We have been so preoccupied talking about the effects of Russian interference that discussion of their motivations has largely been ignored. Russia desires a return to a state of global affairs that never was; they seek the wealth, power and status fitting of an empire. To do that, they require their elite class to be fully empowered in the short-term and a path to Russian domination of what was once “theirs” in the long-term.
One of the most curious theories of motivation here relates to a little-known 2012 piece of legislation called the Magnitsky Act. Named for the murdered lawyer of American businessman Bill Browder, these sanctions affect the most powerful oligarchs in Russia by freezing their financial assets and allowing the United States to withhold visas on the grounds that those sanctioned are human rights violators.
Because those amorphous yet all-powerful oligarchs are at the center of both Russian political society and the Magnitsky Act, the Russian government has been actively working to see that the sanctions are repealed. This effort may seem small, but Russian actions since the sanctions were put in place indicates that they highly value sanction repeal. These sanctions truly do make the lives of those under them much more difficult. Although the Russian government answered the sanctions by halting U.S. adoptions of Russian children simply, sanctions on those at the top is not equivalent to barring adoptions in their eyes. Sanction repeal is high on their list of short-term priorities, if not at the top.
But how do you repeal sanctions another country’s government has placed on citizens of your country? For starters, you have to look at who has the power to affect change on laws that have already been passed. The public’s opinion is neither likely to move strongly into Russia’s favor, so it seems they would have to convince legislators’ minds on sanctions themselves. One way to convince legislators would be to impact Congressional races, but given how vast a typical president’s agenda-setting powers are, the indirect method of priming a president to be warm to pro-Russia policies is an acceptable route to putting sanctions repeal in place.
We cannot say exactly how heavily the sanctions of the Magnitsky Act weighed on those connected to the Russian government who sought to influence our elections. We can say that the entire intelligence community agrees that the Russians did meddle in our democratic process. We can also say that every time we hear whispers of “adoptions” being discussed at meetings with Russians, those meetings almost certainly discussed those sanctions – and their possible repeal. As the Trump presidency continues, it is imperative that we, as citizens, pay attention to any news regarding the Magnitsky Act sanctions, as that news may lead us to more answers.
Far bolder than sanctions, though, is the nostalgic desire for the rise of Russian greatness. Rooted in fondness for warbly memories of imperial glory, the Russians are hungry to regain territory and power they lost when the Soviet Union fell. We can see this clearly in Russian expansion into parts of Ukraine, which has diminished the sovereignty of a nation which once flirted with notions of fully westernizing and joining the European Union.
In order to regain control over the former Soviet bloc countries, though, Russia must exist in a world where the NATO alliance will not retaliate against, say, an invasion of one of the Baltic nations right on Russia’s border, with the full force of every NATO member as the agreement stimulates must happen.
NATO is built on every nation’s trust that every other member nation will rise to their defense should the need arise. All it takes, then, to make NATO falter is a loss of confidence that other nations will honor the agreement. Should the United States pull away from its symbolic support of Russia, then maybe they could look past a transgression into Estonia. If there is the possibility that Estonia could be invaded without retaliation by the United States, then what country is deemed important enough to protect? It is this kind of thinking that damages the value of NATO, which is why we see such convenient alignment between inward-focused nativist sentiments and candidates who received the brunt of the benefits of Russian interventions.
As much as we would enjoy always having perfect information, sometimes guesses at a country’s intentions are just that: guesses. The Russians have tipped their hand enough, though, that our guesses at their preferred outcomes seem to hold up thus far. Knowing how much they value sanctions repeal and that eastern expansion is always on their mind, we can better interpret actions by our government – and any new information that comes to light regarding ties to that meddlesome Russian interference. The sordid details of how any potential collusion might have come to be will draw the headlines, but we must not forget to also consider what their interests really are.