Why the New Sanctions Against Russia Are Really About 2016

6 minute read

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The Kremlin chief liked what he saw. Here was a candidate he could work with: a man campaigning as an American who pledged to withdraw U.S. forces from Europe, pursue a path of cooperation with Moscow and drop the Cold War rivalries. If “America First” was the animating ethos taking the Red, White and Blue back inside its borders, that left a whole lot of the world for the comrades’ domination.

It was such an appealing prospect that the man in Moscow even wrote an op-ed essentially endorsing the candidate’s six-point American plan that “could be a good and fruitful foundation for such understanding and for the development of international cooperation” in pursuit of “peaceful settlement of the differences.” U.S. newspapers reprinted both the plan and the Kremlin’s endorsement with a mix of curiosity and consideration.

And no, the year was not 2016 with Vladimir Putin sitting pretty at Lubyanka. It was 1948. And Joseph Stalin, General Secretary of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party, had found his man.

Moscow has been meddling in U.S. elections since at least that moment, when Stalin threw his support behind the Progressive Party’s nominee, FDR’s Vice President Henry Wallace. Career diplomat Elbridge Durbrow wrote in a memo to then-Secretary of State George Marshall that year warning Moscow was trying to jam Washington with its de facto endorsement. “It seems to us the shrewd Soviet purpose to befuddle American public,” Durbow wrote in a communique.

There’s no point in ignoring the truths here. The KGB recruited sympathetic journalists, funded publications that were mere fronts for Soviet-sympathizing propaganda and, at the height of the Cold War, employed 496,000 members around the world, if Soviet defector Oleg Kalugin’s memoir is true. By contrast, he writes, the 47,000 KGB employees in Moscow outnumbered the combined headcount for the FBI and CIA.

In Kalugin’s Spymaster, the former head of KGB political operations in the U.S. writes that for years he used an agent posing as a reporter for the Novosti Press Agency to cultivate a relationship with then-Harvard University professor Henry Kissinger, who was advising Richard Nixon’s campaign. The same spy regularly met with Kissinger’s deputy, Richard Allen, who would go on to be the top foreign policy adviser to Ronald Reagan. (Kalugin graciously notes that his man never tried to enlist either American as a spy and they probably knew they were talking with an undercover Soviet. Nonetheless, both often shared useful insights about the American position.) Kalugin notes he used covers from diplomats to doormen to infiltrate Congress, the State Department, the political parties and even think tanks like the Brookings Institution that have contacts inside the U.S. government.

This is all to say that Moscow’s interference went on for years without being news to Washington, which to be fair has its own shady history of foreign meddling. (There isn’t room enough on the Internet to link to all of it.) It’s long been the practice to assume everyone in D.C. is working undercover for someone else, to the point of new contacts with certain security clearances will confirm that, yes, they are speaking to a citizen and don’t need to report me to their handlers as a potential spook.

Then 2016 happened. Russia’s working so openly that year to help ensure Donald’s Trump’s win was something different. Those attempts are well documented, in both a two-volume Justice Department report released by Trump’s own DOJ and a nonpartisan, five-volume report from the Senate Intelligence Committee. A number of Trump associates wound up behind bars as a result, although Trump pardoned some on his way out the door.

Trump has repeatedly denied most of these facts. “No collusion” became a verbal tick for the 45th President. Enough of his fellow Republicans agreed, or at least decided it was too dangerous to their own standing with his followers to remove Trump from office. And while there was plenty of circumstantial evidence, there wasn’t yet anything officially saying anyone in Trump’s world worked directly with the Kremlin to win the White House. Even Trump’s harshest critics never had the smoking gun that could credibly link the Kremlin’s campaign of dezinformatsiya to Trump’s orbit.

That seemed to change yesterday. Not in a flashy Justice Department legal filing or in a newly unearthed document splashed on the House Oversight Committee’s page. But in a notice of hefty new sanctions against Russia for its electioneering, hacking and general malice, the Treasury Department made the outright declaration that Trump aides had passed internal documents to Konstantin Kilimnik who in turn passed them to Russian intelligence.

Kilimnik has been a familiar name inside D.C.’s impeachment bubble. The Russian political operative was indicted on charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice and obstruction of justice in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe back in 2018. At the time, he was merely described as having ties to Russian intelligence. Last year, the Senate Intelligence Committee described him as a “Russian intelligence officer.” Now? He “provided the Russian Intelligence Services with sensitive information on polling and campaign strategy,” according to the Treasury document, which offers no evidence to back this up.

This may seem like a minor tweak, but in diplomacy, this kind of an escalation matters. History is replete with arguments over specificity here and non-comment there. In diplo-speak, “aware of reports” and “closely monitoring a situation” can roll back armies or give greenlights for coups.

Biden’s escalation with this new detail is a clear signal to Putin that there are consequences for 2016 — and a warning not to follow Stalin into more belligerent behavior. The sanctions could cripple Russia’s ability to borrow cash with U.S. allies at a moment it’s already testing NATO’s patience with military posturing in Ukraine, as my colleague Simon Shuster reports from the frontline.

Whether Biden’s aggressive move will act as a deterrent and stop more than 70 years of Russian meddling in U.S. affairs seems doubtful. Sanctions don’t always work, and history, after all, loves repeating itself. To quote William Faulkner, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com