The diplomatic relationship between the United States and Russia has reached its lowest point since the dissolution of the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War. In Crimea, Syria, the Baltics, and across the globe, Russian-American tension has reached a boiling point. The retired Russian Lt. Gen. Yevgeny Buzhinsky put it best: “As far as Russia sees it, as Putin sees it, it is full-scale confrontation on all fronts. If you want a confrontation, you’ll get one.”
Russia continues to toe the line in its dealings with the United States, pushing the buttons of American leaders and flexing its remarkable power to frustrate without provoking a consequential response. Though the sanctions imposed on Russia following the annexation of Crimea have sent the Russian economy into a nosedive, they have done little to hurt President Vladimir Putin’s public image—in fact, they may well have improved it. After all, does anyone really think Putin fears the empty condemnations of American politicians?
This September, however, Putin’s government entered previously uncharted territory. In what U.S. officials have called a “propaganda ploy” and “nothing more than a P.R. stunt,” the Russian consul general sent letters to multiple states, including Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas, requesting to “monitor” the American election process for abnormalities. Russia, of course, has a well-documented history of political corruption and election-rigging, so the move appears to have been made with the intent of ruffling the feathers of American leaders in the wake of President-Elect Donald Trump’s controversial pre-vote declaration that “the election will be rigged.” Regardless of Putin’s preference between Trump and his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton (though most commentators think Russia will benefit more from a Trump presidency), you can bet he enjoys watching American politician scramble to defend our election process.
But is Russia’s request truly outlandish? On paper, the answer is no. Election observation has been a common practice since the end of World War II. To ensure fair votes, free from outside influence or extralegal pressures, groups like the United Nations (UN), the OSCE, and many others organized teams to facilitate elections and report on their legitimacy. Even though the UN has largely stopped monitoring political processes, instead favoring peacekeeping operations and election assistance, the practice of monitoring continues today.
Several international bodies sent observers to the polls on November 8, including the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The OAS delegation, led by the former President of Costa Rica, Laura Chinchilla, is composed of 41 members from 18 countries and expects to publish a report on the American voting process in the next few weeks with a particular focus on the roles played by early voting, campaign financing, technology, and the media in shaping the election, according to CNN. This November marks the first time the OAS has sent a delegation to observe an American presidential election.
The OSCE’s observation team is larger, totaling over 400 delegates in number who will be stationed in 33 states. Notably, this figure is more than ten times greater than the number of OSCE observers deployed to the United States in 2012. The increase is a result of changes to voter identification laws and other election regulations, in addition to Trump’s widely publicized comments about the integrity of the American voting process. To remain a member of the OSCE, of which Russia is also a member, a country must accept its observers. The United States has done so in the past, while also sending observers as part of other OSCE delegations.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, one must consider the fact that the United States has observed Russian elections on numerous occasions, most recently the 2012 vote that resulted in Putin’s return to the Russian presidency. Because Americans have observed the Russian political process, some have argued, Russia’s request cannot be considered any different.
Much of the reasoning behind the states’ rejection boils down to semantics. The official request from the consul general asked to “monitor” the election rather than just “observe,” a distinction of importance to the State Department. Whereas the OAS and OSCE delegations emphasize their roles as uninvolved viewers who may not intervene under any circumstances, the term “monitor” apparently implies a less passive role.
In addition, American officials have raised concerns about the significant part Russia played in the campaigns leading up to the November 8 election, with some such as President Barack Obama’s Press Secretary, Josh Earnest, cautioning voters to be “suspicious” of Russia’s intentions. Earnest referenced reports made by independent analysts that confirmed in September Russia’s involvement in several cyberattacks on American politicians, particularly the Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign. Emails from campaign chairman John Podesta were stolen and provided to WikiLeaks, an organization that publishes classified documents, while voter information lists and other important documents have been leaked. Multiple hacking collectives thought to be tied to the attacks, including one that features a cybercriminal known as Guccifer 2.0, have been confirmed to be located within Russia. Trump’s campaign also praised Putin as an expert negotiator and a powerful leader; those comments, combined with Trump’s evident lack of understanding of foreign policy issues, make it likely that Russia is pleased with his election victory.
The hostile nature of Russia’s request and the response it received reflects the declining state of modern international diplomacy. Social media outlets like Twitter and Instagram have made it easier for diplomats to immediately release poorly conceived statements following provocations from other states, which starkly contrast the calculated, tempered responses that were typical of the pre-internet age. In the last few years, American representatives have become especially known for “trolling,” an act defined by Prof. Daniel Drezner of Tufts University as “writ[ing] something that provokes a target into an angry or emotional response—and, in the process, attract[ing] attention and reframe[ing] a debate in a way that is more favorable to one’s own viewpoint.” State Department officials and even members of Congress have made—and fallen victim to—attempts to portray political rivals in a negative light through often comedic means. Even other countries have gotten in on the fun: the Canadian delegation to NATO, for example, tweeted “a guide for Russian soldiers who keep getting lost & ‘accidentally’ entering #Ukraine” after Russia annexed Crimea.
Many have called Russia’s request to monitor American polling stations an act of trolling, as it has provoked U.S. politicians to respond negatively while portraying Russia in a positive, if somewhat ironic, manner. Regardless of the true intent of the letter, Russian representatives were not present at polling stations on November 8, but we will know soon whether their stated fear of election-rigging was founded.