The hack of the U.S. Democratic National Committee emails, now widely attributed to Russian intelligence, has set off a political earthquake in the United States. The brazenness of the attack, the crude attempt to intervene in a U.S. presidential election, and the equally bald-faced denial in the face of mounting evidence of Russian government complicity have prompted a host of questions that really amount to just one: How? Although a fully satisfactory answer may never be found, it is not too early to draw some conclusions from the episode—conclusions that should inform the general discourse about Russia, as well as about the challenge that Russia will present to the next U.S. administration, regardless of who is elected in November.
Those experts (including this writer), who, out of an abundance of caution, initially grappled with the news of the DNC break-in by invoking the inherent difficulty of investigating cybercrimes, now have the growing body of fact and analysis pointing to Russia’s role in the hack. In keeping with National Intelligence Director James Clapper’s recent remarks on this subject, the assumption should be that Russia was behind the break-in. At this point, to deny it would simply be misleading the public.
Why did the Russian government do it? Because it could. Knowledge is power. Having the inside scoop on an adversary is a source of leverage that is too good to pass up. And collecting such intelligence is what the Russian intelligence services have a long record of doing with some skill and success.
And why did the hackers release the data stolen from the DNC? Did they really intend to undermine Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and to help their presumed favorite, the Republican Donald Trump? It would seem naïve or delusional to expect that the leak would affect the vote in a country of well over 300 million in a campaign with so many resources being expended by so many interests. Any analysis of the Russian government’s intentions requires a great deal of speculation. But some things are known.
Russian government and state-sponsored agents have intervened in other countries’ elections and domestic politics. They have done so in France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Italy, just to name some U.S. allies. For Russia’s neighbors—Ukraine, the Baltic states, and Moldova—Moscow’s heavy hand in their domestic politics is a constant worry. Just because the United States is big and powerful doesn’t mean that its domestic politics is necessarily off limits to Russian intelligence. In fact, the United States’ position in the world as the only truly global power makes it even more of a target for Russian intelligence.
Kremlin operatives probably remember that the 2000 U.S. presidential election was determined by a few “hanging chads.” The 2016 election may well be decided by a small number of disgruntled supporters of former Democratic contender Bernie Sanders, as these supporters may make the decision to stay home, instead of voting for Clinton. In that sense, the release of stolen DNC documents may be just the thing to tip the scales against her.
This warrants a hard look at whether Trump is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s favored choice. The record is remarkable: the public exchange of pleasantries between Trump and Putin; the Russian money reportedly invested in Trump’s projects; his skeptical, transactional approach to NATO; his hinting at possible recognition of Crimea as Russian territory and lifting of the sanctions on Russia; and his most recent claim that Putin “is not going to go into Ukraine.” At the same time, Putin is on the record accusing Clinton of fomenting unrest in Russia. And Clinton’s dislike of the Russian president before the DNC hack was equally well documented and undoubtedly has grown more intense since then.
None of this should come as a surprise, just as nobody was surprised when the North Korean government hacked into Sony Pictures’ computers. The only shock there was the technical expertise demonstrated by the paranoid hermit kingdom. And Russian rulers are just as paranoid about the West—the United States, in particular—and its attempts to encircle Russia, destabilize it at home, and marginalize it on the world stage.
Much has been written about Russian “hybrid warfare”—a term that covers a wide range of activities, including covert operations, the use of irregulars and criminal elements, cyber operations, information and disinformation campaigns, and so on. Russia has practiced hybrid warfare with varying degrees of success in Crimea, in eastern Ukraine, in the Baltic states, and in Syria.
Less noted is that Russian security services see Russia as being even more a victim of hybrid warfare than an aggressor. U.S. support for democracy in and around Russia is a threat to the Kremlin. The release of the Panama Papers, which revealed information about the hidden wealth and presumed corrupt activities of the ruling elite, has been portrayed by the Kremlin as an effort in Washington to discredit it and destabilize Russia. By the same token, the Olympic doping scandal is also seen as a Western plot against Russia. U.S.-EU economic sanctions against Russia that were put in place in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are described as a cover for the real goal—to weaken and promote regime change in Russia.
In the eyes of Russian elites, Western aggression must be met with a response. Hacking into DNC computers and releasing information on the Democrats’ fundraising practices is simply payback for Western media reports about elite corruption in Russia. It helps boost the Russian narrative that money and politics go hand in hand everywhere and that Russia is no different from the United States or other Western countries whose governments are critical of Russia.
Getting caught red-handed likely won’t even hurt Putin’s standing at home. The Russian public is long used to the war of kompromats—dishing dirt on political opponents or business competitors—which has become a staple of post-Soviet Russian politics and business. Russian business tycoons and the Kremlin pioneered and fine-tuned this form of combat in the 1990s using media outlets they owned or controlled. Criticism from the West doesn’t mean much in Russia these days—Putin’s popular approval rating shot up to near 90 percent after he annexed Crimea.
And so this is business as usual. Russia is outgunned—its defense spending is a fraction of that of the United States. The Russian economy, too, is far smaller than the United States’. The Kremlin will not try to match the United States gun for gun and tank for tank. But it will exploit what advantages it has.
It will use military force—carefully—where the correlation of forces favors it or where its military planners can assure their leaders that military action will not lead to disaster. Ukraine is the case in which the Kremlin had a compelling interest, clear military superiority, and an equally clear assurance that the United States would not intervene.
Syria was another case where Russian military action was necessary to protect Russian interests and was associated with few risks. It was needed to support the faltering Bashar al-Assad regime and entailed relatively small risks because the Obama administration had made clear its reluctance to intervene militarily in Syria.
But where the use of military force carries with it significant risks that are not justified by compelling interests, other instruments from the Russian toolkit are and will continue to be used. For example, an outright military attack against the Baltic states would be risky for Russia. It would carry with it the threat of a devastating NATO retaliation and nuclear annihilation. Therefore, the Baltics will be subjected to a steady barrage of information operations, disinformation, cyber attacks, airspace violations, and poking and prodding to rattle the countries’ nerves and undermine their confidence in NATO.
Germany will be subjected to disinformation, spying, and meddling in its domestic politics. France’s right-wing National Front will be the target of Russian attempts to gain influence in French politics. And the U.S. government and its parties can count on their computers being the focus of special attention by Russian hackers, both from intelligence services and those kept at arm’s length to pretend they are not part of the Russian state.
Events of the past few years—from the annexation of Crimea to the DNC hack—are not an aberration; rather, they are part of the same chain. The adversarial, hostile relationship with Russia is here to stay. Putin is here to stay, too, so betting on outlasting him would be unwise. He appears very likely to run and be re-elected in 2018, which means he will be in the Kremlin until 2024—through the next U.S. presidential term and the one after that.
Some of the needed steps are already being taken—military preparedness moves that were proposed and adopted at NATO’s Wales and Warsaw summits are necessary and will probably be followed by more measures to boost NATO’s conventional and nuclear defense and deterrent capabilities. But tanks and guns alone are not enough. More needs to be done—in cyber, intelligence, information operation, and other forms of hybrid warfare, as well as deterrence, along with resilience and defense measures against it to meet Russia’s challenge. More also is needed to be ready to conduct counter-offensive operations when the need arises. And all of this has to be done while also looking for ways to avoid accidental escalation and maintain some lines of communications with the Kremlin. Recognizing the nature of the threat that Russia presents is the first step toward dealing with it.