Historian: If Russia Meddled, It Was ‘Average’
Dov Levin of Carnegie Mellon University looked at U.S. and Russian interference in other countries’ elections since World War II and found that the U.S. was far in the lead, interfering over 80 times — and in far more impactful ways than alleged hacking and fake news
AARON MATÉ: It’s the Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. If Russia did try to influence the 2016 U.S. election, how does that compare to other cases of foreign meddling? A new database has a comprehensive answer. Dov Levin of Carnegie Mellon University looked at U.S. and Russian interference in other countries’ elections since the Second World War. According to Levin, the U.S. was far in the lead, interfering over 80 times. This does not count military coups and violent regime changes, such as in Iran, Chile, or Guatemala. Dov Levin is a postdoctoral fellow in the Institute for Politics and Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University. His research project is called Partisan Electoral Interventions by the Great Powers. Dr. Levin, welcome.
DOV LEVIN: Thank you for inviting me.
AARON MATÉ: Let’s start off with your database, what data you looked at, and an overview of what you found.
DOV LEVIN: I basically had for this purpose, it was a project of more than a year collecting the data for this purpose. For this purpose, I basically studied various reliable sources, such as for example, declassified U.S. government documents, when it comes to the U.S. side, and memoirs of former U.S. government officials and former CIA agents, as well as reports by journalists and historians who are based upon these type of sources.
As for the Russian or the Soviet interventions, I depended on sources like for example the Mitrokhin archive, which is a relatively complete resource on the KGB interventions of various kinds, compiled by a former KGB archivist known as Vasili Mitrokhin, who compiled it over 12 years while he was a KGB archivist and then escaped to the West at the end of the Cold War, taking with him summaries of what he had collected during those years, so to speak. Basically, those were my sources for this purpose. Unless I was able to find reliable sources of this kind for any kind of intervention, I did not code a certain claimed intervention as an intervention.
AARON MATÉ: That means that your figures are more than 80 interventions by the U.S. and more than 30, but the number actually could be higher, because you needed the set of information to corroborate that it was indeed interference.
DOV LEVIN: It’s possible that the numbers are even higher, although I believe that I have found the vast majority. It’s of course possible that the CIA or the KGB, FSB were still to hide a few cases here and there, yes.
AARON MATÉ: Of course. As I stressed earlier, you did not include military coups and regime change attempts. Can you tell us a few of the examples that stood out to you, looking back over this long period of election interference, that you think were most interesting?
DOV LEVIN: One interesting example was the American intervention in the 1948 Italian election. In this case, the United States was extremely worried that the Italian Communist Party may win that election, a case in which the United States was worried would lead to Italian democracy ending and also that Italy would become communist and become an ally of the Soviet Union. As a result, the United States began a massive covert and overt operation designed to prevent the Italian voters from voting for the communists. This included, for example, increasing massively American foreign aid to Italy. The United States increased by about $250 million its aid to Italy in the months before the election. The election day, which by the way in today’s money I think is about $1.8 billion aid increase.
At the same time, it was multiple times threatening that all U.S. aid to Italy would be completely cut if the communists would win power in Italy, and also did some covert operations at the same time. For example, the CIA was giving the Christian Democrats, the main anti-communist party then in power under the leadership of Italian Prime Minister De Gasperi a lot of campaign funding to the tune of about $10 million, or in today’s money it’s around $80 million. It also sent in a very large number of campaigning experts that did everything from preparing campaigning materials for the Christian Democrats as well as teaching them various mobilization techniques for this purpose.
AARON MATÉ: Dr. Levin, what stands out to me is another case that is only starting to get attention recently because of the allegations against Russia, and that is the U.S. role in Russia’s elections in the mid-’90s, with Yeltsin. Can you talk about that?
DOV LEVIN: What’s the name you call it? The United States did intervene in one such election to our knowledge, in the 1996 Russian election in the favor of Boris Yeltsin. The idea there was basically that the United States was really worried that the Communist Party candidate, Gennady Zyuganov, would win power, would have a very good chance of winning that election, in which case it was worried that he would reverse a lot of the economic reforms that occurred in Russia at the time and restart the Cold War.
Likewise, many of the other candidates that were other available presidential candidates were very unattractive. One of the other presidential candidates was an outspoken anti-Semite. Another one was a person who was a certified nut, someone who literally came out of a mental institution that was talking about taking back from the United States Alaska, so they were also not attractive. The United States decided in this case to support Boris Yeltsin, who was at the time literally last in the polls. He was sinking. In one poll, he was polling only 6% and last of five candidates.
For that purpose, the United States pressured the IMF to give Russia a loan of about $10 billion, which was the second-largest loan given by the IMF at the time, although the Russia at the time was not eligible under regular IMF criteria to such a loan. Basically, about $1.3 billion of that loan arrived to Russia before this election, and then Yeltsin used that money in order to pay wage arrears for government workers who did not get their wages paid for months, as well as for various pork projects that naturally improved his popularity. We also sent American advisors from the former Pete Wilson campaign to give advice to the Yeltsin campaign.
AARON MATÉ: Governor of California.
DOV LEVIN: Yeah, from the Pete Wilson campaign in California, to give him advice on how to run the campaign, on better ads, on polling, and so forth. They helped make sure that he ran a better campaign and run better ads and so forth. Those two factors are believed to have helped Yeltsin reach in the first round the situation where he was ahead of Gennady Zyuganov and eventually win that election.
AARON MATÉ: Okay. It’s really interesting to compare that one case to what Russia is accused of doing now. Let’s talk about that. I have two questions. In terms of what Russia is accused of doing, so leaking emails, fake news, and social media bots, if I have that correctly, that’s what they’re accused of doing. A, I’m wondering how impactful you think that was on this election, and B, how you think it stacks up in comparison to all the other cases that you’ve studied going back to the Second World War.
DOV LEVIN: First, just to make clear, given the evidence it is pretty certain that there was indeed such an intervention by Russia in the 2016 U.S. election. The method used by Russia for this purpose, aside of the hacking, was not a new method. That is, the hacking itself was indeed new, but the particular method they used, which I call dirty tricks or basically leaking information that makes one of the sides look bad, in this regard is not a new method. It’s a method that was regularly used by Russia, in a few cases also by the United States, frequently in the past. I actually find in my dataset that the Russians or before them the Soviets, that’s the second most frequent method that they have used in their interventions since World War Two in this regard.
As for the overall effectiveness, it is too early to tell. That is, I know that the average effect of these interventions is a 3% increase in the vote share of the side that is being assisted. However, that is a statistical average. Sometimes it’s much more. Sometimes it’s much less. Given the magnitude of the election victory by Donald Trump, it was a very narrow election victory based on about 100,000 voters in three states, it is quite possible that that was the thing that made the difference. However, it is nevertheless too early to tell yet in this particular case. We are still waiting for more evidence, which hopefully the various investigations in this regard will be able to provide the conclusive answer in one way or the other.
AARON MATÉ: Okay. In terms of how it compares to other elections, other election interference? If it … I want to say, I don’t share your conclusion. I don’t think it’s been proven yet that Russia did anything. We have the claims of anonymous officials, and we have a lot of supposition and speculation, but I don’t think we’ve seen hard evidence yet.
Anyway, even if it is all true, how does it compare in terms of its magnitude with the interference in all these other places that you studied?
DOV LEVIN: Basically, it is compared to many other interventions, as I said, it is an average magnitude compared to many other interventions. That is, the magnitude of the intervention done is about on par to many other election interventions that I have studied that have occurred since World War II, so to speak.
AARON MATÉ: Okay, given that, let me ask you then about the rhetoric that we hear, because the way it’s talked about among some [inaudible 00:12:51] here in the U.S. is in terms of war. We hear people calling this international warfare, talking about a Russian attack on our election. Rhetorically, what do you think of this language that has been used to describe Russia’s alleged meddling?
DOV LEVIN: Again, I am not an expert on American media. I am a scholar of international relations. Naturally, what I find as a scholar of international relations studying these cases, that usually the targets of such interventions are not happy when they become targets of such interventions, and they usually are very unhappy when they discover such interventions. When these things are overt, usually they are of course very unhappy, and when covert intervention of these kinds become exposed, they’re especially unhappy.
What happened that you are seeing a lot of people extremely unhappy about the exposure of the Russian intervention is not unusual in this regard, so to speak. People tend to be unhappy about foreign meddling by a foreign power in their election processes.
AARON MATÉ: Fair enough. We’ll leave it there. Dov Levin, postdoctoral fellow in the Institute for Politics and Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University. His research project is called Partisan Electoral Interventions by the Great Powers. Dr. Levin, thank you.
DOV LEVIN: Thank you very much.
AARON MATÉ: Thank you for joining us on the Real News.