Russia’s US election hacking / information war campaign

This is a big deal: the Russians are possibly trying to manipulate the outcome of the US election using a combination of hacking and information war. Whether they will have any success is another matter. But that they are doing this, is not open to debate, as this story shows. The story was published the same day it emerged publicly that Russians hackers had hacked the DNC.

Two short quotes.

From a Clinton spokesman: “What appears evident is that the Russian groups responsible for the DNC hack are intent on attempting to influence the outcome of this election.”

Sure, Russia fears a Hillary Clinton presidency. After all, Clinton was behind the fall of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, an event that has sent chills up the spine of Russia’s leader, Clinton is a former secretary of state, well-acquainted with geopolitical realities. Clinton, a child of the Cold War, wouldn’t probably flinch at countering Vlad through Eastern Europe – and beyond. Plus Putin would probably find dealing with a really powerful woman in the White House a challenge.

The Russian end goal, according to one ex-NSA voice, isn’t necessarily to pick sides in the US election but to weaken them all. From Bloomberg:

Russia uses sophisticated “information operations” to advance foreign policy, and the target audience for this kind of mission wouldn’t be U.S. voters or even U.S. politicians, said Brendan Conlon, who once led a National Security Agency hacking unit.

“Why would Russia go to this trouble? Simple answer — because it met their foreign policy objectives, to weaken the U.S. in the eyes of our allies and adversaries,” said Conlon, now CEO of Vahna Inc., a cyber security firm in Washington. Publishing the DNC report on Trump “weakens both candidates — lists out all the weaknesses of Trump specifically while highlighting weaknesses of Clinton’s security issues. The end result is a weaker president once elected.”

There is a long history to this strategy.

It goes back at least as far as Russia’s success in converting the Sacco and Vanzetti murder case from a local crime to a show trial to demonstrate America’s fear and loathing for the foreign-born proletariat.In it’s day, the Sacco and Vanzetti trial was an issue any thinking, caring person had to have an opinion on. And likely a strong one. To this day, the Sacco and Vanzetti are remembered as martyrs, even if the reality may have been quite a bit different.

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Today I suppose Putin’s support for Trump may be more about trying to strengthen a particularly weak and offensive candidate in order to make the US campaign more extreme than it genuinely should be. I’ve heard that the Russian perception of the US, at least during the Cold War, was so vastly distorted there was a tendency for Russians to misjudge the efforts their propaganda would actually have. And that may be happening too, as Trump is forcing a needed crisis within the Republican Party [paywall].

In any case, Russia is helping make this the first US election in which a foreign power is actively using online information war techniques to try to influence it. And that’s a Big Effin’ Deal.

 

 

Quick list: Russia down, China up for now, US tracking sideways – What we know so far

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Russia

Russia’s options are narrowing. Putin is not stupid but the strong-man tactics will only gain the country so much leverage with his neighbors such as Ukraine. The economy of Russia is smaller than Britain’s, and the basis of Russia’s economic power is weakening.

Even diplomatically, a series of hardline actions towards protesters (Greenpeace, Pussy Riot) have paradoxically hurt Russia by making it look unduly repressive and authoritarian. It’s a shame. The losses suffered by Russia during WWII make it difficult for the outside world to understand the motivations of the country. It’s as if Russia tends to read too many events as threats (gay rights, a desire for reform in Ukraine). Nonetheless, in recent years, this trend of seeing the world through a prism of coercion has led Putin to being unnecessary coercive.

China

No one disputes that China is in a stronger position than Russia. Even if the economy is wildly unbalanced, the rapidly development of its economy, and the expansion of its trade ties outpaces anything Russia can achieve. But it’s not certain China will achieve actual superpower status, given the amount of disorder and factionalism masked by its system. Outsiders ascribe grand strategies to China’s actions in geopolitics (East China Sea) for example, but it’s possible its military hardened its stance toward the US and Japan precisely because of internal pressures. Likewise, a modern country wouldn’t want to suppress foreign media – and yet again internal sensitivities that go straight to the legitimacy of the ruling elite, are likely behind the crackdown on foreign media. This trend is more in line with a large developing country, rather than an emerging superpower. In a model where the Communist Party stays in power and tries to enforce its rule on a more modern and restive population, China could emerge as a super-economy, rather than super-power. Besides, capable countries don’t link genetic code theft from the US to state visits by their leaders.

United States

It’s been a chaotic decade for the US. After the post-9/11 hysteria helped usher in the War on Iraq, the brains behind the war for Middle East oil conquest must be asking themselves if was worth it, given the impact of the fracking revolution today. For many years the US will be coping with the bad PR generated by that War of Adventure. It was the clearest sign of a superpower out of control.  The diplomatic effect of the Snowden disclosures should help to further isolate the country, giving all allies reason to question the pros and cons of the American-way and American-leadership. Finally, the ideological battles and gridlock between the parties have hurt the country in the global public’s eyes, generating appetite for a counterbalance like China.

If the US succeeds in emerging from the domestic chaos that arguably began with the Monica Lewinsky scandal – or better yet, the result of the 2000 election (both of which undermined its credibility) the US will have an altered role in world politics. Soon it may no longer be the biggest economy. But the sense of a political realignment within the US may mimic a geopolitical realignment. There may once again be space for the US near the center, as a counterbalance to China and Russia, among other things. But it depends if the US can successfully make the transition.

One last thing

…And recall, China’s ascent has occurred during a period of US decline. Should the US reverse that, China may find a much different trade and diplomatic party to contend with. Russia, for now, will be man in the middle.