The Democratic National Convention opened in turmoil thanks to a collection of internal e-mails hacked from the Democratic National Committee, which show (among other things) just how heavily the party establishment put its thumb on the scale for Hillary Clinton. The revelations have fueled ongoing protests within the convention hall by unreconciled Bernie Sanders supporters and caused the DNC’s chairwoman, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, to resign and make herself scarce from her own party’s convention.
But that, believe it or not, isn’t the real story. The real story is who did the hacking: two units from the Russian intelligence services. See an in-depth description of the evidence that the data thefts were carried out by two teams of Russian hackers under control of the GRU (Russian army intelligence) and the FSB (the rebranded KGB; new name, same friendly service). The conclusion:
This tactic and its remarkable success is a game-changer: exfiltrating documents from political organizations is a legitimate form of intelligence work. The US and European countries do it as well. But digitally exfiltrating and then publishing possibly manipulated documents disguised as freewheeling hacktivism is crossing a big red line and setting a dangerous precedent: an authoritarian country directly yet covertly trying to sabotage an American election.
Actually, this is not without precedent. The Russkis interfered plenty in American politics back in the day, and you don’t need to teach them anything about using leftist activists in the West, like Julian Assange and Wikileaks, as the witting or unwitting tools of Moscow. It’s just that the Russians haven’t really done this since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and we had all assumed that the Cold War is over, right?
I mean, it’s not like Russia is run by some revanchist former KGB colonel who thinks the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century.
So here we are, fully back in a Cold War II. But the most ominous part of this story is that only one side is fighting that war. What struck me most about Putin’s interference in this year’s election is how unnecessary it seems. Russia is picking favorites precisely at a point when neither party’s candidate seems all that fussed about opposing Russia. Donald Trump could be seen as more sympathetic toward Moscow. He has been openly admiring of Putin and has supported the idea of giving Putin a free hand in places like Syria. Yet Trump is merely embracing the actual, de facto policy of the current administration.
Yes, Hillary Clinton reportedly argued for more active intervention in Syria, but given the scorn she an other Democrats heaped on Mitt Romney for regarding Russia as a threat, it’s hard to believe that there would be much support among the Democratic base for a harder line against Putin. Indeed, this intervention could be self-defeating. I have long suspected that the only enemies Democrats are prepared to take seriously are internal political enemies. By backing Trump, Putin might finally get on their radar screens as a serious bad guy. (So don’t worry, they’ll send Jon Stewart to destroy him.)
You could argue that supporting Trump advances Putin’s interests on a deeper level by ideologically undermining the most hawkish American political party. By backing Trump, Putin may hope to reshape the Republican Party in the image of his preferred politics: authoritarian, nationalist, propagandistic, and focused on the circle of family and sycophants gathered around a single strongman. Putin has already had some success in courting this kind of putatively “right-wing” movement in Europe. So why not try to extend that system here?
Yet it seems like an awfully big risk for a nebulous and speculative reward. Unless Putin thinks there really isn’t much risk. That leads me to the conclusion that he is interfering in American politics precisely because neither party is focused on him. He’s doing it because he can, and he doesn’t expect to suffer any particular consequences.
There’s an old saying that 80% of life is just showing up. In the rough contest of international politics, the side that actually puts in some effort is likely to impose its strategic goals on those who are indecisive, unmotivated, and directionless.
Our political leaders, reflecting the public mood of the moment, have decided to withdraw from the tumult of world affairs and look inward. But this case is a reminder that when we give up, we don’t get to be left alone. We may not want to stick our noses into Putin’s affairs, but he has no compunctions about sticking his nose into ours.
Putin is no super-genius, and I have argued that he certainly isn’t advancing his country’s true interests. But in today’s foreign policy, he is showing up, and the people who are vying to become Leader of the Free World are not.