One question that's been lost in the commotion over Thursday's release of special counsel Robert Mueller's report is: Why did Russia feel it was necessary to meddle in the American election and help put Donald Trump in the presidency? The answers to that question should be just as troubling to all Americans as the details behind the Trump campaign's efforts to encourage Russia's success.
U.S. investigators say 2014 was when Russia launched a concerted effort to meddle with U.S. elections and disrupt politics through a well-targeted social media campaign. Everything Russia did appears to have been rooted in an effort to disrupt Western unity and minimize the international sanctions championed by President Barack Obama and his former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton.
In 2014, most of the developed world turned against Moscow over its blatant and deadly usurpation of Ukrainian sovereignty, primarily through a ragtag separatist militia in eastern Ukraine. In February 2014, masked Russian troops seized Ukraine's strategic Crimean Peninsula.
Weeks later, the Russia-installed leadership of Crimea declared independence and arranged a rigged vote that allowed Russia to annex the peninsula. Then, Russia supplied surface-to-air missiles that, with Russian expert assistance, were used from Ukrainian militia positions to shoot down a Malaysia Airlines jumbo jet in July 2014, killing all 298 aboard. Russia then obstructed the investigation into the cause of the crash.
The result of those actions was a series of crushing — and well-deserved — sanctions that largely crippled Russia's ability to conduct legal commerce with the West. Obama issued four executive orders in 2014, while the Treasury and Commerce Department issued eight additional sanctions targeting specific Russian industries and individuals. European Union sanctions quickly followed.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's sole goal ahead of the 2016 U.S. presidential race was to make it as hard as possible for Clinton to win. Trump, with a reputation for being dismissive of foreign affairs and easy to manipulate, emerged as Putin's favored candidate. What Putin got was better than he could have hoped for.
Trump did Putin's bidding in advocating for Britain to leave the European Union. He savaged the NATO alliance and publicly criticized its leaders. Most importantly, Trump called for ending sanctions against Russia. When U.S. intelligence agencies charged that Russia had meddled in the 2016 election, Trump publicly defended Russia over those agencies.
The sanctions remain in place today, but only because Republicans have refused to let the administration relax them. NATO is in disarray, Britain is politically paralyzed. European unity is in crisis. And Americans are more deeply divided than ever. Putin has emerged, unquestionably, as the victor.
If Americans have any hope of protecting and preserving their democracy, they must never forget this backdrop and why the Mueller report was an essential step in bolstering the nation's defenses ahead of 2020.
REPRINTED FROM THE ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH