Russia and the 2016 US election: Collusion or illusion?

What does the average American know about Russia?

PEOPLE PROTEST against Donald Trump in Pennsylvania in 2016. (photo credit: REUTERS)
PEOPLE PROTEST against Donald Trump in Pennsylvania in 2016.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
To listen in the United States to the recurrent attacks on Russia in the media and on the political front conjures up images of a movie featuring an evil Russian monster working with US President Donald Trump to destroy American democracy in the 2016 presidential campaign.
Russia is portrayed as a powerful state maliciously working overtime to prevent the seemingly inevitable presidential victory of Hillary Rodham Clinton. But, was this likely to be true? The core problem is that Americans lack basic knowledge of American history. A 2011 poll showed that 88% of high school seniors lacked basic proficiency in American history. If they don’t know American history, then what does the average American know about Russia? How many have ever spent time in Russia or studied Russian history? Apart from Russian immigrants, the number of such Americans are surely in the low single digits.
Putin’s Russia is not Stalin’s Soviet Union (1927-1953) with its mass murder of millions of its citizens while detaining and sending millions of innocent Russians to Siberian labor camps. It is not a superpower as was the Soviet Union (1947-1987) that could challenge the West in the Berlin (1948), Cuban (1962) and Middle Eastern (1967) crises. Stalin, only eight years after the end of the Nazi Holocaust, prepared in his last months to consider expelling Moscow and Leningrad Jews to camps in the east. He was stopped only by his death in March 1953.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has done none of these horrid things.
He has allowed millions of Russians to emigrate, kept labor camps closed and persecuted only a handful of his enemies. Putin has welcomed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on five visits to Moscow and Crimea in the past two years while visiting Israel himself in 2005 and 2012. He has continued to shy away from direct confrontation with the West.
Putin heads a severely depleted Russia. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Soviet empire shrank from 400 million people (including 100 million Eastern Europeans) in 1990 to 148 million people in 1992. After 1991 it continued to lose population from the emigration of 11 million Russians and low male life expectancy (64 years). A recent Russian poll found that 25% of Russians want to leave the country. While the Soviet empire placed 20 Russian divisions in the center of Germany threatening Western Europe at the Fulda Gap, today’s Russian military has retreated many hundreds of kilometers to defend Moscow and Leningrad.
Without democracy, capitalism and the rule of law Russia lacks the positive attributes of Western countries. Russian GNP is less than 10% of American GNP and smaller than that of England, France, Germany or even Italy. It lacks a consumer revolution or agricultural revolution, with the majority of food eaten in Moscow imported from abroad. The price of oil, its main export, has sunk from $137/barrel to less than $50/barrel and its reserve funds have dropped by over $100 billion.
Despite having numerous first class scientists and engineers, its second effort at a Silicon Valley in Skolkovo, a suburb of Moscow, has one large building. Russian military spending is barely 13% of American military spending and will decrease by 6% every year for the next three years.
Putin is not a communist at the center of a global network encompassing 14 countries with one-third of the world’s population. He is a conservative authoritarian, semi-religious nationalist defending a demoralized population.
A weakened Russia under Putin sliced off small bits of Georgia (Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia) and Ukraine (Crimea, parts of Eastern Ukraine) since 2008 and has had a winning role in Syria since 2016.
Why should Russia have supported Donald Trump in 2016 when nearly every poll from January to November showed Hillary Clinton as the inevitable winner? Why back Trump, with his four bankruptcies, wild global capitalism and wide open public life, who scarcely seemed the ideal model for Russian trust? Why support a Republican when Republicans were notably more anti-Russian than Democrats? How to influence an election which was divided into 50 states and 3,007 counties, each with their own rules? Worse, over 40% of the electorate did not vote in the election, making it even harder to influence the outcome. Even more problematic, candidates could win the popular vote (as Clinton did) and lose the election. A talented Russian Foreign Ministry surely appreciated both the issues and the problems entailed in these numbers.
Everything is possible in this world and perhaps the Russians were successful in colluding with Trump to win the election. But a cold, hard view of Russian realities suggests that while possible, it was not likely.
The author is a professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies of the University of Denver.