White House

Why all the alarm over Trump ties to Russia, American millennials ask

Russian President Vladimir Putin talks to Turkmens President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov by phone during a breakfast with Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, Feb. 28, 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin talks to Turkmens President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov by phone during a breakfast with Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, Feb. 28, 2017. AP

Amid an avalanche of news raising alarm about Russian meddling in the U.S. election and ties between President Donald Trump’s administration and Moscow, many younger voters are questioning how big a threat the former Cold War foe really is.

“Russia is just not the same danger they were to us 40 years ago,” said Sara Herrera, a 24-year-old who lives in Boca Raton, Florida. “Obviously if they’re trying to be interfering in our business that’s not OK, but how is that really dangerous to Americans? It’s not life and death anymore.”

Mark Nguyen, 26, of Oakland, California, remembers his grandparents’ stories of “duck and cover” drills at school to prepare for a potential nuclear attack.

Is meeting with the Russian ambassador really a bigger deal than the French or German ambassador?

Ben Norris, 31, of Kansas City, Mo.

“They were legitimately scared back then,” he said. “But no matter what Russians do to us now, it’s more annoying than a real threat. I’m not saying we have to let them get away with it, but it’s not worth all the hyperventilating.”

Interviews with more than 30 voters across the country show a major generational gap when it comes to views of Russia. According to younger voters, the view of Russia as an automatic threat that they hear from lawmakers like Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is an outdated relic of the Cold War. The national mobilization around the threat posed by the Soviet Union, which was defined in existential terms, made a deep impression on the generations that lived through it.

“When Russians are getting involved, you just know it’s very bad news for us,” said Daniel Holt, 71, a retired attorney in Dallas, speaking about reports of Russian interference in the election. “That’s why all of this is so worrying. They still have it out for the U.S., and they found a way in.”

Younger voters tended to describe coverage of the meetings and connections between Trump administration officials and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government as overblown and alarmist. The fact that reports of Russian meddling in the election are seen in Democrat-vs-Republican terms only reinforces that view.

But turning Russia into “a partisan football” targeting Trump downplays the security threat that Russia, with its large nuclear arsenal, represents, said Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington.

Cold War veterans reflexively have a more hawkish view of Russia, simply because they spent decades very rationally afraid of Russian espionage, dirty tricks and attacks.

Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington

“Russia is still one of the most consequential countries on the planet . . . and the country that could destroy life in under an hour as we know it,” he said. “We should not be paranoid, but we should be rationally afraid.”

According to a December Economist-YouGov poll, Republican views of Russian President Vladimir Putin have become sharply more positive since 2014, moving 56 percentage points. While Hillary Clinton voters view Putin negatively by a 72-point margin, Trump voters do so by just 16 points.

Even many older Trump voters who lived through the Cold War shrug off the allegations of election interference, despite intelligence agencies’ conclusion that the Russian government meddled in the U.S. election in order to help Trump win the White House.

“I haven’t seen anything yet that tells me that this was the actual Russian government doing it,” said Jim Van Meerten, a 69-year-old Charlotte, North Carolina, writer who voted for Trump. He said the president’s detractors were using the allegations of Russian meddling as an excuse to attack him. “Let’s face it, Russians are some of the best hackers in the world. Maybe it was a bunch of people like we have in this country who hack into Target and everyplace else.”

Does it surprise me that the Russians or anybody else would try to do that? No. The question is how effective was that really?

Tony Abbinante, 66, in Charlotte, N.C.

A report released by U.S. intelligence agencies in January unequivocally pinned responsibility for the election attack on Putin. They ruled out the possibility that the hack was ordered by intelligence officials or simply carried out by Kremlin supporters.

“I think what we really have to do is say did the Russians and what they tried to do, did it really change the situation?” asked Tony Abbinante, a 66-year-old retiree in Charlotte who also voted for Trump. “I tend to believe it didn’t do anything to us.”

In interviews with McClatchy, many young adults said news accounts of U.S.-Russian relations in 2017, full of spies and secretive meetings with ambassadors, seemed like a Cold War thriller with no connection to modern reality. For older voters it “feels like déjà vu,” in the words of 62-year-old Jenna Long of Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

“That is just really, really scary, that the Russians thought they could just do that, whether or not it made a difference,” Long said, speaking of Russia’s election meddling and ties to some people in Trump’s administration, like former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Flynn was fired after just 24 days for misleading Vice President Mike Pence about a conversation he’d had with the Russian ambassador. He was also scrutinized for attending a gala in Moscow with Putin, where he was paid to give a speech.

Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday took turns questioning top intelligence officials, who say investigative agencies found compelling evidence of Russian cyber-hacking throughout the 2016 election cycle.

But the assumption that the American public is as hawkish about Russia as U.S. military and diplomatic leaders creates a stumbling block in explaining that perspective to a younger generation.

“I just don’t see why everything related to Russia has to be nefarious,” said Ben Norris, 31, of Kansas City, Missouri. “Is meeting with the Russian ambassador really a bigger deal than the French or German ambassador?”

[READ MORE: Democrats want to investigate if Flynn’s paid Russia speech violated Constitution]

Jeffrey Mankoff, a senior fellow at the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who’s a former adviser on U.S.-Russia relations at the State Department, said the disconnect was obvious between those who remembered Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union and those whose primary memories were formed after 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved to be replaced by Russia and a series of newly independent states.

If you know anything about Russia (it’s) that see they themselves engaged in a strategic competition or confrontation with the U.S. It’s not a war, but it has aspects of a war in the sense that the Russians see it in zero sum terms.

Jeffrey Mankoff, deputy director of the CSIS Russia and Eurasia program

“It’s really kind of like history went on vacation for 25 years . . . and now it’s back,” he said. “And people who have only been around for that (later period) have a hard time seeing the bigger picture. There are not many countries that are actively seeking to undermine U.S. national security interests as part of their own approach to foreign policy.”

With the exception of the Sept. 11, 2011, terrorist attacks, most younger adults have known only a “pretty benign international environment,” said Mankoff. Even the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were “mainly background noise,” he said.

Younger Americans’ views of Russia were shaped during the presidency of Barack Obama, who dismissed Russia as a “regional power” that did not pose a security risk to the U.S. but was bent on intimidating its neighbors “not out of strength but out of weakness.” Putin slammed Obama’s comments as “disrespectful.”

Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014 was the “biggest wake-up call” that U.S.-Russia tension had not been left in the past, said Steve Sestanovich, a former U.S. ambassador-at-large to the Soviet Union. Putin has reinforced it in other ways as well, Sestanovich said, citing a brutal military campaign in Syria, unconcealed dislike of U.S. leaders and the hacking of Democratic National Committee computers to undermine the election.

“Most people in (the Cold War) generation thought this was a thing of the past,” said Stephen Flanagan, who served on the Obama administration’s National Security Council and is now an analyst for the Rand Corp. “It’s jarring what (Russia) did in Ukraine and Syria, and the way they did it is another reminder that Russia is an authoritarian government that does not share our values.”

Alex Daugherty in Fort Worth, Texas, Curtis Tate in Lexington, Kentucky, and William Douglas in Charlotte, North Carolina, contributed to this report.

Vera Bergengruen: 202-383-6036, @verambergen

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