Issue Briefs

The U.S. and European reactions to Russian political manipulation

The U.S. and European reactions to Russian political manipulation

Michael Binyon

January 20, 2017

Europe is watching events in Washington with bemused horror. The lurid claims about Donald Trump’s sexual antics during the campaign, the furious denunciations by the president-elect of America’s intelligence agencies, news outlets and political opponents, and the wrangling and confusion among his appointees over Russia all suggest a presidency that looks potentially dysfunctional before it has even begun. If Europe was hoping to start forging a cautious relationship with Mr. Trump, it now hardly knows where to begin.

Trump compromised by Russian intelligence?

The sensational, albeit totally unproven, claim that Mr. Trump was compromised in a Moscow hotel room by Russian intelligence agents has embarrassed America’s allies. For it has overshadowed the issue of Russian interference in the US presidential election – an issue that has united Western governments in condemnation, while also making European governments, especially Germany, nervous that Moscow may try the same tactics again this year in Europe.

The new wild allegations of an earlier attempt to gain “kompromat”- compromising material – on Mr. Trump are even more sensational. However, the purported “evidence” appears amateurish and full of discrepancies, casting serious doubt on the veracity of the whole story.

Familiar Russian methods

Those familiar with Russian intelligence dirty tricks, which have not changed much since Soviet days, know that this is the standard way in which Russian “disinformation” works. Some genuine material is fed to Western intelligence, mixed in with sensational and unproven allegations that are deliberately filled with errors. When these errors are revealed to Western public opinion, the entire story of Russian meddling is then discredited, and Moscow can plausibly deny all the allegations.

Britain caught in the middle

This is what seems to have happened in the Trump case. But it is nonetheless embarrassing for the West, and especially for Britain, as the person named as the source of the claims of Trump’s alleged sexual shenanigans, Christopher Steele, is a former British MI6 spy. The British government cannot publicly defend its former intelligence agent, or the way he was used by Trump’s political opponents in America to search for compromising material on his relations with Russia. That would seriously anger Trump.

But equally no one in Britain really believes Trump’s blanket denial of any Russian dirty tricks. And British intelligence is alarmed at his outbursts against American intelligence officials, who are crucial in bolstering security for all Western Europe.

Britain now finds itself in the Kremlin’s line of fire for being the country accused of stirring up bad feelings against Russia and of trying to spoil Trump’s own wish for better relations with Moscow. And strenuous efforts by Theresa May’s government to play down earlier dismissive remarks about Trump when he was running for president now look naïve and self-serving, both to British public opinion and to Trump himself.

How to deal with Trump’s temperament?

Other countries are also finding it hard to know how to establish relations with the unpredictable president-elect. Most have refused to comment on the latest allegations against Trump himself. But they have been alarmed at his thin-skinned, angry and loose-lipped reactions. Comparing U.S. intelligence agencies to Nazi Germany or accusing CNN of peddling “fake news” is especially sensitive in Germany. And Chancellor Angela Merkel has good reason to want Trump to change his mind on Putin – as she fears he will try also to discredit her government during the German general election later this year.

Germany between Moscow and Washington

Merkel, along with Obama, has been one of the most vocal critics of Putin’s behaviour in Crimea and Ukraine. This matters in Moscow, as Germany is not only the strongest power in Europe, but is also Russia’s biggest European trading partner. Putin is suspected of wanting revenge for her tough line over Ukraine. Russia alone cannot swing the election. But it can – and probably will – clandestinely spread stories to strengthen the right-wing Alternative for Germany party, exacerbate anger over the influx of Syrian refugees, and sow confusion that puts Merkel on the back foot.

What should Europe do?

France is also prepared for a Russian role in its own elections. This is because Marine Le Pen, leader of the right-wing National Front, has borrowed money from Russia for her party and has called for better relations with Moscow. So has Francois Fillon, the leading conservative candidate. Their opponents fully expect Moscow to throw all its efforts into helping either one to win.

How can Europe get Trump to take its worries about Putin seriously, when he now sees all stories of Moscow’s dirty tricks as part of a campaign by his opponents in America to undermine him, and the very legitimacy of his political victory on November 8? And how can Europe persuade the new administration to reach out to its allies in Europe, when it already seems to be feuding amongst itself over Russia?

The fall out of Trump’s open fight with U.S. intelligence

Even more worrying, the standing and authority of Trump have been seriously damaged on account of his very public and protracted fight with U.S. intelligence leaders. Furthermore, huge demonstrations against him are expected around his inauguration. It is almost as though some segment of U.S. society would like to impeach the new president before he has even come to office. This difficult domestic political environment will make him a prickly and unpredictable partner, and a U.S. leader for whom the normal rules of diplomacy no longer apply.

Trump insists he is the target of dirty tricks by the Democrats and his opponents in America – not by the Russians. He has, however, finally accepted that Moscow may have hacked into the Democrats’ files during the campaign. But says this did not make any difference to the result.

What to make of Trump?

Most of America’s NATO allies believe he is being naïve at best, and deceptive at worst. This is not a good basis on which to begin a new administration, even if he says that he wants his top officials to be free to speak their minds.

 Stories of Russian dirty tricks

In the meantime, the British and European press has been full of stories of how effectively Russians use “kompromat” to achieve political aims. They have reminded readers of the many Western diplomats who have fallen into the “honey traps,” being ensnared in sexual liaisons that can then be used for blackmail. This is a popular technique still used in Russia to discredit opponents of the regime. Last year Mikhail Kasynaov , the former prime minister and a Kremlin critic, was filmed naked with a lover in a Moscow apartment. The clip was shown on state television.

Even before becoming president, Putin, as head of the FSB – the successor to the KGB – helped to orchestrate a campaign to blacken the name of Yuri Skuratov, the prosecutor-general who had been investigating Kremlin corruption. Footage of Skuratov allegedly frolicking with two prostitutes appeared on state television.

Of course it takes two to blackmail. If the victim of a plot does not care, the blackmail is ineffective. Sir Andrew Wood, a former British ambassador to Moscow who knew Steele, passed on his concerns about Trump to the U.S. Republican Senator John McCain and thence to the FBI. Sir Andrew concluded that Trump’s aides probably had been meeting with the Russian leadership during the election campaign. But several Western diplomats remarked, with a cynicism that reflects the view of many in Europe, that since Trump had little shame anyway, any preposterous allegations about his personal life, even if clearly manufactured by Moscow, would make no difference to his attitude to Russia.

Whatever the outcome of the furore, Western leaders are now wondering how they can best approach a president who has displayed an unusual and certainly unorthodox temperament even before his administration has even begun.

Michael Binyon is a GPI Senior Adviser. He has been an editorial writer, columnist and foreign correspondent for The Times (of London) since 1971. For 15 years he was based overseas, reporting from Moscow, Washington, Bonn and Brussels, before returning to London to be diplomatic editor in 1991 and becoming the main foreign editorial writer in 2000. He retired from the staff in 2009 but still writes for The Times and other publications, and is a frequent broadcaster for the BBC and French, German, Canadian, Russian and Middle Eastern radio and television. He published “Life in Russia” in 1983, has won two British journalism prizes and was awarded the OBE by the Queen in 2000.  


The views and opinions expressed in this issue brief are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of GPI.