The Great Game

I opened a window in another student’s house when I was in college and climbed in to watch the Nixon impeachment hearings. Nowadays I don’t need to break into anybody’s place, I just need to bring an iPad to work.

(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

But I am still fascinated by the spectacle, by the brunt of the questions, the witness’s expression and answers, the formality of the historied setting, the press crammed in around the edges of the room, the war of arguments.

It is true that the current impeachment hearings will not result in a president’s removal from office. So with less at stake it may be that much of America is tuning out.

But I don’t know quite why, because the story that is unfolding reminds me of a cloak and dagger novel, only in real life, taking place in a vast, populous, naturally rich nation that has been coveted by greater powers for centuries.

It is in a way a master Soviet intelligence officer’s home ground, a neighboring state that has long been the scene of meddling and influence coming from Moscow. And if you look at it as a modern version of the Great Game between the Russian and British empires, then you can see Ukraine as a pawn in the modern version of that old game.

The pawn – which is roughly the size of France – is trying to move outside of the Russian orbit and toward Europe. In contesting that movement, Russia and its leader have employed military force to break off the eastern part of Ukraine, in addition to seizing the Crimean Peninsula and doubling that prize by controlling access to the vast Sea of Azov.

So which side of that territorial chessboard is our president playing on. As Americans, we would assume he is positioned on the side of Europe and the West.

So my ears perked up as I realized belatedly that the theory of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. election was not simply a conspiracy theory developed by the right-wing of U.S. politics.

The testimony showed the theory originated with the Russians.

An exhibit displayed during the impeachment hearings quoted from a press conference by Hungary’s leader Viktor Orban and Russia’s President Putin in 2017, where Putin commented, “As we all know, during the presidential campaign in the United States, the Ukrainian government adopted a unilateral position in favor of one candidate. More than that, certain oligarchs, certainly with the approval of the political leadership, funded this candidate, or female candidate, to be more precise.”

The staff lawyer for the Democrats, Daniel Goldman, asked the witness, Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, “Now, how would this theory of Ukraine interference in the 2016 election be in Vladimir Putin’s interest?”

Her answer: “President Putin must have been aware that there were concerns in the U.S. about Russian meddling in the 2016 elections, and what the potential was for Russian meddling in the future. Classic for an intelligence officer to try to throw off the scent and create an alternative narrative that, maybe, might get picked up and get some credence.”

And Putin hit the jackpot. His narrative gained credence with the American president.

In this week’s testimony, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman also described the theory of Ukrainian interference as a “Russian narrative.”

It seems clear from the course of testimony in the impeachment hearings that President Trump held up a package of aid to Ukraine, aid intended to help that country fight off aggression from a country 25 times larger. Whether that amounts to a high crime or misdemeanor remains to be decided.

But that withholding of aid would self-evidently be in Mr. Putin’s interest given that it was military aid and Ukraine was engaged in a “hot war,” as the witnesses described it, with Russian forces.

While the point seems to have largely washed out of the national discussion, it came up peripherally in the impeachment testimony – the point that the U.S. intelligence community has concluded that Russian operatives used social media to intercede in the U.S. elections in favor of President Trump.

The Russians worked to put the president in office and then worked to establish a false narrative to cover their interference. The beneficiary of that interference becomes president and then helps the Russians spread the false narrative while also depriving military aid to a West-leaning nation that is fighting the Russians.

So it all comes down to a pretty simple conclusion. The former Soviet intelligence officer is playing the great game with great success, and the former TV entertainer is not. He is, rather, being played.

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