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April 15, 2021
April 15 is a curiously fraught day in American history.
In 1865, President Abraham Lincoln breathed his last at 7:22 a.m., and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who adored the president, said, “Now he belongs to the ages.”
In 1912, the British passenger liner RMS Titanic sank at 2:20 a.m. after hitting an iceberg in the North Atlantic.
In 1920, two security guards in Braintree, Massachusetts, were murdered on this date; Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti would be accused of the crime, convicted, and, in 1927, executed.
In 1947, Jackie Robinson debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking the color line in baseball.
And in 2013, two bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and wounding 264 others.
The significance of April 15, 2021 is not nearly as obviously dramatic as any of these other landmark days, but there was, in fact, new information that shifts our understanding of both our past and our future.
Today, the Treasury Department announced sanctions against sixteen entities and sixteen individuals working with the Russian government who tried to swing the 2020 presidential election or who were involved in the recent cyberattack on federal agencies and American businesses. The sanctions have teeth: they prohibit U.S. banks from investing in Russian bonds, making it hard for Russia to borrow money. The U.S. also expelled ten Russian diplomats. NATO officials expressed their support for the U.S. move, British officials called in the Russian ambassador to express their concern at Russia’s “pattern of malign activity,” and Poland expelled three Russian diplomats.
In announcing the sanctions, the Treasury Department called out Konstantin Kilimnik, the former partner of Trump’s 2016 campaign chair, Paul Manafort: the two worked together during Manafort’s days in Ukraine politics. The Treasury Department said Kilimnik “is a Russian and Ukrainian political consultant and known Russian Intelligence Services agent implementing influence operations on their behalf.” That much we knew from the report of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Russian interference in the 2016 election. (Remember, the Senate Intelligence Committee that produced that report was dominated by Republicans.)
We also knew from the Senate Intelligence Report that Manafort had provided Kilimnik with secret polling data from the Trump campaign in 2016—his business partner and campaign deputy Rick Gates testified to that—but the committee did not have evidence about what Kilimnik had done with that data.
Today’s Treasury document provides that information. It says: “During the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign, Kilimnik provided the Russian Intelligence Services with sensitive information on polling and campaign strategy.”
It is hard to overestimate the significance of this statement. It says that Trump’s 2016 campaign manager, Paul Manafort, provided secret polling data and information about campaign strategy to a Russian intelligence officer, who shared it with Russian intelligence. Russian intelligence, as we also know from both the Mueller Report and the Senate Intelligence Committee report, both hacked emails of the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign, and targeted U.S. social media to swing the 2016 election against Democrat Hillary Clinton and to Donald Trump.
By itself, the statement that the Trump campaign worked with Russian intelligence is earthshaking. But aside from the information about the exchange of this particular kind of intelligence in 2016, this statement also indicates that the Trump campaign itself was not simply operating in happy if unintentional tandem with Russian intelligence-- which was as far as the Muller Report was willing to go-- but in fact had an open channel with Russian operatives. That’s a game-changer in terms of how we understand 2016 and, perhaps, the years that have followed it.
But there was more in the Treasury announcement than a revelation about Russian actions in 2016 and since. The Treasury also announced sanctions against Pakistani entities and individuals who are “instrumental in processing payment for fraudulent identities.” While the Treasury announcement singled out the work of Pakistani money launderers for Russia’s Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll farm, and while I am 1000% not a specialist in Pakistani finance, it is hard not to notice that the president announced yesterday that the U.S. will no longer fight the Taliban in Afghanistan with soldiers, and today he appears to be going after what looks like it might be a key way in which international support for the Taliban evades international law.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin have spent the past three days in Brussels, Belgium, reinforcing our loyalty to NATO and our determination to support “Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression.” Today, Blinken made a surprise trip to Afghanistan to reassure lawmakers there that the U.S. remains committed to the nation.
It sure looks like the Biden administration is doing what the president said he would yesterday: fighting the wars of the next twenty years rather than the last twenty years. Today’s steps make Russia face substantial costs for the cyberattacks that are so badly weakening our democracy and seem to put international financial pressure on those who bankroll terrorists.
It appears that we are moving into a new era in foreign policy, using our unparalleled financial power and cyber talents to defend our nation against the threats of the twenty-first century, rather than trying to fight this era’s modern wars with conventional soldiers on the ground, where terrorists hold the advantage.
While this change is not as immediately dramatic as some of our nation’s other historic events of April 15, if it holds, it would mean a major reworking of the weight of national security that has dominated our nation since World War II. And that, in turn, would have dramatic repercussions. Among other things, it would mean significant changes in our domestic economy as conventional weapons and conventional forces become less important than diplomacy, cybersecurity, and financial infrastructures.