Despite the accusations and suggestions that the Kremlin might have hacked the Democratic National Committee in an attempt to influence the outcome of the U.S. elections, such a scenario is simply too unlikely. Here is why.
Immediately after the news broke out about the DNC's hack in mid-June, U.S. officials, including Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, claimed Russia was behind it. Photo: AP
With less than two months to go before the U.S. presidential election, rumors of Russian cyber hacks of the American election system are increasing in intensity. Republic presidential candidate Donald Trump’s latest comments at the commander-in-chief forum on NBC News, in which he praised Russian President Vladimir Putin and suggested that the U.S. might work with Russia to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), have only fanned the flames of such rumors.
And yet, something about all the cyber rumors just doesn’t add up. On Sept. 7 the Wall Street Journal reported about a person who claims to be a hacker responsible for leaking confidential materials from the Democratic National Committee’s server. The alleged hacker denied assertions that he was working on behalf of the Russian government, saying it was convenient for people to blame Russia or China for the attack without any evidence.
“It made me angry they attributed my deals to the Russians,” the hacker wrote. “But then I realized the deeper they go this way, the safer I am.”
Just a day before this revelation, on Sept. 6, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton once again accused Russia of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) hack: "It is stunning that we are facing this and especially from a foreign power that has the capacity; the consensus is that they have used this to extract information and to enable that information to be made public."
Previously, she stated that her team knew that Russian intelligence services hacked into the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and arranged for a lot of emails to be released. She also argued that Trump has shown a “very troubling willingness to back up Putin.”
Indeed, the tense political campaign to win the presidential elections in November might be a factor that pushes the candidates to look for any option to make the best of the opportunities available and draw connections between their domestic opponents and foreign counterparts.
However, influencing Trump’s supporters to switch sides by linking him with Putin might not have been a good calculation, according to Nicolai Petro, professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island. As Petro points out, the dislike for Clinton among Trump supporters is far greater even than their dislike for Putin, who has been rigorously “demonized” in the Western media for the last few years.
Blaming the attack on Russia or China, which are widely considered to be the states with the most active espionage programs against the U.S., appeared quite natural. Asserting power in cyberspace is quite common today and all the major powers are practicing it, with the United States being engaged in it much more extensively than the others, says Andrei P. Tsygankov, professor of International Relations and Political Science at San Francisco State University. As he suggests, Russia and China do respond in cyberspace, “seeking to confuse and discredit their Western opponents.”
“However, possessing a special capacity to break into the DNC server or falsify the U.S. elections would be something new, and we don’t have definitive evidence that Russia has such capability,” he argues. Given the U.S. track record of accusing others and claiming proof without providing it is not encouraging, he notes.
Indeed, the key ingredient that was missing from most of the coverage in the U.S. was the hard evidence to back it up, said James Carden, a former advisor to the U.S.-Russia Presidential Commission at the U.S. State Department.
“One of the most difficult problems about cybercrime and cyberthreats is attribution. It’s usually possible to track the geographical source of the attack, but impossible to prove whether the attacker was affiliated with the government or with a citizen of the country where the attack was initiated from. And in this case, no official charges were pressed against any Russian official,” Pavel Sharikov, head of the Center of Applied Research at the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told Russia Direct.
The consensus opinion appears to be that Moscow had nothing to gain from the attack.
“First, shifting actual voting results in a way that would influence the national election results would be unimaginably and massively intrusive. Second, the cost of discovery would be high, particularly when compared with the negligible advantages. Finally, Putin has publicly and explicitly denied it. The absence of authoritative corroboration by U.S. government officials tends to underscore this implausibility,” Petro explains.
In a rare interview with Bloomberg last week, Putin officially denied any involvement in the attack, saying that in his opinion it was not as important to find out who actually did it, but rather, what information was leaked.
As CNN reported back in July, the leaks featured emails from January 2015 to May 2016 in which Democratic staffers debated everything from how to deal with challenging media requests to coordinating the DNC’s message with other powerful interests in Washington. The emails also showed the DNC’s bias toward Clinton, revealing the plot against the other Democratic candidate, Bernie Sanders.
This can partly explain why someone is trying to prove that Russia was behind the hack, says Sharikov. “Democrats are trying to create a diversion; otherwise the press would be discussing the plot against Bernie Sanders. The Grand Old Party may also be trying to deflect public attention, because such leaks would benefit the Republican candidate. The timing for leaking the emails has been chosen perfectly - during the Democratic convention, when the nominee is most vulnerable to criticism,” the expert says.
Typically, the West accuses the Kremlin of seeking revenge for U.S. efforts to meddle in politics in Russia and its neighboring post-Soviet countries and assumes that Putin wants to discredit the American system of government or bring to power Trump. This is a very oversimplified and crude way of thinking that echoes Moscow’s view that the U.S. is doing its best to remove Putin from power and transform the political system in Russia, Tsygankov told Russia Direct.
“In practice, neither the U.S. nor Russia is developing a grand plan of destroying their respective political systems. They understand that the new world is much too complex and they are in business of influencing and leveraging more than replacing and destroying. They are not fighting a new Cold War in which my victory is your loss, and vice versa. Instead, they are probing multiple ways of developing agreements on sensitive international issues in Europe, Middle East, and Asia given their differences and relatively limited power resources,” Tsygankov explains.
According to him, even if Russia had the capacity to influence the U.S. elections, Putin would be cautious enough to use it wisely and do it only when he had nothing left to negotiate with Washington. The cost of such actions is just too high and all bargaining power would be exhausted.