Everyone has heard the latest reports, this one from The New York Times this morning:
Computer systems used by Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign were hacked in an attack that appears to have come from Russia’s intelligence services, a federal law enforcement official said on Friday.
The apparent breach, coming after the disclosure last month that the Democratic National Committee’s computer system had been compromised, escalates an international episode in which Clinton campaign officials have suggested that Russia might be trying to sway the outcome of the election.
In the next column over The Times reports that Democrats “used their convention to portray Mr. Trump as a dangerously unstable figure and a friend of foreign despots like President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.”
So, how seriously are we to take all this? Is this just run of the mill, tit-for-tat superpower cyberwarfare? Or is the American democratic process now the target of an assault by the Russian Federation, with the Trump campaign acting in unwitting complicity with that assault — or worse?
Given the precedent of presidential elections in the United States going back to 1789, this statement seems so outrageous as to be unbelievable. Unfortunately, it’s not.
First off, why would Vladimir Putin prefer Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton as President of the United States?
The reason is that Trump’s foreign policy statements read like a Putin Christmas list. Three notable examples:
- Trump has stated that he would be favorably inclined to recognize Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. (I was there when Putin announced that annexation. It was a very festive family event. Whatever we may think of Putin from a distance, he has a highly effective political playbook when it comes to domestic politics: Make Russia great again.)
- Trump has stated that, as President of the United States, he would honor our commitments under the North Atlantic Treaty only under the condition that NATO allies under attack had “fulfill[ed] their obligations” to the United States —effectively giving Russia a green light for further incursions, including into the Baltic States.
- As The Guardian reported today, the Trump’s party platform “removed references to arming Ukraine in its fight against pro-Russia rebels, who have received material support from the Kremlin.”
So Putin has good reason to prefer Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton as President of the United States. But is there any precedent of action that would support the claim that the American democratic system is under attack from Russia? As Anne Applebaum wrote on Friday:
Americans aren’t used to the idea that foreign governments might use hacked emails for the purpose of distorting their politics. In fact, the Russian government has been playing similar games for years. Back in 2007, Russian hackers launched a major attack on Estonian government and commercial websites — including banks, the defense ministry, the parliament — in apparent revenge for a decision to move a Soviet war memorial. In 2014, hackers attacked Ukraine’s national election commission, three days before people went to the polls, in an attempt to disrupt the vote.
We know more generally that Putin’s Russia has, as a matter of foreign policy for over a decade, overtly and covertly supported political parties friendly to Russian interests in Western democracies. Putin’s Russia has actively sought to undermine the European Union and NATO by systematically exploiting and inciting nationalism, anti-immigrant fervor, and working class outrage. Most recently, the Russian intelligence apparatus sought to influence the outcome of the Brexit vote in favor of “leave”.
Would Putin have the audacity to try the same strategy in the United States? We would be sadly naive to think otherwise. Indeed, even prior to the DNC and Clinton Campaign hacks, the evidence was substantial that the Russian Federation was sponsoring pro-Trump websites.
Even if the Russian government is hacking the DNC and the Clinton campaign, and if Trump’s foreign policy pronouncements do look like they came out of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and if the Russian government did fund pro-Trump websites, and if all of this is consistent with a longstanding pattern of Russian exploitation and incitement of domestic dissatisfaction to weaken its perceived adversaries, what does that have to do with U.S. Presidential Candidate Donald Trump himself?
For starters, Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, previously acted as a campaign advisor to former Ukainian President Viktor Yanukovych. You’ll recall that Yanukovych, an ally of Vladimir V. Putin, was elected in 2010, but then fled under escort to Russia following Ukraine’s 2014 revolution. (Manafort has had other associations with billionaires and politicians seeking help with their image).
Manafort seems to have learned something from his time in the orbit of Putin’s Russia. The Trump campaign’s strategy of constant assault by outrage and (dis)information looks just like the old Soviet strategy of Active Measures.
No, Donald Trump is not, personally, a paid agent of the Russian Federation. But, as difficult as it is to believe, the evidence does support the assertion is that the American democratic process is under assault from Russia, with the Trump campaign not only benefitting from, but acting in (unwitting?) complicity, with that assault.