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There's a frequently expressed sentiment that Putin has been bankrolling all the bad things in Western politics in recent years.

For example: Why does Russia specifically fund far-rights in Europe?

The idea of malign influence from the Russian direction is not new - in its era, the USSR was regarded as a constant menace to the Western capitalist world.

First, what (if anything) has changed to make the West suddenly more susceptible to such interference?

Or if nothing has changed (as a commenter suggested via a proposed edit), then why would the political system in the West be under any new adverse influence than it was when the USSR openly contended for supremacy?

Second, if we accept the existence of the influence mechanism in principle and susceptibility to influence, could other bad things in the West be attributable to foreign or sectarian meddling? Such as (I would argue) austerity politics, free trade, and globalism?

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    could other bad things... ... ... austerity politics, free trade, and globalism --- How do you conclude that those are bad things?
    – user366312
    Jul 15, 2023 at 11:04
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    the West suddenly more susceptible to such interference --- How do you deduce that?
    – user366312
    Jul 15, 2023 at 11:07
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    @user366312, on your first comment, I assert they are bad because they are correlated with a collapse in living standards. The average American worker hasn't seen real pay rise since about 1970, when global financial regulations started to break down and global free trade started to return to the agenda. Similarly in 1979, the UK lifted capital controls, and shortly afterwards there was an economic crash that destroyed millions of jobs and a lot of industrial production. Today, austerity continues to destroy public services and even basic infrastructure like road surfaces.
    – Steve
    Jul 15, 2023 at 11:13
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    @user366312, on your second comment, I'm deducing that susceptibility must have increased because conflict with Russia (and the broadly equivalent predecessor state in that region, the USSR) isn't new. In fact the West has been prepared in the past for total war during the Cold War era. But nobody said Khrushchev was swinging US elections.
    – Steve
    Jul 15, 2023 at 11:20
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    The edits I proposed were a first step at turning this into a reasonable question. If you want this reopened, it'll need a lot more work.
    – bharring
    Jul 18, 2023 at 13:23

2 Answers 2

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At least two major factors:

  1. Between about 1990 through about 2010, Russia collapsed, flirted with a liberalized, free society, then re-entrenched back to a totalitarian state.

During this time, Russia lacked first the means, then later the desire, to meddle in foreign affairs, for roughly twenty years.

Russia was so cordial with the West that American views shifted somewhat to seeing Russia as a peer and potential friend for the first time. For example, in the 2008 election US presidential election, one of the touchpoints was Russia; one candidate (Romney) suggested Russia was an enemy, and he paid dearly for that view in popular opinion. To the American electorate, the Cold War was over and Russia was finally a peer.

Russia has since returned to an antagonistic relationship with the West, going so far as to invade Ukraine when a Russian-friendly Prime Minister was ousted by his own party (for shooting protestors) in 2014. When they couldn't win on ideas, they decided to win with violence.

So it may look like Russian influence is new, but that's only because we had a wonderful break from Russian imperialism that lasted decades.

  1. Modern Interconnected World

It's a much smaller world now.

The biggest part of this is the internet. It's a lot cheaper and easier to influence populations when you can post a screed to a board seen locally from the other side of the world.

It's not hard to have an individual in Timbuktu write a question on a message board about something seemingly reasonable, and either heavily imply FUD so it gets accepted as truth (see "free trade bad" in this very question: we could argue that point for days, but instead it just gets implied here and gains market share without debate), or pushes a conversation in a direction they want (like one poster asserting Reagan shows that Democrats think we should force Ukraine to surrender).

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    Also, whether someone is genuinely popular doesn't change whether an external party supported them. US revolutionaries weren't right just because France supported them.
    – bharring
    Jul 17, 2023 at 14:13
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    There's also quite a difference between "Russia determined the election" and "Russia influenced the election".
    – bharring
    Jul 17, 2023 at 15:59
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    I would argue the difference between determine vs influence really does exist when discussing the primacy of a cause. Especially in that case. I'd say perhaps we should take this to chat, but if half your comments are aimed at asserting controversial theories or conspiracies, I'm not sure if there will be value. Comments here aren't the place to propose your personal political theories or browbeat "America bad, Russia good" into the common discourse.
    – bharring
    Jul 17, 2023 at 16:23
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    The problem is that the allegation that "Russia influences elections" is itself a conspiracy. We are discussing conspiracies.
    – Steve
    Jul 17, 2023 at 16:26
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    To say that Putin influences American elections is a pretty controversial statement. Because if nothing else it says that the American state, with its power and security apparatus, is incapable of defending its own supposed democratic processes from corruption. If the Americans can be swayed, then what hope smaller and weaker "democratic" states? Frankly I think its a sign of the rot that such claims are regarded as mundane and uncontroversial. (1/3)
    – Steve
    Jul 17, 2023 at 19:46
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Firstly, the USA meddled in more elections around the globe than Russia did.

Secondly, the USA is involved in more regime change than Russia (excluding the USSR).

What has changed to make the West suddenly more susceptible to such interference?

Russia retaliated after a long time.

When the Cold War was over, Russia plunged into economic and political chaos. Then came Boris Yeltsin, a Western sympathizer who allowed Western businessmen to exert influence on the Russian economy. Then, Putin came to power and he took a long time to consolidate. In the meantime, the US and the West were enjoying a hall pass in international politics.

When Russia decided to retaliate, then the West became nervous, and hence the hullabaloo.

Other factors are:

  1. Social media: Social media has made it easier for foreign actors to manipulate public opinion and sow discord in Western societies.

  2. The erosion of trust in traditional sources of information: With the rise of social media, traditional sources of information such as newspapers and TV news have lost their monopoly. This has led to a proliferation of sources of information, some of which are unreliable or outright false. This has contributed to a growing mistrust of traditional institutions and a willingness to believe in other forms of disinformation.

  3. The rise of populist movements: Populist movements have gained ground in many Western countries in recent years, fueled in part by economic anxiety, immigration, and a sense of cultural and national identity under threat. These movements often espouse anti-establishment and anti-globalist rhetoric, which can make them more susceptible to foreign influence.

  4. The weakening of democratic institutions: In some Western countries, democratic institutions such as the judiciary, the media, and civil society have been weakened in recent years. This has created a vacuum that can be exploited by foreign actors seeking to influence political outcomes.

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  • Aside from 1990 to say 2010, are you saying that pre-1990 Western politics were meddled with by the USSR to the same degree as Russia meddles today? (1/3)
    – Steve
    Jul 15, 2023 at 11:52
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    Might be worth a separate question asking the difference between policy discussion "interference " and "participation ", although that may come down to opinion.
    – bharring
    Jul 15, 2023 at 17:25
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    @Steve I don't understand your point. This answer isn't stating social media effects are limited to foreign influencers, only that social media + the decline of, even partisan, traditional news sources are a facilitator to sowing distrust, one of the possible actors then taking advantage are foreign actors. If it's domestic actors, then it's not foreign interference, just domestic politics so outside of scope of Q. Jul 16, 2023 at 6:51
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    Your claim that the US is meddling more than Russia is insufficiently supported. Your Wikipedia link compares US meddling from 1848 to 2023 with Russian meddling from 1991 to 2023. The book you cite is only describes meddling in elections, not more violent kinds of support (for instance, Assad would probably not be president of Syria without Russia's military aid). Moreover, this claims seem unrelated to the question being asked.
    – meriton
    Jul 16, 2023 at 13:49
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    Your claim that Russia is "retaliating" is wholly unsupported. That would presume that the US government has meddled in Russia, for which you show no evidence at all. Even if Yeltsin sympathized with the west, and allowed "Western businessmen" to exert influence (both claims for which you offer no evidence), western businessmen are not the US government.
    – meriton
    Jul 16, 2023 at 14:01

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