Vladimir Putin responded to accusations that Russia was trying to influence the presidential election in the United States, asking whether anyone could “seriously imagine that Russia can somehow influence the American people’s choice.” America was not, Putin insisted, some kind of banana republic. “Do correct me if I’m wrong,” he told the audience at the Valdai Club meeting in Sochi, a kind of Russian equivalent to Davos.
Putin called the idea of Russian interference one of the “myths” perpetrated by Western leaders, alng with the “Russian military threat,” which he called “a profitable business that can be used to pump new money into defene budgets at home, get allies to bend to a single superpower’s interests, expand NATO and bring its infrastructure, military units and arms closer to our borders.” John Kerry reiterated today that the U.S. intelligence community believed Russia was behind the hacked election-related emails released by Wikileaks. The United States has also accused Russia of trying to hack into state voter registration debates.
Putin also pointed to referendums and elections that “often create surprises for the authorities,” saying that at first when people didn’t vote the way mainstream parties and “official and respectable media outlets advised them to” the results were written off as anomalies, then as the result of “foreign, usually Russian, propaganda.” Putin said he’d like to have such a propaganda machine in Russia but that “regrettably” that wasn’t the case.
Accusations of Russian meddling in American elections follow similar ones made in Europe about Russia supporting far-right and far-left parties whose interests align with Russia’s. As with accusations of U.S. financial support for democratic causes overseas in places like Venezuela and Russia, they miss the point that such spending doesn’t delegitimize the underlying popular support for the parties and causes, just as more broadly free spending on domestic elections allows more ideas to compete in the marketplace. Arguments for guilt by association against political opponents are deflections, used when more robust, substantive arguments are unavailable or unappealing.
Indeed, Putin suggested the fear whipped up about Russia was an effort to distract voters. “The United States has plenty of genuinely urgent problems, it would seem, from the colossal public debt to the increase in firearms violence and cases of arbitrary action by the police,” Putin said. “You would think that the election debates would concentrate on these and other unresolved problems, but the elite has nothing with which to reassure society, it seems, and therefore attempt to distract public attention by pointing instead to supposed Russian hackers, spies, agents of influence and so forth.”
Putin also dismissed the notion that Trump was the Kremlin’s preferred candidate, calling it “complete rubbish” and insisting Russia was “by and large indifferent” to the election because it was ready to cooperate with any U.S. president that wanted to. Earlier this month, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, an ultra-nationalist ally of Putin’s, said Hillary Clinton could spark World War 3, an argument since echoed on the campaign trail by Donald Trump. Clinton has argued for imposing a no-fly zone in Syria in order to create leverage to get Russia to the negotiating table, something U.S. military officials have warned could lead to war with Russia and Syria, and that Clinton herself has privately acknowledged would cost a lot of Syrian lives. Later, while taking questions from the audience, Putin spoke positively about Trump and his campaign, describing him as “quite extravagant.”
Putin brought the U.S. election up after pointing to the “mutual distrust” and “tensions” around the world “engendered by shifts in distribution of economic and political influence,” arguing that even in “advanced democracies” people did not feel they had actual political power. “Essentially, the entire globalization project is in crisis today and in Europe, as we know well, we hear voices now saying that multiculturalism has failed,” Putin said, blaming the situation on the “mistaken, hasty and to some extent over-confident choices made by some countries’ elites a quarter of a century ago,” and insisting globalization could have not only been accelerated but given “a different quality” that made it “more harmonious and sustainable in nature.”
It’s a misunderstanding of globalization Putin seems to identify in some of the U.S. actions that have contributed to global instability in the last quarter century but fails to see in his own ideas about realigning it. Globalization is and ought to be a process of freeing markets—of the open exchange of goods and services and the free movements of goods, services, capital and people. That process has created unprecedented prosperity, one in which remaining hardships which would’ve been marveled at a hundred years ago as utopian, are instead used by the political class around the world to argue for the imposition of controls that would reverse the unprecedented progress and deteriorate political, economic, and social conditions that have long been improving.