Trump! Russians! Russian ambassador! Trump!
In all this hubbub about who did or did not ‘meet the Russian ambassador’ in Washington and when and why, let’s look at what diplomats actually do before an election in a country to which they’re posted.
When an election looms, diplomats get a little frisson of excitement. They have something to tell HQ that HQ might actually read for a change. HQ wants the answer to two questions:
Who’s going to win?
Will it make any difference to HQ’s policies?
Diplomats scurry to and fro to try to answer these questions. If it looks like the current leadership are going to lose, diplomats want to find ways to ‘get alongside’ the likely winners so as to be nicely placed to advance HQ’s interests when the new team take over.
Meanwhile serious election contenders and their teams like to have foreign diplomats hovering in the margins of the campaign. It makes them feel important. And they can talk over foreign policy/trade/security issues to help prepare themselves for starting governing effectively after their glorious victory. They sound out said diplomats on how their candidate will be received overseas: when might a first top visit take place?
Thus the UK embassy in Warsaw in 2005.
It so happened that both parliamentary and presidential elections would take place in the same year. It was clear that the ex-communist ruling SLD party were going to be massacred in the parliamentary elections that came first, with some sort of ‘centre-right’ government replacing them. Everyone expected the Citizens Platform party led by Donald Tusk to come first and form a coalition with the Kaczynski twins’ Law and Justice party, with Tusk then romping to victory in the subsequent presidential elections. The media ran well-sourced pieces explaining who would get which job.
As it happened, the UK had the EU Presidency in the second half of 2005. So I followed the local tradition and invited senior Polish politicians to monthly lunches with EU ambassadors. With the autumn elections in mind I managed to secure both Włodimierz Cimoszewicz (SLD presidential candidate) and a beaming Donald Tusk to attend these lunches and brief the EU ambassadors on their likely policies.
While all that was going on, my embassy team and I were also doing what we could to talk privately to the different Polish party leadership teams and so position ourselves to have positive businesslike relationships with whichever formation finally emerged as winners.
Just before the parliamentary elections I sent the usual authoritative analysis to London complete with my prediction, namely that Citizens Platform would win.
But they didn’t. Law and Justice edged them into second. And so I sent a new report to London saying that everything I had told them about the elections for the past year had turned out to be worthless, and I did not have the foggiest idea what would happen next. The truth is always the best story.
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In short, it is completely normal and helpful in a democracy before an election for senior election candidates and their teams to meet foreign diplomats, nay ambassadors, as a group or privately.
That said, it is NOT normal for diplomats openly or even quietly to be seen to back one side in an election. Even then this happens in extreme situations. See eg the 2000 elections that finally brought down Milošević.
It was obvious that US/EU embassies were keen to see the anti-Milošević forces win, and here and there were offering active indirect support to them, just as it was no less obvious that the Russian embassy much preferred things to stay as they were.
Indeed, in this Serbia case Russian diplomacy made a fool of itself by backing a dying stupid horse, to the extent of sucking up to Miloševićism so much that they scarcely talked to the opposition side. They did not think they needed to do so. They knew that the result would be fixed to block drastic change. As a top Russian diplomat told me not long before the election, “We both know – even if Milošević loses, he’ll stay in power!“
The scale of Milošević’s defeat was so immense that he was swept from office, causing Russian foreign minister Ivanov to make a humiliating dash to Belgrade to try to salvage something from the rubble.
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That sort of thing is highly unusual. Diplomats follow elections closely but they don’t ‘take sides’. If one foreign government really wants X to beat Y in an election, openly supporting X simply allows Y to hoot to voters that X is a tool of foreign puppets. And if Y in fact wins, Y will enter government highly suspicious of the foreign capital concerned. Why get that involved? You never know what might happen.
So what’s the story in Washington now?
This one is rather different, in that stories are swirling around that ‘the Russians’ openly supported Donald Trump to the extent of helping him beat Mrs Clinton, eg by leaking via Wikileaks all sorts of disobliging Hillary camp material and/or emitting in the general direction of the gullible US voters prodigious quantities of #fakenews that made zany Trump much more acceptable. It therefore follows (or does it?) that any meetings between the Trump camp and the Russian ambassador must be sinister or at least highly suspicious, unlike any meetings by Democrats. Look how Trump said all those positive/uncritical things about Putin! Look how Russia TV was extolling him! It all adds up!
The Russian embassy in Washington will have had a keen and active interest in the result of the US 2016 elections: Moscow wanted to know whether the winners would be more or less inclined to left sanctions on Russia and take a more ‘understanding’ approach to Russia’s attacks on Ukraine and wider European security and arms control issues. Russian diplomats and the ambassador himself will have been doing the rounds during the campaign, doing their best to avoid bumping into myriad other diplomats doing the same for their governments.
It’s also safe to say that insofar as the Kremlin has been orchestrating mischief in the Western media via Wikileaks or paid Internet trolls, the Russian ambassador in Washington will not have been in on the plans and details. He instead will have been keeping a wary eye on the sullen Technical Attaché down the corridor whose only real job is report to the GRU/SVR in Moscow on the embassy’s state of loyalty.
We have no idea how far Trump’s team may have hinted to Moscow that (say) US sanctions policy towards Russia might be eased should Trump win. Even if they did so, the Russian embassy would have known that plenty of Republicans would not be happy with that, so it would be unclear how far if at all any such policy would be implemented.
Donald Trump did win. But his top administration appointments will have given Moscow little joy, not least bringing in Fiona Hill as a senior adviser. She knows a thing or two about the Kremlin and its machinations.
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Messy. As usual.
But let’s all agree that any top American election candidate dropping big private hints to senior Russians about changing US policy in a more ‘flexible’ direction for Moscow after the next elections is behaving shamefully and deserves all possible obloquy. Right?