Opinion: Calm down about Russia

Recently, allegations concerning President Donald Trump have made headlines. In particular, the allegation that the president hired sex workers to urinate on a bed former President Obama once slept in — which provided the public with a shower of comedic gold. Less sensational, but more worrying, are the allegations concerning his ties to Russia.

We still know very little about what is and isn’t true in this situation. While the accusations don’t seem out of character for President Trump, they have not been verified. Earlier reports — such as the claim that Russia “hacked the election” — are similarly dubious. Evidence gathered by private security firms finds that groups associated with the Russian government likely hacked the Democratic National Convention (and attempted, but failed, to hack the Republican National Convention), in addition to hacking Hillary Clinton’s and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails. However, despite what a whopping 50 percent of Clinton voters believe according to an Economist/YouGov poll, there is no evidence to suggest Russia tampered with vote counting.

A declassified intelligence report about the way Russia did influence the election lists the Russian media’s “anti-fracking programming,” a documentary about Occupy Wall Street, and their coverage of “infringement of civil liberties, police brutality, and drone use,” and “criticism of U.S. economic policy” as examples of “a Kremlin-directed campaign to undermine the U.S. government,” as if those aren’t all legitimate issues. Crap. Maybe I should quit my job, since reporting on legitimate issues just makes me a tool of the Kremlin.

Mainstream news sources only add to the confusion. A number of headlines broadly accused Russia of “hacking the election,” which likely led Clinton supporters to believe Russia interfered in the voting process. Worse, the Washington Post provided — based on a mysterious “organization” called PropOrNot — a list of 200 websites it claims are “peddlers of Washington propaganda.” This list included sites such as the neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer, the anti-vaccine Natural News, and Russia’s state-owned Russia Today, but also the Ron Paul Institute, leftist alternative news site the Anti-Media, and WikiLeaks. PropOrNot is completely anonymous and provides no evidence that they are, as the Post calls them, “experts.” The Post later appended a note to its article claiming it “does not itself vouch for the validity of PropOrNot’s findings,” leading one to wonder why it was cited in the first place.

The Washington Post also wrongfully reported that Russians hacked Vermont’s power grid. In actuality, an employee, using a laptop unconnected to the grid, visited Yahoo. As the Daily Beast explains, this set off a false alarm because the Department of Homeland Security included IP addresses belonging to Yahoo servers, and other innocuous sites, on a list of IP addresses allegedly connected to the Kremlin hacks.

The popularity of these stories is partially compounded by the idea that Trump won because Russia helped him. While the Russian hacks may have played some role in Clinton’s loss, to assign them major blame is to continue Democrats’ growing refusal to self-evaluate and deal with criticism. Many, like Emily C. Singer, a reporter for Mic, accused third-party voters of “sink[ing] Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy.” Others, like Kevin Drum at Mother Jones, think it was Bernie Sanders and millennials. I even know someone who thinks Clinton somehow lost because of black people, despite the fact that 88 percent of African-Americans voted for her. Clinton’s campaign failed to carry a unifying message, it failed to campaign in swing states, and it failed to focus on important working-class issues, such as job growth. Instead of bitterly licking its wounds, the left ought to work toward rebuilding itself.

Moreover, the outrage over Russia’s activities contrasts sharply with how the United States views its own efforts at regime change. So a foreign country allegedly interfered in our election? According to Carnegie Mellon researcher Dov Levin, the United States has interfered in foreign elections over 80 times between 1946 and 2000. In 1996, for example, the Bill Clinton administration lobbied the International Monetary Fund to approve a $10.2 million loan to Russia. This move, according to the Washington Post, “amounts to an expression of political support by Western governments for Russian leader Boris Yeltsin” and was “widely viewed as the West’s best chance of influencing the outcome of the June election,” where Yeltsin would run to be re-elected as the Russian president.

Levin’s estimate does not count situations where the U.S. used military action to overthrow leaders of other countries. In just one example, Jean-Paul Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected president, was overthrown by a CIA-backed coup in 1991. He was reinstated in 1994. But, as an investigation by Max Blumenthal for Salon shows, a Republican organization with close ties to George W. Bush worked to destabilize the Aristide administration, and allegedly worked with insurgents to overthrow him again.

That’s significantly worse than making Occupy Wall Street documentaries or even leaking Democrats’ emails. One could make the case that Trump working directly with the Kremlin amounts to the same thing, but so far, unlike in Haiti, nobody in the U.S. has died yet as a result of Russia’s actions.

However, the US’s response to Russia far outranks Haiti’s response to the US in its aggression. Senator John McCain called Russia’s actions an “act of war.” So far, the Obama administration has retaliated by expelling 35 Russian diplomats it claims are intelligence agents, sanctioning two Russian intelligence agencies, four individual Russian agents, and three companies that allegedly helped these agencies. Obama also said in a statement that more actions would be taken, “some of which will not be publicized.” Rather than retaliate with sanctions of its own, Russia merely “invite[d] all children of U.S. diplomats to view the Christmas tree in the Kremlin.”

In October, unnamed officials from the CIA told NBC News that the agency was preparing to respond with a cyberattack against the Kremlin. During her campaign, Hillary Clinton called for “military responses” to Russia’s hacking. President Trump likewise stated in a speech that “Cyberattacks from foreign governments, especially China, Russia, and North Korea … constitute one of our most critical national security concerns” and that “the United States must possess the unquestioned capacity to launch crippling cyber counter-attacks.”

Furthermore, the United States recently sent troops to Poland that have lined up along the Russian border. Poland welcomes the soldiers’ arrival, but Russia considers them a security threat. Poland has wanted the United States to send troops there for a long time, which raises the question of why the United States chose this particular moment to send them. Russia also appears to be ramping up its military activities. James Richardson, Chief of Naval Operations, told Reuters that Russia’s navy has become more active recently, sometimes coming within 30 feet of American ships.

If things keep escalating, the U.S. could easily find itself at war with Russia.

In many ways, the U.S.-Russia situation looks a lot like the build-up to the Iraq War. The intelligence community is asking Americans to believe unsubstantiated assertions that could have dangerous implications, just like they did when telling us that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Trump’s no Hussein, but he’s outrageous and controversial enough that nothing about him surprises anyone anymore.

But, unlike Iraq in 2001, Russia actually does have weapons of mass destruction. Our country needs to tread very, very carefully if it wants to avoid disaster.