The state, the nation and the media have been distracted by the tragic Florida school shootings, wiping attention away from the U.S. Justice Department's indictment of 13 Russian nationals for breathtaking Russian meddling in the 2016 elections. The public cannot lose sight of that far bigger story of a foreign power undermining our democracy, beginning — we know now from the indictment — in 2014.
Why 2014? Because that is the year that the Obama administration — with the European Union, Canada and other nations — placed harsh sanctions on Russia for its illegal annexation of Crimea.
The sanctions bit hard, leading to the collapse of Russian currency and a financial crisis as sanctions grew to include the major Russian energy firms Rosneft and Novatek, plus two banks, as well as travel and financial restrictions on many pals of Russian President Vladimir Putin. All of this occurred in 2014.
Russia needs those sanctions lifted.
Russia also knew that the putative Democratic presidential nominee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, would continue sanctions. Time to hack e-mails and trickle them to the public and otherwise attack her reputation and destabilize her candidacy.
When Donald Trump entered the political fray, neither Democrat nor Republican, with his many trips and business and financial connections in Russia (tax returns, anyone?), he was the perfect candidate to carry the pro-Russia agenda forward. So Russia helped his campaign in multiple insidious ways, as the indictments detail.
The Trump campaign, though close to Russia, probably did not orchestrate most of this. But Putin certainly did, highly motivated by the sanctions to interfere. And today he has our president and his pro-fossil-fuel, anti-science Cabinet in the palm of his hand. Take Rex Tillerson, a fine executive at Exxon and a fine man. But Exxon lost billions due to the Russian sanctions, undermining a deal inked between Tillerson and Putin, his longtime friend. Anybody not see a problem, though he does not, with his dealing with Putin as secretary of state?
Need more proof?
After Trump’s election, Congress overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan bill authorizing further sanctions on Russia, to penalize known election meddling. Trump fought the bill hard. When it passed anyway, he refused to implement it.
The Justice Department indictment tells a lot about what Russian operatives did to demonize Clinton and later to promote Trump. But they say nothing about why. Now you know why: sanctions.
But why did the voter-disruption strategy work so well? One big reason is that it dovetailed with a powerful propaganda campaign already in place in America since the late 1980s against the facts and science of climate change. Funded by the oil baron Koch brothers and a handful of other anti-regulation ideologues (and initially by Exxon, though not under Tillerson), so-called “climate skepticism” was bruited about by faux think tanks, Fox News and talk radio, radically depressing the American public’s willingness to deal with looming climate chaos. Russian propagandists landed in a fertile field: Facts don’t matter; science doesn’t matter; legitimate news outlets are liars; instead, trust random bloggers and partisan “think tanks” and Facebook bots.
Oil-rich Russia sees itself a winner as the climate changes and thousands of miles of northern coastline melt. To it, stopping the sanctions and the transition to noncarbon sources of energy is a double win.
This is war, and right now America is losing. The public and the media must relentlessly focus on this propaganda and political war, no matter what horrific distractions inevitably come along.
Because make no mistake: The indictments prove that Russia is working for Trump, and Trump’s behavior and Cabinet prove that Trump is working for Russia’s climate future, not America’s.
James P. Lenfestey is a former editorial writer for the Star Tribune covering education, energy and the environment.