The Russian effort to influence the 2016 election will remain front-and-center as the House and Senate Intelligence Committee continue their probe and the FBI moves forward on its investigation. The issue is likely to weigh on the Trump Administration for some time to come.
In this regard, the Russian use of cyber hacks and intelligence measures to sow chaos and cast doubt on the U.S. election system certainly appears to have had its intended effect. As Russian- born British journalist and author Peter Pomerantsev explained in Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, the goal of Russia’s dirty tricks “is to confuse rather than convince, to trash the information space so the audience gives up looking for any truth amid the chaos.”
However, while the result has been a massive short-term win for the Russian intelligence services and Russian President Vladimir Putin, I am not certain that the Russians really thought through the ramifications of the attack, nor will it likely serve Russia’s strategic interests over the long term.
Seen from the Russian side, there appears a disconnect between the effort, thought, and pre-planning expended to carry out the attack, and its resulting impact. It is almost as if the Russian intelligence services pulled out a few tools from their standard playbook, not really expecting that they would have the impact that they did – little more than KGB SOP. In this sense, the hack of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and subsequent publication of the material in WikiLeaks is surely one of history’s best examples of enormous impact from minimal input.
As a former intelligence professional, I was not impressed with the Russian operation. I would have given them their due if the attacks were elegant, subtle, and hid the Russian hand. Instead, despite the importance of the target (the U.S. democratic system), the attack was no more than a lame phishing expedition by a known Russian proxy. It appeared to require minimal effort, displayed no style, and was poorly hidden. Espionage and covert action is meant to be secret. A cleverly hidden cyber theft or attack can achieve a State’s objectives without ever subjecting it to retaliation. Instead, this attack was amateurish.
Why was such an important intelligence operation so sloppy? How is it that the renowned Russian intelligence services couldn’t even steal the e-mails of a political campaign without getting caught? Frankly, with a bit of planning, it would have been child’s play to steal the DNC information and pass it to WikiLeaks without leaving a trail.
As far as I can assess, it appears that the Russians left this effort to low level operatives. Probably assuming a small chance of success, the Russian “B Team” merely trotted out a few tools from the KGB manual of standard procedures. The attacks on U.S. entities were the intelligence equivalent of throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks. It wasn’t until they started to see success that they doubled down. As the Russian Services initiated their planning in 2015 and early 2016 for the U.S. Presidential election, the Russians probably never thought their efforts would amount to much, or Trump would actually win the nomination. Therefore, they didn’t put much effort into the process. They phoned it in. By the time it became clear that Trump might win, it was too late to come up with something more sophisticated, so they went with what they had. Indeed, the present Russian effort in Europe suggests that the Russians are putting far more resources into their efforts to influence European elections than they did in the U.S.
Likewise, if the material presented in former British MI-6 officer Christopher Steele’s report on Russian efforts to influence the Trump team is to be believed, it would also make sense in this framework. That is, seeing Trump and his associates as low-level targets at the time, second string operatives were tasked to follow and document their activities. Thus, it was not that hard for Steele and others to uncover the Russians’ clumsy schemes. Again, the efforts to engage the Trump team were probably not a top priority until he started to win, and by that time, it was too late to clean up the mess.
Of course, despite the unimpressive initial attack, the ramifications have been far reaching. How could it happen that such a feeble Russian hack could have such serious consequences?
There is plenty of blame to go around. The basic security practices at the DNC were embarrassingly poor. They did little to protect their communication, although they surely knew that their internal correspondence could be targeted by those with malicious intent. The FBI failed to take the attack seriously and engage in a more productive manner with the DNC before it was too late. Finally, whether they were guilty of conspiring with the Russians or not, the Trump campaign should take responsibility for trafficking in false information and encouraging a hostile foreign power to manipulate our system of government. Ultimately, we all share some blame for weakening our civic society to the point that was ripe for exploitation.
Nonetheless, I suspect the people who will suffer the most from this episode will be the Russians themselves.
While Putin appears powerful at present, Russia’s meddling and dirty tricks undercuts their credibility and make it more difficult for them to repair their anemic economy and re-integrate globally. Trust and credibility are the basis of fruitful relations between countries. How can anyone trust a country that so blatantly and aggressively seeks to undermine others? Who will partner with a country that harbors fugitives, attacks democratic elections, spreads untruths, supports criminal regimes, oppresses its citizens, and invades neighbors?
Russia has made long-term enemies of numerous countries, and there will certainly be blowback from their attacks. Even on the tactical side, Putin’s blatant use of WikiLeaks as an enabler will make it a less reliable place to “launder” the Kremlin’s propaganda in the future. Last, but not least, the continuing fallout generated from this episode will make it politically difficult for President Trump to deliver on his promise to improve cooperation with the Russians. If the Kremlin hoped to gain a sympathetic and acquiescent friend in the White House, they may have blown their opportunity.
It is hard to envision any winners emerging from the Russian active measure operations. The only respect that Putin will collect from his recent actions, is the fleeting respect offered a bully. And, as with a bully, he will eventually get what’s coming to him.