The first question may ultimately be unknowable. Clinton, who won the popular vote by 2.86 million votes, lost the Electoral College thanks to margins of less than a per cent in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. During a recent appearance on “Meet the Press,” Podesta avoided the question of whether he thought the election had been “free and fair,” saying only that it had been “distorted by the Russian intervention.” But was that distortion in fact decisive? To isolate the WikiLeaks e-mails to explain Clinton’s narrow loss is to elevate their importance above a host of other factors, including the Clinton campaign’s weaknesses, Trump’s genuine appeal as a candidate, as well as the diminishing power of political parties and the national press that covers them. (Not to mention the last-minute, whiplash letters from James Comey, the director of the F.B.I.)
As seen from Moscow, placing an outsized importance on Russian interference flatters Putin more than does him harm. After all, if the country he rules is essentially weak, as has often been suggested by Obama-era Democrats over the years, and was reiterated by Obama at his press conference on Friday, what imbues Putin with a legend of mystical powers more than having thrown a U.S. Presidential election?
Not long ago, I spoke with Valery Garbuzov, the director of the Institute for the U.S.A. and Canada, a research center in Moscow that advises various branches of the Russian government. He has been studying American politics for more than thirty years. When I raised the notion of Russian interference in the election, he demurred, but then gave as honest an answer as you can hear in Moscow these days. “In principle, of course it’s possible,” he said, speaking of a Kremlin role in the hacking of Democratic targets. “But this is a topic in which reality proves to be particularly ephemeral.”
Garbuzov insisted, however, that Russia doesn’t have the political reach or fine-grained knowledge needed to install a particular American President in office. “It may be possible to affect the general atmosphere, or how a particular candidate is perceived, to wield influence of a certain kind,” he said. “But that influence doesn’t lead to a guaranteed result. If it was that easy to get this or that person elected President of the United States, these instruments would have been used a long time ago.”
Of course, both the United States and Russia—and the Soviet Union before it—have long histories of trying to influence elections beyond their borders. The Cold War was full of cases of U.S. and Soviet interference in the internal political processes of countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In 1996, Washington did what it could—including encouraging the I.M.F. to issue an emergency ten-billion-dollar loan to the faltering Russian government—to aid the reëlection of Russia’s first post-Soviet President, Boris Yeltsin, in a contest he was in danger of losing to his Communist challenger.
While Russia has not previously attempted to directly affect the outcome of a U.S. Presidential election, at least as far as is publicly known, disinformation campaigns targeting U.S. audiences have certainly existed. In the mid-eighties, for example, the K.G.B., in an effort to damage U.S. credibility and foment social discord, invented and propagated the myth that AIDS was a creation of the C.I.A. In recent years, the Kremlin has tried to do what it could to affect political discourse in Europe, cheering on the rise of right-wing, anti-establishment parties there. In this sense, Russia’s intervention in this year’s U.S. election, while unprecedented, is also not totally surprising. Writing recently in The National Interest, Nikolas Gvosdev, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, argued that the sense of sudden surprise and urgency over Russia’s hacking operation is “the equivalent of Captain Renault in Casablanca who is ‘shocked’ to discover that gambling is taking place in Rick’s Café Americain.”
Russian officials on all levels have denied the hacking allegations, but these denials have often belied a sense of comeuppance. (“Everyone is talking about who did it,” Putin said in October, denying a Russian role. “But is it that important? The most important thing is what is inside this information.”) The narrative of the Putin era holds that the United States has engineered so-called color revolutions across the post-Soviet world, and has done what it can to undermine Putin’s hold on power. Among Moscow’s political élite and on state airwaves, the hand of GosDep—the U.S. State Department—is conspiratorially omnipresent. Over the past several months, the closest I have come to getting a Russian politician to acknowledge the hacking claims was when a pro-Kremlin lawmaker told me that if anyone inside the Russian state was responsible—which he denied—it was probably done to show American officials that they are not the only ones who can go around meddling in other people’s elections.
The official—and, in many ways, popular—view in Moscow holds that Washington is behind many of Russia’s domestic political events, from the collapse of the Soviet Union to the appearance of anti-Putin protests in 2011 and 2012. “We have done a lot less than the Americans—we should learn from them,” Igor Panarin, a former K.G.B. officer who is now a professor and author specializing in what he calls “information warfare,” told me last week. He has written twenty books; his next, due to be published in the coming months, is titled “Trump: The Collapse or Rise of the United States?” Panarin insisted that Russia had nothing to do with the hacks; moreover, he said, Russia was far behind the U.S. in its ability to wield information as a weapon. “If we look at the Russian military today—the calibre of our pilots in Syria, for example—our armed forces are an order of magnitude more effective than they were in 2008,” he said, referring to Russia’s five-day war with Georgia. “But in the information sphere, in terms of forming public opinion, creating the agenda of the day, our results have been much worse.” This may have been purposely false modesty, but Panarin’s attitude was representative of what Russia’s ruling class sincerely believes: whatever we may do, the Americans do more of it, and worse.
Even as Russian responsibility for the hacks has been established with high degrees of certainty by several U.S. intelligence agencies, as well as by numerous private cybersecurity firms, the question of motive remains less clear. It is one thing to establish the fact of a security breach through technical data, but another to explain why the perpetrator decided to carry out the attack. If U.S. intelligence agencies had human or signals sources that show Russian officials explaining or discussing the motives for trying to influence a U.S. Presidential election, that would be a different matter—though presumably Russia’s paranoid and security-obsessed officials would keep such talk away from any channels that could be penetrated. One way to clear up this uncertainty, and settle the question of Russia’s culpability, would be for the Obama Administration to declassify what it knows not just about the fact that hacking took place but why, and with what aims. Michael McFaul, a former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, told the Wall Street Journal that Obama should “focus his remaining time on attribution—that is declassification of intelligence so that there is no ambiguity about the Russian actions.”
The aim of the Russian operation may have come down to a kind of calculated nihilism. As several Russian lawmakers and members of the political élite have told me, by the end of the American Presidential campaign, most Russian officials expected Clinton to win. The Kremlin had plenty of reason to fear a Clinton Presidency—for reasons of policy, and not just because Putin “has a personal beef against me,” as Clinton herself told a group of donors in New York. Doing what it could to spoil her victory while undermining the U.S. political system as a whole was a way of landing a few early blows on the person it expected to be its next geopolitical opponent.
As I wrote last month, Russian state propaganda on the eve of the U.S. vote was telling. The Presidential campaign had been so “horribly noxious that it only engenders disgust toward what is still inexplicably called a ‘democracy’ in America,” Dmitry Kiselev, Russia’s most curdled and alarmist television host, fumed in early November. “Threat of impeachment will hang over whoever wins the White House.” If Russian propaganda has had a unifying global mission in recent years, it is not to make Russia look impeccable but to make others look equally stained, so that everyone’s politics are covered in the same muck Russia finds heaped on itself. Trump was the muck candidate this fall, and by nudging his campaign along at the margins the Kremlin was not supporting Trump the individual so much as the spread of muck itself.
There is also the question of America’s response to the hacks. President Obama is now under a great deal of political pressure to come up with some form of retaliation, but it is not clear he has found an option he likes—he has spent the last years of his Presidency trying to isolate Putin, in the spirit of ignoring a troublesome classmate rather than confronting him. That inclination is unlikely to change in his last weeks in office. The goal, Obama said at a press conference last week, is to “send a clear message to Russia or others not to do this to us, because we can do stuff to you.” But he rejected the idea of a large and public show of force, saying there is no evidence that if the United States “thumped our chests about a bunch of stuff, that somehow that would potentially spook the Russians.” He said he prefers a policy “that increases costs for them for behavior like this in the future but does not create problems for us.”
That may be hard to find. The United States certainly has the technical ability to launch cyberstrikes against Russian targets, whether government networks or those that regulate the country’s infrastructure or financial sectors, for example. But that would be seen as a highly aggressive act, and in his relationship with Putin Obama has shown little appetite for being the one to ratchet up the stakes. If such cyberstrikes were minor and able to remain covert, they might have little deterrence effect; if they were larger and more obvious, Putin could well feel forced to respond, sparking a U.S.-Russian crisis in Obama’s last days in office. “My view is that cyber may not be the best way to go, because once you get into that kind of an escalation, we’re in truth more vulnerable than they are,” Robert Gates, Obama’s former Secretary of Defense, said recently.
According to the Times, another option discussed in the White House was the release of information on Putin’s hidden financial dealings, especially with oligarchs who are said collectively to hold a vast fortune under Putin’s informal control. But Obama’s advisers apparently discarded the idea, concluding that it would not shock the Russian public, which has grown cynical and inured to the topic of official corruption. The Panama Papers released in April—which, among myriad other stories, revealed links between a cellist who was a longtime friend of Putin and two billion dollars in offshore accounts—gained little traction inside Russia. When I spoke with Andrei Klimov, a Russian senator and the deputy head of the Duma’s international-affairs committee, he essentially agreed. “Let’s say that your magazine writes that Putin has a trunk filled with billions of dollars, or all the gold in the world, buried in the ground somewhere. What will happen next? Putin will still be President of Russia, and Obama will be off on his retirement.”
Another recent Times report suggested that the Pentagon was considering a plan to punch “holes in the Russian internet to allow dissidents to get their message out.” But it is unclear what that would mean. Political speech on the Russian Internet is monitored but left largely uncensored, and, in any case, the central issues faced by the country’s opposition are access to federal media and participation in elections, not online presence. A final option for Obama would be strengthening or adding to the economic sanctions put in place against Russia over its actions in Ukraine. Yet those sanctions, first enacted in 2014, have yielded uncertain results. They have failed to fracture the Kremlin élite, or cause the Russian public to blame Putin for economic problems, or bring about desired changes in policy. There is little evidence to think that more sanctions would lead to a new or different result. When I spoke with Klimov, the senator, his mood was one of confidence and mild amusement: “What is Obama going to do? Not invite us to the White House Christmas-tree ceremony? I am joking, but also not: I can’t imagine what he can do that he hasn’t done a long time ago.”
Putin and those around him in the Kremlin may be right to feel a bit pleased with themselves. They proved able to intervene in a U.S. Presidential election—the biggest political contest in the world—no matter how decisive that intervention ultimately was. The incoming President is more conciliatory to Russia’s interests and its way of viewing the world than any in recent history. His Secretary of State will be an oil man who has spoken of the need to undo U.S. sanctions against Russia.
Under Trump, U.S. political life may well become a bit—or maybe a lot—more Russian, or, more specifically, Putinist, in its gathering sense of distrust of institutions, belief in conspiracy theories, and tolerance for the intermingling of political power and personal profit. In the coming days, as policymakers in Washington—along with the pundit class and the media—sift through the various options for reacting to the Kremlin’s hacking, they would be wise to keep in mind one other aspect of Putin’s Russia. Russian politicians and state-affiliated journalists long ago stopped believing in sincere motives and only see cynical ones, and they are always ready to discount genuine, homegrown phenomena when belief in a foreign-directed plot will suffice. Part of what made the United States vulnerable to outside interference in its election was its openness: what made the WikiLeaks revelations matter was an independent press that was able to report on them, and an opposition party that could try its hardest to exploit them for political gain. It would be a shame if, in its understandable outrage at having its electoral process corrupted, the United States moved closer in the direction of the country that hacked it.
Author: Joshua Yaffa