After weeks of partisan heckling in a whirl of overheard phone calls and conspiracy theories, the former top Russia expert on the National Security Council had had enough. By the time Fiona Hill gave her public testimony before the House Intelligence Committee last week, she had a clear message for the country: this is precisely what the Kremlin wants.
“I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests,” Hill said in her Nov. 21 opening statement to lawmakers, some of whom had questioned witnesses about a widely debunked theory that Trump had pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate. “Some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country — and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did…This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.”
If there is any winner in the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry so far, it is Russian President Vladimir Putin. Experts say the Trump administration’s advancement of Russia’s disinformation campaign that it was Ukraine — not Russia — that interfered in 2016 elections has both succeeded in creating friction between Ukraine and the U.S., a key backer in Ukraine’s long-running conflict with Russia, and has taken the heat off Russia as Americans get ready to vote again next year.
Hill was not the only witness who told the Committee that the politicization of U.S. support for Ukraine was playing right into Russia’s hands. On Nov. 20, Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, testified that the delay in military aid and absence of Zelensky’s requested White House meeting “could be looked at” as benefitting Russia.
The same day, Putin took a wry victory lap. “Thank God,” he told an economic forum in Moscow, “no one is accusing us of interfering in the U.S. elections anymore. Now they’re accusing Ukraine.”
The “fictional narrative” Hill spoke of started spreading in far-right corners of the Internet in 2017. It maintains that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that interfered in the 2016 election and that it was Hillary Clinton, not President Donald Trump, who was the beneficiary of the interference. The theory contends that Crowdstrike, a cybersecurity technology company that helped the Democratic National Committee investigate Russia’s hacking attempts in 2016, covered up Ukraine’s role and framed Russia.
Trump provided new fuel for this claim when his now-infamous call with Zelensky was made public. “I would like you to do us a favor,” Trump told the newly-elected President on July 25. “They say Crowdstrike… The server, they say Ukraine has it… I would like you to get to the bottom of it.”
Experts have long said that the idea of a single DNC server being hidden somewhere isn’t sensical, and the DNC, for its part, has never claimed any of its technology had gone missing. In fact, there was no single DNC server Ukraine could have absconded with; the DNC reported in lawsuits against Russia that they operated over 140 servers, most of which were cloud-based. To investigate the DNC hack, Crowdstrike created forensic copies of all the DNC’s 140-plus servers in order to review them, instead of deactivating and analyzing the bunch.
As Thomas Rid, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies explained to TIME in September, Crowdstrike’s method of evidence gathering was superior to investigating the original DNC servers themselves. “When you make a digital image from a server, that image is actually often better than having access to the physical device, because it contains information that gets lost when a device gets unplugged and disconnected,” he said.
The U.S. intelligence community has also firmly established it was Russia, not Ukraine, that infiltrated America’s democratic processes in the last presidential election. “We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency,” the Office of the Director of National Intelligence wrote in its January 2017 report. “We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”
None of this stopped Republican Rep. Devin Nunes from continuing to circulate the unfounded Ukraine theory during the televised impeachment inquiry hearings last week.The ranking Republican on the Committee repeatedly used his time to give oxygen to the theory during the hearings as a justification for Trump’s request for the probes.. “Once you understand that Ukrainian officials were cooperating directly with President Trump’s political opponents to undermine his candidacy, it’s easy to understand why the president would want to learn the full truth about these operations and why he would be skeptical of Ukraine,” Nunes said.
Nunes did not claim Russia had no role in the attempts to undermine America’s 2016 elections. “It is entirely possible for two separate nations to engage in election meddling at the same time,” he argued. Rep. Elise Stefanik, a New York Republican whom Trump recently celebrated as a “new Republican star,” later reiterated that point: “I just wanted to say to my Democratic colleagues, not a single Republican member of this committee has said that Russia did not meddle in the 2016 elections.”
Whether Republicans directly excused Russia’s 2016 involvement or not, Putin comes out victorious, says Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi. “All of this helps Russia, big time. Because their number one objective in Europe is to divide countries like Ukraine from countries like the United States,” the Illinois Democrat told reporters during a break in Hill’s hearing last week. “It creates a chilling effect with all other countries that might want to come closer to the United States.”
And from the first minutes of her televised testimony, Hill made it clear that the insinuations some lawmakers made about Ukraine — which has been fending off Russian military advances since 2014 — not only bolstered the false narrative that Russia didn’t attempt to interfere in the 2016 election, but could strengthen its ability to do it again. “Right now, Russia’s security services and their proxies have geared up to repeat their interference in the 2020 election,” she warned. “We are running out of time to stop them.”
Six weeks before her testimony, Michael McFaul, who served as U.S. ambassador to Moscow from 2012 to 2014, also predicted that efforts to back up Trump and Giuliani’s conspiracy theory would be a win for Russia. “Ukraine is going to become the focus of the 2020 elections,” he told TIME. “And that means Russia is off the hook.”
—With reporting from Alana Abramson in Washington