If one story has dominated the news over the past year, it is the ongoing saga about the Russian government's interference in America's presidential election and the President's ongoing efforts to avoid what is becoming increasingly clear: Russia stepped in to help him win, and, at the very least, a sizable portion of his inner circle played a part in that effort.
The Republican Party has, unfortunately, gone along with the President's ruse by and large. The House Intelligence Committee recently concluded its investigation, finding no evidence of collusion by the Trump campaign. More importantly, Republicans in government and the media have given ambiguous signals about the FBI investigation lead by Robert Mueller, sometimes hyping up contrived stories intended to raise doubts about its objectivity. It's because of this that the prospect that Trump may fire Mueller is so disconcerting. If it happens, will Republicans do anything about it? Republicans finally turned on Nixon when he fired his special prosecutor, but I'm not sure that will happen this time around.
Republicans' frequent equivocating about Russia and this investigation, plus Democrats' non-stop bashing them for it, gives the impression of a strict partisan divide on the issue. Putin sympathizers are Republicans, and Democrats are hard on Russia. But unfortunately, the situation is not so simple. Putin has a decent number of allies in the progressive orbit as well, and their existence tells us something important about Russia's broader political goals.
The Kremlin Progressives
The most prominent contender here is Bernie Sanders. In his indictment of several Russian agents, Mueller laid out that these agents "and their co-conspirators used their fictitious online personas to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election. They engaged in operations primarily intended to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, to denigrate other candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump." The same internet chicanery targeted against Hillary and for Trump was also deployed by the Russian government in support of the Sanders campaign.
Bernie reacted to this charge rather awkwardly. His campaign manager dismissed the indictment claims as false, and the Senator reacted by blaming Hillary Clinton for not doing more to stop the Russian efforts. To me, this seems like the standard Trump/Fox News strategy: claim "fake news" and blame Hillary.
But Bernie's alignment with Russia did not begin and end during the campaign. He has a history of peculiar moves that fall along the Kremlin line. Last July, Sanders was one of only two Senators to vote against economically sanctioning Russia for its 2016 election meddling. That bill received 98 votes in the Senate, and passed the House 419-3, but no support from Sanders. Sanders was also one of four Senators to vote against the Magnitsky Act, which sanctioned certain Russian leaders as punishment for the death of a political prisoner. Bernie is the only member of Congress who voted against both measures.
Going further left of the mainstream, we arrive at Jill Stein, an open-and-shut case of pro-Kremlin politics. Stein has described the 2014 "revolution" in Ukraine, where Ukranians revolted against Russia-backed president Viktor Yanukovych after he scuttled a deal with the EU in favor of one with Russia, as an attempted coup d'etat by the United States. Of course, this is a totally groundless claim. While most international leaders called for an end to violent protests, only Putin and Kazakhstani president Nursultan Nazarbayev joined Stein in calling the protests a coup.
Stein has a history of making such bizarre claims about US foreign policy towards Russia. She has said on many occasions that NATO is surrounding Russia with nuclear weapons. As a matter of fact, Russia does border two of the world's nine nuclear powers. The only problem for Stein -- those are China and North Korea, not any NATO ally. Only one nuclear state bordering Russia has even attempted to join NATO. That was Ukraine, whose nuclear weapons were disassembled in 1996, and which remains outside NATO.
In addition to her false pro-Russia talking points, Stein has gone to Russia to meet with such actor as Putin and Michael Flynn at events sponsored by RT, Russia's state news agency. Stein also participated in RT's 2016 Green Party Debate, which was boycotted by other Green Party candidates specifically because it was being hosted by a Russian propaganda outlet.
Putin's allies on the American left don't end with the politicians, though. Their numbers also include a number of prominent journalists and commentators. At the top of the list is Glenn Greenwald, who made his bones breaking the Edward Snowden leaks in 2013. If his many takes on the Russian hacking and subsequent investigation are any indication, he has fallen quite a ways from that Pulitzer Prize-winning peak. Greenwald believes that the Russia story is just an enormous red herring, nothing more than countless lies and exaggerations used by the liberal elite to distract attention from domestic surveillance, military action, or any of his numerous hobby horses. In particular, Greenwald frequently returns to what he calls the "dearth of evidence" linking Russia with the hack of DNC emails. Of course, America's intelligence agencies have reached a consensus that the email hacking and release was, in fact, orchestrated by the Russian government.
Other figures in this category include MSNBC-turned-RT host Ed Schultz, who blasted the United States for being an "arms dealer in the city of Aleppo" while the Russian military was supporting what the UN called a "complete meltdown of humanity" in the same city. There's also Julian Assange of Wikileaks, a key foil of the 2016 Clinton campaign and longtime ally of Russian intelligence services, although calling him a journalist is a bit of a stretch.
Not So Strange Bedfellows After All
So, what's the deal here? Why would American progressives support a government as right-wing as Russia's? Why would Greenwald, sworn enemy of the security state, be in the same corner as former KGB agent Putin? Why would the same Bernie Sanders who decries oligarchy at home protect oligarchs abroad from economic sanctions? It all comes down to Russia's foreign policy agenda.
If Russia has a grand strategy, it revolves around reestablishing its traditional sphere of influence. The primary goal of Russian foreign policy is to retain undisputed power in what it calls the "near abroad," the former Soviet Union and the Middle East. Putin has insisted from the very beginning of his first presidency that the near abroad belongs in Russia's sphere of influence and achieving such an arrangement is a vital strategic interest. This motivation is rather obvious for Russia's largest foreign policy moves, like the 2008 invasion of Georgia, the 2014 invasion of Ukraine, and the support for Assad in Syria.
The largest obstacle to this foreign policy is the alternative pursued by the United States: a universal, rules-based, open economic and political order (lead by America, of course). Such an order is fundamentally incompatible with regional spheres of influence that might disrupt the free conduct of international trade and domestic politics. Ukraine joining the European Union, for instance, threatens Russia not only by having a rival ally on its border, but also by seeing a key player in its near abroad buy into the US-led international system.
The bottom line is this: the less of a global leadership role the US and its universal liberalism take. the more room Russia is left to solidify its sphere of influence. And Russia will take any help it can get. That's where the American left comes in.
Figures on the progressive left have generally been united by their distrust of US foreign policy. As Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy has noted, the modern progressive movement was arguably born out of opposition to the 2003 Iraq invasion. The leftward most ends of that movement oppose not only "dumb wars," as Barack Obama dubbed them, but practically any move by the United States to exert influence over world politics.
When Bernie Sanders discusses his foreign policy, for instance, he always frames it in terms of what he would not do. Do not intervene. Do not sign NAFTA. Do not enter the TPP. More often than not, Sanders uses foreign policy statements only as an abrupt pivot back to his domestic agenda. Cut the military budget to fund social services. Don't criticize other countries' human rights record; look to our own instead. Now, I think reasonable people can agree with any of those positions. But taken all together with a lack of any actual proscriptions for foreign policy, he only leaves a vision of America receding and shutting itself out from the rest of the world.
And more than opposing specific actions by the United States, the Kremlin progressives also work to cast doubt on the values promoted by US foreign policy. Of course countries shouldn't join international trade pacts; those are just a malicious ruse by corporations and the One Percent. Liberal democracy as the best model for the world? Please -- US elections are "rigged" by the "establishment."
By having the United States walk away from the table, and by fomenting distrust in democratic institutions, these progressive figures play right into Putin's hand. Seeing such malcontent in the West, Ukraine and its peers in the near abroad may well end up deciding that there is no valuable alternative to the Russian sphere of influence. The more the United States walks away from the table, the bigger a role is left for Russia.
Needless to say, this is also why Russia has supported right-wing figures like Trump and Marine Le Pen in France. They also combine increasingly isolationist foreign policy with rampant bashing of political institutions.
In the end, proponents of the liberal international order should avoid thinking in strictly partisan terms. It seems that the American right and left are just as susceptible to doing Putin's work for him, although he has had better luck with the Republicans. Rather than just bashing Trump or claiming false equivalence with Jill Stein, our leaders ought to evaluate whether they want an open international order or one where Russia can dominate its neighbors and offer up authoritarianism as the best alternative. That is the real divide, not the party line.