Putin’s puppet”, Slate, 7/13/2016.
  26. Maureen Dowd, “White House Red Scare”, NYT, 7/1/2017.
  27. Martin Untersinger, “How Russia’s Internet Propaganda Agency Tried to Influence the U.S. Election,” Le Monde, February 17, 2018, “online.”
  28. Françoise Thom, Understanding Putinism, Paris, Desclée de Brower, 2018, p. 213.
  29. Franklin Foer, “Trump the Putin Pantin”, Slate, 7/13/2016.
  30. Françoise Thom, La Globalisation du poutinisme, art.cit.
  31. R.J Reinhart, “Republicans more positive on U.S Relations with Russia”, Gallup Polls, 7/13/2018.
  32. Kristen Bialik, “Putin remains overwhelmingly unpopular in the United States”, Pew Research Center, 03/26/2018.
  33. Erin Baggott Carter, Bred L. Carter, “Questioning More: RT, Outward Facing Propaganda, and The post-West World Order”, Security Studies, vol 30, 2021.
  34. Anna Massoglia, “Russia pouring millions into foreign influence and lobbying targeting the U.S amid escalating Ukraine conflict”, Open Secrets, 2/2/2022.
  35. Peter Whoriskey, “Russian oligarchs have donated millions to U.S. charities, museums and universities analysis shows”, Washington Post, 7/3/2022.
  36. Timothy Snyder, “The Specter of 2016”, The New York Times, 01/26/2023

See also

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