The House Intelligence Committee announced plans yesterday to investigate a 2010 deal which gave a Russian company control over one-fifth of uranium production capacity in the United States, reports the BBC.
The case involves the acquisition of the Canadian company Uranium One by Russia’s state nuclear program Rosatom, a deal which required the approval of a committee of US government agencies, including the State Department. At the heart of the new investigation is the question whether Hillary Clinton, then Secretary of State, was bribed to sign off on the deal.
The substance of the case, according to a lengthy 2015 report by Jo Becker and Mike McIntire for the New York Times, involves several ways in which money was exchanged. One was a payment of $500,000 to former President Bill Clinton by Renaissance Capital, a Russian investment bank with ties to the Kremlin, to speak at a June 2010 investors’ conference in Moscow.
At the time, Moscow had not yet begun its “hybrid” campaigns in contested former Soviet space, notably Donbass and Crimea, a time when both Washington and Moscow were making numerous efforts to establish better US-Russia relations.
A more damning factor involves the founders and previous owners of Uranium One, a group of Canadian mining industry leaders who have been major donors to charities owned and run by the Clintons. As authors of the Times article report:
“As the Russians gradually assumed control of Uranium One in three separate transactions from 2009 to 2013, Canadian records show, a flow of cash made its way to the Clinton Foundation. Uranium One’s chairman used his family foundation to make four donations totaling $2.35 million. Those contributions were not publicly disclosed by the Clintons, despite an agreement Mrs. Clinton had struck with the Obama White House to publicly identify all donors. Other people with ties to the company made donations as well.”
The Federal Election Campaign Act prohibits campaign contributions from foreign entities. But it does not prevent donations by foreign nationals to charitable foundations. This poses a real problem, explain Becker and McIntire, citing an anonymous Clinton Foundation insider: “for many people, the hope is that money will in fact buy influence.”
Whatever hidden motivations, Putin now finds himself in control of much of the global uranium supply chain.
Partisan politics, not as usual
But the new investigation, led by Republican congressman Devin Nunes, should also be seen as another symptom of the increasingly divisive partisan atmosphere in Washington, and of a way of doing politics in Washington that seeks to manage public perception of the ongoing political crisis by “sucking all oxygen” out of more substantive public debate.
In this sense, it echoes – quite deliberately, it seems – the Democrats’ determination to undermine Trump’s legitimacy by connecting his 2016 victory to the story on Russian influence.
Mark Galeotti, a senior researcher on Russia’s information wars and coordinator of the Centre of European Security at the Institute of International Relations in Prague describes these kinds of stories as “political comfort food”:
“The Russia narrative is meant to give the existing elite an excuse for not listening to the Pennsylvania mine worker, a pretext for ignoring the results of the 2016 election by putting forward the idea that Trump’s voters were essentially duped. For the elite, the Russia story is political comfort food…We worry about the influence of foreign money because it makes a more compelling story. But let’s be honest, the problem of political financing has primarily to do with what happens in the domestic context.”
While Mr. Galeotti does not question whether the Russians made certain efforts to undermine the Clinton campaign, he does not believe they played a major role in the outcome of the election, citing as a more important factor a “generalized crisis of legitimacy” that is the consequence of various trends connected with globalization.
From this point of view, what the Russia story represents is the attempt by centrist elements in both major parties to shore up political power by drumming up fear of an enemy beyond America’s borders. They have done this in large part because they are unable or unwilling to address the destabilizing effects of global and domestic market forces that led to the crisis in the first place.
When asked to comment on the Russian influence story, Ian Bond, former adviser to NATO and Director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform in London was more frank:
“The Trump narrative is that it’s all the fault of the Mexicans and the Chinese. The Democrats have now got sucked into a narrative in which it’s all the fault of the Russians. The first step should be to accept that quite a lot of this is our fault.”
And this is precisely what is so troubling about the Uranium One deal. It represents the underlying reality of a growing crisis of political legitimacy in America, one that, because major party leadership cannot offer a straightforward narrative about its causes, has been successfully spun by right-wing populists into a story about the loss of national identity scapegoating immigrants and racial minorities.
Experts at the Kiel Institute for the World Economy in Germany have advanced a similar argument for the rise of right-wing populism in Europe, most recently in places like Germany and the Czech Republic.
In other words, the Uranium One narrative is not merely the latest maneuver in a partisan game. Looking beyond its surface motives to its underlying substance, we find a story about the consequences of allowing global market forces to shape domestic political power.
[Featured Image by Mark Wilson/Getty Images]