For all the bipartisan hysteria in Washington about Russian attempts to influence the U.S. elections last year, what if the biggest loser is ... Vladimir Putin?
That's the counter-intuitive question raised at a one-day, conference called "Understanding Russian Deception," sponsored by the Washington-based Center for the Public Interest.
"The Russian government uses deception," says Paul Saunders, the center's executive director. "There no question about that. The questions are 'Is it deliberate behavior?' and 'Who is the audience for which the deception is carried out?'"
Both Saunders and Samuel Charap, a senior political scientist at Rand Corp., think Russian denials that the Kremlin tried to meddle in our elections are part of that country's need to demonstrate its important role in the world. "In Russia's view," says Charap, "great powers can and do break the rules."
But the Russian shenanigans of a year ago may actually have backfired. "The lies have destroyed Putin's international diplomatic credibility," says Charap. Saunders agrees. "I think Putin expected he could affect the U.S. elections and not incur a strong American retaliation. Instead, we have a Congress that is much more willing to impose new sanctions on Russia and insist that President Trump enforce the sanctions that are already on the books."
The Russian capacity for lying, says Saunders, was demonstrated during a meeting he had with a top Kremlin diplomat in 2014, just after Russian troops wearing unmarked uniforms crossed their country's border with Ukraine and set the stage for the annexation of Crimea. When Saunders and others asked why the Russians could not admit what they had done, the exasperated diplomat fired back, "Would you prefer that we admit it? Would help resolve this situation?"
Adds Charap, "Should we expect them to 'fess up about their role in our elections? No way. It's not in their DNA."
That is a truth that every Russian leader since Lenin has understood, and that no American president so far has been able to comprehend. Donald Trump may be the exception. Saunders thinks the president's low-key response to Putin's brazen lies is anything but approval. "Trump is a businessman," he says. "He wants something from Putin, whether it's his help with North Korea or to put pressure on China. So he's not going to intentionally insult Putin in public. He's working on a deal."
As the saying goes, "Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue." It's not pretty. But in this case, it may be necessary.