President Donald Trump's first year in office was dogged by the ‘Russiagate’ scandal, sparked by allegations that the Russian authorities intervened to sway the 2016 US presidential election in Trump's favour by undermining the campaign of his opponent, Hillary Clinton. President Trump has strongly denied that his campaign team colluded with Moscow and has deplored the allegations as ‘a cloud’ overhanging his presidency. The ongoing controversy has tied the hands of his administration and undermined hopes of improved relations between Russia and the US. These relations are now, according to a Russian Foreign Ministry statement in 2017, the worst they have been since the end of the Cold War. Improving them seems set to be, at best, a long and difficult process. Luke Harding describes the many forms that Russian meddling is alleged to have taken to further Trump's presidential campaign and undermine Clinton's. His book is a compelling read, providing much deeply researched detail. It opens with the story behind the so-called Steele dossier—a series of reports prepared by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele. Their publication in January 2017 highlighted the possibility not only that the Russian authorities might have interfered in the US presidential election but, even more sensationally, that members of the Trump campaign team might have collaborated with the Russians in these efforts. The dossier was and remains highly controversial—supporting evidence has surfaced for some of its assertions but much has not (yet) been either confirmed or disproved. This is hardly surprising, given that, as Harding notes, Steele could not travel to Russia but depended for his information on intermediaries. As a result, Steele himself could not support the claims with verifiable data. To Harding's credit, he repeatedly points out that, while Steele could not be sure of the dossier's veracity, he did believe that it was credible (pp. 30, 32). One thing of which we can now be reasonably sure is that it was not the Steele dossier that prompted the US Federal Bureau of Investigation to launch its investigation into allegations of Russian meddling. That was provoked by information from foreign intelligence services who notified their US counterparts that Russia-connected hackers had attempted to access the computer systems of the US government in 2014 and those of the Democratic National Committee in 2015. Hacking foreign computer systems is standard practice for any intelligence service, but normally it is kept secret. Harding quotes the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, General Michael Hayden, as telling him that what made this hacking operation different was that the data were ‘weaponized’ and ‘shoved into U.S. space’ in an apparent attempt to sow confusion in the minds of American voters (p. 104). Because of this, the US intelligence community saw it as part of a broader effort by the Russian authorities to undermine the 2016 election. The book draws on Harding's own extensive research, which includes detailed information about Trump's business connections in Russia, dating back to his first visit to Moscow in 1987. Harding reports on the interactions known and reported to have taken place between members of Trump's campaign team and Russian officials, as well as delving into any Russia- or Ukraine-related business activities of Trump's close associates—including campaign manager Paul Manafort, but also many other lesser-known individuals. He also describes how the Russian authorities purportedly sought to influence US public opinion, including through the purchase of advertisements on Facebook in 2015. Throughout the book, Harding provides additional insights drawn from his experience as Moscow correspondent for the Guardian. However, as with the Steele dossier, much of the evidence that Harding cites is circumstantial and cannot be easily verified. In this respect, the book's title is misleading—a question mark might have been appropriate. While the evidence that the book provides appears to point in the direction of collusion between the Russian authorities and members of the Trump campaign, we do not yet know whether Trump's team actually engaged in such cooperation—that is, whether they did more than meet with Russian officials. Neither do we know what Russia's intentions were. It seems likely that, rather than hoping for a Trump victory, which for a long time few foresaw, Moscow sought to undermine US democracy by, as General Hayden suggested, weakening American voters' trust in their own system. If that was Moscow's aim, then one might argue that the operation was largely successful since, as Harding argues, ‘it exploited pre-existing fault-lines in American society’ (p. 110). But if Moscow was hoping to see a US administration that would be friendlier towards Russia—in particular, one that would lift the sanctions imposed by the Obama administration—it must have been disappointed. The ‘cloud’ remains over the heads of the Trump administration to this day and has prevented it from building better relations with Russia. This is a point that Harding makes strongly in the epilogue, where he asserts that Moscow's attempt to intervene in the 2016 election was, for President Vladimir Putin, ‘a tactical triumph and a strategic disaster’ (p. 326). Hopefully we shall learn more when the investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller reports its findings later this year. It is precisely because that investigation is ongoing that this book will remain useful, since it provides painstakingly researched background information on highly complex issues. On a concluding note, the book has an excellent index. A chronology might, however, have been a useful addition, as would a bibliography, of course not of the secret intelligence, but just of the several printed documents that are referenced in the text. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal Institute of International Affairs. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
International Affairs – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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