The story of Russian cyber interference in the U.S. election has taken on a life of its own, with potentially unintended consequences for both the U.S. and Russia.
President Barack Obama blames the "highest level of the Russian government for hacks," as he speaks during a news conference, Friday, Dec. 16, 2016. Photo: AP
The alleged interference of Russian hackers in the U.S. presidential campaign continues to gain media attention. Ever since the election of Republican candidate Donald Trump in November, it has rapidly grown into an issue that is treated as one of the key national security problems facing the U.S.
The CIA briefings prepared for the members of the future Trump administration at the beginning of December referred to the guilt of the Russian hackers for breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s email server as an established fact. What is more, the key U.S. intelligence agency came to the conclusion that the Russians’ objective was not only to undermine confidence in the American electoral system but also to provide direct support to Trump’s candidacy.
The same story - cyber attacks from Russia and options for responding to them - accounted for a considerable portion of the annual press conference (and the last one in his capacity as U.S. President) by Barack Obama. Earlier, Obama directed the intelligence services to carry out a detailed investigation into the matter.
On Dec. 15, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, after having lost the election, made a strident, emotional appeal to her supporters urging that a bipartisan commission should be set up to investigate the Russian alleged interference in the American election on the model of the commission that had investigated the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Russia’s official reaction to all that agitation is best described by one word - “bewilderment.” The alleged involvement of the Russian hackers in any cyber break-ins is considered speculation rather than fact - and even unprovable in principle. The American politicians’ emotions are viewed by the Kremlin as a result of their deep disappointment in the election results, both on the part of the defeated Democrats and on the part of the Republican establishment anxious about the President-elect’s character and political strategy.
Interestingly, Trump’s view of the events is almost completely identical to the Russian one. Trump, too, has questioned the qualifications of the CIA staff and, like the Kremlin, reproached the Democrats for striving to de-legitimize his victory.
Despite this position of the President-elect, the question of punishing Russia for the cyber attacks has every chance of becoming the main stumbling block in the development of Russian-American relations in the coming months, dwarfing all the other challenges, from Ukraine to Syria. Many members of Congress, including some powerful U.S. senators, are dead set on that.
However, before starting another crusade against the Kremlin, the American leaders should look closer into the reasons underlying today’s foreign policy behavior of Russia. When reproaching Russia for cyber attacks (which probably took place, possibly with the involvement of the Russian special services), certain circumstances must be taken into account.
First, as Clinton emphasized in a speech, President Putin and his team were infuriated when she, in the capacity of the U.S. Secretary of State, refused to recognize the results of the elections to the Russian Federation’s State Duma in 2011 and supported the “non-systemic” opposition. Clinton said that the attacks against her during the electoral campaign of 2016 had been a kind of personal revenge by Putin for the events of five years before.
However, this interpretation of events raises a lot of questions. According to Clinton, Putin did something absolutely criminal and insidious by attacking the servers of the Democratic Party, while the support by the former U.S. Secretary of State for Russia’s democratic forces in 2011 had been quite legitimate and acceptable by the standards of international political practice.
It is worthwhile to look at the situation from a different angle, though. If the political support by the U.S. had enabled the Russian opposition to seize power in 2011, the fate of Putin and his team could have been very unfortunate, according to the logic of the Kremlin. In the case of defeat and regime change, they risked not only their high posts but also, quite possibly, their freedom and life itself.
Yet, Clinton behaved as if Russia were just another democratic country where a failure at elections was no more than a failure at elections, and the fate of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi (torn to pieces by the crowd one month before the beginning of the Russian protests) threatened no one here. It is because of that behavior, which many members of the Russian elite viewed as hypocritical, that they began to consider Clinton as their most pernicious enemy.
Russia’s interference in the American electoral campaign of 2016 (if it ever took place) absolutely could not pose any direct threat to Clinton or anyone else. All Clinton could lose was the post of the presidency, and all America could lose was the confidence in the spotless character of its politicians and the perfection of its electoral system.
The loss of any of those assets is nothing compared to the existential losses that might threaten Putin in 2011–2012, according to the Kremlin's logic. Thus, the question of who behaved in a more “insidious” way is not as simple as it might seem.
Another aspect that the members of the U.S. Congress should take into account before throwing all their resources on countering the “Russian cyber threat” is the nature and origin of that threat. Why did the Russian computer prodigies, and no one else, suddenly decide to encroach upon the servers of American politicians? Is there any shortage of anti-American political regimes in the world or talented hackers willing to work for them?
Obviously, it is not a matter of Russia having more grievances against America than does any other country. Or even, it is not a matter of Russia bringing together the most advanced computer specialists. What also does matter is a huge technological inferiority complex with respect to the West, and the U.S. in particular, which affects various sections of Russian society. Russia claims the status of one of the leading countries but is far and hopelessly behind the competitors in modern technologies.
The fact that Russia has managed, if allegedly, to cause trouble to the U.S. exactly in the high-tech area is rapidly growing into a source of pride for many Russians. As the saying goes, if those cyber attacks did not exist, it would have been necessary to invent them.The more the theme is inflated in the mass media, the higher is the support for Putin among the Russians who see that their President not only “beat America” another time but did it in its own field of “high tech.”
By launching a large-scale investigation, the members of the U.S. Congress may not so much punish the Russian President, but instead boost his publicity and create a great deal of buzz about him. Thus, the American leaders, Democrats and Republicans alike, should not overreact and make a mountain out of a molehill. Even if Russia has been involved in the cyber attacks, its motivation (to a certain degree) is easy to understand.
In any case, over the medium term, that episode can do the U.S. more good than harm by drawing attention to the problem of cyber security. Conversely, a hyper-reaction to it, signs of which can be clearly seen today, will certainly not be beneficial, either to Russian-American relations and the U.S. itself.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.