Even before the release of the unclassified version of the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusions regarding Russian hacking and involvement in the U.S. presidential elections, before President-elect Donald Trump got his classified briefing on the report from the heads of the U.S. Intelligence Community, before all the reactions to the report, Russia was already the big winner.
Imagine, if you will, some time ago, when some Russian intelligence officer pitched his boss on the idea of actually trying to influence the U.S. presidential elections. It must have been an intriguing proposal, and one entirely in keeping with the goals of the Russian intelligence services.
Assuming the Russians, as part of their routine cyber collection activity, had already gotten into the DNC servers, there must have been a point when they realized the intelligence they were getting (internal dissent inside the Democratic Party, attempts to limit the influence of Bernie Sanders, and other flavors of inside political baseball) could be used, not just to inform the Kremlin as to what was going on, but also maybe – just maybe – to influence the outcome of the U.S. presidential election.
It was probably not a great leap to consider moving from collection, to what the Russians call active measures – covert action, in U.S. intelligence parlance. This is because it is in the tradition of the Russian intelligence services to look first to use clandestinely acquired intelligence to influence events outside (and inside) of Russia, and then as a distant second, to produce finished intelligence for Russian intelligence consumers.
Also, the potential gain for Russia was incredible. At the time the hacks were most likely accomplished, Donald Trump was casting doubt on NATO (“We might have to let it go”), not objecting to the Russian annexation of Crimea (“most of them want to be part of Russia anyway”), and questioning Western sanctions against Russia (“we’ll take a look at them”). Each one of these issues was and remains strategically crucial to Putin—and candidate Trump’s views were much preferable to those of his adversary, Hillary Clinton, or even the current Obama administration.
So when the Russian intelligence services did their version of a risk-vs-gain analysis, the conclusions were probably clear. Yes, we could get caught, they surely realized. If so, we’ll deny it and make counteraccusations. That has worked well in the past (the shoot down of Malaysian flight MH-17 by Russian armed separatists over eastern Ukraine being a good example). In addition, they must have argued, cyber hacks are notoriously difficult to prove, which will cast even more doubt. The Russian intelligence services, long familiar with the Western approach to rule of law, would also have realized that there would be an immediate cry for hard evidence of the hacks – evidence which the Russians knew the American Intelligence Community would not provide publicly, so as to protect its sources and methods.
The list of wins for the Russians in the wake of the hacks, despite the fact that in the end, they have been found out, is significant. While there may be even more benefits down the road, a brief tally gives a general sense for how well the Russians have done.
Disruption of the American political system: Disrupting the U.S. is usually Putin’s default setting (see also: Syria), because Putin believes that which weakens the U.S., usually strengthens Russia. Remember, Putin views democracy as an existential threat to his regime, and the more distracted the U.S. is with internal political matters, the less it will be fomenting color revolutions and attempting to unseat dictators (e.g. Assad). Cracks in the U.S. political system – especially in a bedrock piece of it like elections – also plays to a favorite Kremlin theme, namely that democracy is a fatally flawed, hypocritical system, and that autocracies, such as Russia’s or China’s, are no worse, and in many ways better.
Disrupting and discrediting the U.S. intelligence system: It is difficult to imaging Putin himself doing a better job of scripting what President-elect Trump has said about the U.S. Intelligence Community in the wake of the hacks. Not only did Trump indicate his skepticism regarding whether the hacks were Russian, he also levelled significant criticism against the intelligence organizations that collected and disseminated the information.
This is a win on two levels for Putin. First, in Russia, the intelligence services have much greater policy and political clout than here in the U.S., and Russians always believe that U.S. intelligence enjoys much more political power than it really does. So Putin probably believes the CIA, NSA, and FBI have been badly hobbled, and their influence with the White House seriously eroded.
Second, on an emotional level, it must please the former KGB officer in Putin to see his arch enemies take hits from the incoming president. Morale, the Kremlin probably assumes, must be low inside U.S. intelligence. This can only be good for Russia.
Recognition of Russia as an equal, at least on cyber: It is worth recalling that a great deal of what drives Russian foreign policy is Putin, and Russia’s need to feel they are strategic players on the world stage. No matter the problems in their economy, the poor condition of their infrastructure, or really anything else, they insist on being treated as equals with the West. Search on your computer how many times senior Russian officials use terms like “respecting Russia” and “Russia is a great power.” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s comments – absolutely true and useful in the Washington context – must have made Putin’s knees weak with pleasure: “Russia is a full-scope cyber actor and poses a major threat to the USG.” Compare that to President Obama’s description of Russia as “a regional power.” Vindication and recognition for Russia, at last!
Intense American focus on the hack, not the larger influence operation: The hacking of the DNC, as well as other targets in the U.S., has caused a great dust storm of media and public attention on all things cyber, which is excellent news for the other, arguably more important parts of the much larger Russian influence operation. Remember, the Russian goal all along was to attempt to increase the likelihood that Donald Trump would be elected president, due to his policies, which Putin found favorable (It is of course true that the Kremlin was also planning for the possibility that Hillary Clinton would win, a prudent move when elections are actually free and fair).
The information gleaned from the hacks was useful, but of even greater value, was much more traditional influence tools such as media control and manipulation. For starters, the Russians fund and control two media outlets directly, RT and Sputnik, making it simple to disseminate themes that would impact U.S. voters. In addition, the Russian intel services are old hands at recruiting editors and reporters in the foreign press, providing another way to get their message out. Finally, social media is a new, fertile frontier for Russian propaganda efforts, with mechanisms ranging from trolls and bots to simply publishing fake news. This much more important facet of the overall operation also carries with it a unique advantage: influencing U.S. voters is a much lower-risk proposition than trying to actually electronically alter voting results. If caught doing the latter, the Russians would have been correctly accused of invalidating the election results. But how could they be accused of the former? Even if it could be proved, who would make the argument that the American voting public had been duped by the Russians? The Kremlin would argue, we forced no one to vote for one candidate or the other. They are smart enough to make up their own minds. And who on the American political landscape would disagree?
Looking back, any Russian intelligence officer or Kremlin power broker who urged caution or expressed doubt about whether the risk of trying to influence the U.S. elections was worth the gain, must be shaking his head and asking himself, what was I thinking? His colleagues who supported the idea are probably telling him, we told you so, we said it would work. But all of them, to include Putin, must be a bit taken aback about just how well it all turned out.