Russia has done this before. And I’m not even talking about the Soviet era, when the USSR simply took control of various governments by direct force of arms. No, I’m talking about stealthily subverting another country’s election and placing its puppet into power. That’s what Russia did to Poland-Lithuania during the 18th century.
How many of you, I wonder, knew that Lithuania was once the largest country in Europe? Moreover, that was before it joined with Poland to become, for a time, not only the dominant power in Eastern Europe, but also one with a significant degree of democracy. Before I discuss this history, I must mention the brilliant scholar and teacher under whom I studied it in graduate school, Andrzej Kaminski. One of my favorite memories from those classes was when the professor, a native Polish speaker, responded to a student’s request for more time to complete an assignment by saying, “My nose bleeds for you.”
After the enactment of the Union of Lublin in 1569, the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania was an elected, constitutional monarchy, where the king’s powers were counterbalanced by a parliament that was no rubber stamp. Although the right to elect the king and members of the legislature was limited to male noblemen, the nobility was estimated to be somewhere between 8-15% of the population—far higher than in any other European country at the time.
In 1610 Poland-Lithuania looked for a moment like it might come to dominate Russia after winning a series of battles with the country and having the son of its king crowned tsar.
In the end, however, the tables were turned. Russia began grabbing more and more territory from its western neighbor. The end result was the Partitions of Poland which, between 1772 and 1795, divvied up the country’s remaining territory among Austria, Prussia, and Russia—with the latter taking the lion’s share. How did this happen? It’s a long story, but in short, it’s because significant elements of the country’s political leadership sold it out to Moscow:
During the reign of Władysław IV (1632–48), the liberum veto was developed, a policy of parliamentary procedure based on the assumption of the political equality of every "gentleman", with the corollary that unanimous consent was needed for all measures. A single member of parliament's belief that a measure was injurious to his own constituency (usually simply his own estate), even after the act had been approved, became enough to strike the act. Thus it became increasingly difficult to undertake action. The liberum veto also provided openings for foreign diplomats to get their ways, through bribing nobles to exercise it. Thus, one could characterise Poland–Lithuania in its final period (mid-18th century) before the partitions as already in a state of disorder and not a completely sovereign state, and almost as a vassal state, with Russian tsars effectively choosing Polish kings. This applies particularly to the last Commonwealth King Stanisław August Poniatowski, who for some time had been a lover of Russian Empress Catherine the Great.
As Eric Lohr, an American University historian specializing in Russia, summarized it, “By the early 18th century, Russia was routinely meddling in internal Polish electoral politics.” This should sound quite familiar to Americans in the era of Donald Trump.
Vladimir Putin’s Russia interfered in our elections in 2016, as U.S. intelligence agencies have clearly documented. Not only that, but Moscow has spent years denying it and deflecting blame by spreading the false rumor that Ukraine—a country that, like 18th-century Poland, it wants to weaken and ultimately dominate—was the one who did it.
Any objective analysis would treat those Russian denials as no more trustworthy than, for another example, Russian claims that they strictly follow all the anti-doping rules that govern international athletics (not only did they cheat, they invented fake evidence to try and discredit the whistleblower who exposed their cheating. Let’s hope Trump doesn’t copy Putin on that score as well.)
Putin’s success in placing his chosen candidate in the Oval Office is so thorough that Trump and his allies are now parroting the false rumor about Ukrainian meddling—one that clearly benefits Russian interests—in their bogus impeachment defense. Reported The New York Times,
The Republican defense of Mr. Trump became central to the impeachment proceedings when Fiona Hill, a respected Russia scholar and former senior White House official, added a harsh critique during testimony on Thursday [November 21]. She told some of Mr. Trump’s fiercest defenders in Congress that they were repeating “a fictional narrative.” She said that it likely came from a disinformation campaign by Russian security services, which also propagated it.
In a briefing that closely aligned with Dr. Hill’s testimony, American intelligence officials informed senators and their aides in recent weeks that Russia had engaged in a yearslong campaign to essentially frame Ukraine as responsible for Moscow’s own hacking of the 2016 election, according to three American officials. The briefing came as Republicans stepped up their defenses of Mr. Trump in the Ukraine affair.
The revelations demonstrate Russia’s persistence in trying to sow discord among its adversaries — and show that the Kremlin apparently succeeded, as unfounded claims about Ukrainian interference seeped into Republican talking points. American intelligence agencies believe Moscow is likely to redouble its efforts as the 2020 presidential campaign intensifies. The classified briefing for senators also focused on Russia’s evolving influence tactics, including its growing ability to better disguise operations.
As Dr. Hill noted in her testimony, “The Russians have a particular vested interest in putting Ukraine, Ukrainian leaders in a very bad light.” Trump and his buddies—from Rep. Devin Nunes, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, to Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana—are playing right along, doing Putin’s bidding (although Kennedy backtracked and pretended he hadn’t understood the question he’d been asked).
Even Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who had said in July 2017, "I am confident that the Russians meddled in this election, as is the entire intelligence community," and then declared that he stood by that assessment a few months later—after Trump said that he believed Putin’s denial—is now toeing the Kremlin’s line. Pompeo this week was asked if our government, along with that of Ukraine, should investigate the debunked claim that Kyiv, not Moscow, had interfered in our election by stealing those infamous emails from the Democratic National Committee. Rather than again reaffirm what he said in 2017, Pompeo instead backed his boss and said, ”Any time there is information that indicates that any country has messed with American elections, we not only have a right, but a duty to make sure we chase that down.” As Politico put it, he “appeared to bolster the conspiratorial claim, promoted by President Donald Trump, that it was Ukraine that hacked the DNC server in the 2016 White House race.”
We can hear the chuckling all the way from Moscow.x
Here's how Putin feels about the impeachment hearings: "Thank God nobody is accusing us any more of interfering in the U.S. elections.""Now they're accusing Ukraine" pic.twitter.com/zQ14uRgWKG— Bloomberg TicToc (@TicToc) November 21, 2019
Putin, ever so clever, yukked it up last month about sticking his fingers into our elections next year as well. More ominously, in 2018 he suggested that even if the people responsible for interfering in our 2016 elections were Russian citizens, they might well have been Jews.x
Repulsive Putin remark deserves to be denounced, soundly and promptly, by world leaders. Why is Trump silent? Intolerance is intolerable. https://t.co/ZxQHvIWs5w— Richard Blumenthal (@SenBlumenthal) March 10, 2018
It’s important to remember that The Man Who Lost The Popular Vote has acted in ways that align with Russian interests since long before the impeachment inquiry began. He isn’t just cozying up to Putin to save his presidency—cozying up to Putin has defined his presidency.
There are striking parallels between the actions of some corrupt members of the early modern Polish nobility—those who placed their narrow personal interests above those of their country—and those of Trump and his ever-Trumper allies who are placing the interests of their party, or simply its leader, above those of our country.
In both cases, the actions of these sellouts allowed a foreign power—the same one, in fact—to exercise what certainly appears to be a significant degree of control over the country they were sworn to serve. Just ask the Poles how well that worked out for them in the long run.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh's Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)