Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Putin Wants Chaos. Here’s How He Gets It.

The Russia threat is not just a Donald Trump issue.
June 27, 2019
Putin Wants Chaos. Here’s How He Gets It.
Ro Khanna and Bernie Sanders. (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP)

To hear Democrats preach it, Vladimir Putin owns President Donald Trump. The country has slogged through years of this imprecise narrative. True, Putin has demonstrated a knack for triggering Trump like a foul-mannered Chatty Cathy doll, but triggering is not owning. And frankly, Putin doesn’t want a puppet. He wants chaos–he needs chaos. As one colleague of mine aptly put it, Russian foreign policy is best summed up as an arsonist who burns down a house but then is first to the scene loudly demanding an investigation. 

We know how he gets to Trump. But how then does Putin egg on Trump’s liberal doppelganger, Senator Bernie Sanders? He has to go no farther than California Rep. Ro Khanna. Khanna is the Bernie Bro-in-chief, serving as Sanders’ campaign co-chair. He’s also a repeater station for Kremlin talking points. He is a lil’ Dana Rohrbacher, inheritor of the consistent pro-Kremlin positions of the former California GOP congressman who worked very hard to earn and maintain his title as “Russia’s favorite congressman” before his suburban L.A. constituents got tired of it in 2018. 

Khanna has sermonized about the danger of Ukrainian Nazis, a talking point Putin uses to justify his Ukraine invasion to domestic nationalists. Khanna gifted Putin a propaganda coup by slipping an amendment into a $1.3 trillion spending bill, and Congress enshrined Putin’s propaganda into U.S. law–the law repeated the Kremlin line that Ukraine’s Azov Battalion are militant neo-Nazis and forbid the provision of U.S. arms to them (even though the U.S. Embassy recommended the opposite). Now, Putin uses the law to justify murdering Ukrainians. But all the “Nazi” yahoos, dangerous or not, about whom Putin got Khanna all aflutter were so insignificant that they registered less than 2 percent in a recent Ukrainian vote. 

Khanna also circulated a Dear Colleague” letter to members of Congress warning of Ukranian and Polish Holocaust denialism, complete with tens of thousands of budding fascists sporting Nazi regalia and torches. But compare the letter to one of Russia Today’s endless depictions of Ukrainian Nazis. Kremlin propagandists have spun this looniness for years. And Khanna lent his credibility to it. If the U.S.’s allies begin to be seen as genocidal maniacs and all around bad people, America’s leaders could begin to question the U.S. alliance with them. (Frau Merkel, please call your office). 

Apparently, even Khanna sees this…at least sometimes. He once tweeted (and then deleted), “Russia is trolling America and they’re too stupid to see it. The worst part is they’re doing it at Ukraine’s expense.” Irony is dead. 

Khanna is not a bought and paid for Kremlin stooge, nor is he an idiot. All indications are that he is an intelligent guy. But he clearly mainlines Kremlin propaganda and promotes it uncritically as core Democratic policy. Imagine if Donald Trump had replaced Steve Bannon with Dana Rohrbacher. 

If the Democrat debates this week are to even pretend to be serious, this deserves a discussion. In theory, a candidate with a co-chair, whose district’s economy is at the heart of dealing with the fallout from Russian political warfare and who sits on the House Armed Services Committee would be the perfect candidate to address it. Yet, the chances are pretty slim that Sanders will finger his campaign’s co-chair as a primary example of that threat. 

Russia’s M.O. is to flood the partisan, extremist battlefield with content tailored to all combatants, while also, to paraphrase Hillary, promoting the useful idiot from every village. In the Khanna context, Russia feeds the Bernie Bros with red meat. Then, it promotes the people who respond to it positively. Pretty soon, the Bernie Bro center of gravity takes a sharp left turn. That is where Khanna gets his mojo. 

Want to know why Trump will not denounce Russian election interference? Because Russian content makes the Fox audience heart go pitter patter. Russia is an ally of convenience. And so it is with Bernie

The economy back home in Khanna’s district–the home of social media–has had to grapple with the fallout of having been the primary weapon that Russia used to implement this formula. Whereas most members of Congress would man the ramparts to defend their home district’s industry, Khanna is part of the problem. Some enterprising reporter should ask Google employees, one of Khanna’s largest donor pools, what they think about having sent a Kremlin loudspeaker to Washington. That reporter might discover Facebook executives to be quite willing to throw Khanna under the bus if it gives them a quiet way out of their dilemma.

With the GOP having nullified its credibility to speak on this issue, and with Trump trying to convince the country that the real Sanders threat is that Socialist Grandpa will impose the dictatorship of the proletariat on America, the responsibility lies with the Democrats to bring up the uncomfortable matter of the gull sitting on his Sanders’s shoulder. 

The Democrats shouldn’t kid themselves that they don’t harbor chaos agents and Trump analogs. Obvious Russian shill Tulsi Gabbard is just a distraction. Contra the Democrats’ narrative, the Russia threat is not just a Trump issue. 

And the embodiment of that counter-narrative will be standing on that stage Thursday night. Will any of the other nine have the spinal fortitude to challenge him about his lil’ Dana?

Kristofer Harrison

Kristofer Harrison is senior managing director for a macroeconomic consultancy and is a Russia expert. Previously, he served as an official at both the State and Defense Departments during the George W. Bush administration.  Twitter: @ToferH.