Is Moscow’s Finger On The Scales Of The US Presidential Election Via Hacking?

Putin has every reason to be actively supporting Donald Trump’s bid to become the President of the United States. A recent play to support him, which seems to have come from Moscow, is nothing new either – but the tech behind it is. The motivations behind the recent hacking attacks seem to come right out of the Cold War playbook; meddle in a foreign election by subverting the unfavored candidate via psycho-political clandestine operations. The difference here is that hacking was used to gain access to sensitive and damning material instead of classic “analogue” espionage. Additonally a non-state actor, WikiLeaks, was used as a third-party delivery system for that material.

Putin’s playbook may seem unpredictable, but it’s rooted in tradecraft that the KGB used for decedes. In essence, Putin’s use of “hybrid warfare” is just a remodeled and consolidated version of the cocktail of tactics used by the USSR to subvert the will of people in the states it targets. The hacking of the Democratic National Committee (to the tune of 20,000 emails) fits right into this pattern of subversion.

Russia has become increasingly aggressive when it comes to meddling in US affairs. In fact they will openly kill to do so. Take their recent and unusual attack on a remote base in Syria along the Jordanian border, a facility where US forces were often present to support and train anti-ISIS Syrian fighters. At the time The War Zone came to the conclusion that this attack was likely a ruse to force the US into doing something Russia has been desperately wanting since getting involved militarily in the conflict late last summer – sharing critical battlefield intelligence with Russia. This would include information regarding where US, allied and coalition-backed rebel forces are on the game board that has become the Syrian conflict.

Since then the idea that Russia’s attack on the outpost was one of guile and not mistaken identity is widely accepted as fact. Amazingly, in the aftermath the US seems to be acquiescing to Moscow’s “request.”

Putin speaks at a conference., AP

The fact that Russia is willing to bomb American allied forces is too harsh a reality for the White House to come to terms with. This is not really that surprising, as the Obama Administration will do seemingly anything to avoid confronting Russia. In the end, Moscow’s crafty little plan appears to have worked, and this fact only invites more “crafty little plans.” In many ways, this has been the post Syrian “red line” reality for the US – and not just in regards to Russia.

Russia’s potential hacking of DNC emails, and their release in such a way as to look like it were just another WikiLeaks trove handed over by some independent hacking ring, is a more nuanced way of Russia getting what it wants from the US than the attack in Syria a month ago. In this case, Russia’s political aim is the election of Donald J Trump as the 45th President of the United States, not critical intelligence sharing.

The ongoing bromance between Putin and Trump started early in the campaign, and Trump’s subsequent siding with Russia on the Syrian conflict indicate an appetite for tighter relations with Moscow should he become the next American President. But Trump’s alarmingly cavalier position on NATO, specifically on his willingness to abandon the highly successful alliance, is Putin’s greatest dream come true.

Even small cracks in NATO’s façade would result in a rebalancing of power in the region – in Russia’s favor. Changes that could be catastrophic to the security situation in Europe as a whole, and especially damning for the Baltic States and the former Russian satellite states in Eastern Europe. Trump’s remarks spurred not just reactions from US lawmakers, retired generals, and European nations, but also a rare statement from NATO itself.

In essence, strongman Trump is the best US presidential candidate for strongman Putin’s Russia, and Moscow’s foreign policy goals would be far more easily realized with Trump in the White House than Hillary Clinton, at least if you take Trump by his word.

Trump gives his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention., AP

A pro-Putin president in the White House and a destabilized Europe would also likely result in the end to crushing economic sanctions that were slapped on Russia following the surprise invasion of Crimea in 2014 and a shadow war in eastern Ukraine. Lifting of these sanctions would not only reinvigorate Putin’s popularity among Russian voters, but it would also mean a huge influx of cash into the faltering Russian economy. This cash could be put to work accelerating the modernization of the Russian military, building new weaponry and potentially bankrolling future hybrid wars abroad.

So is it really a big surprise that Russia is using Cold War tactics paired with new technology to influence the US election considering how big of stakes are on the line? Hardly. As for the potential blowback from being accused of doing so by the US, well Putin only needs plausible deniability and will spin such accusations for his own good domestically.

Even now there are accusations that some of the files published were tampered with before being sent to WikiLeaks for distribution. Amplifying existing information before circulation accomplishes a number of goals at little risk. It gives the initial impact of the documents a greater impact, while retracting a story after the news cycle is nearly worthless. It also provides a greater sense of distrust about everything and everyone involved – with both the hack and the DNC’s political operation as claims and counter-claims fly.

The narrative emerging from the hacked emails, true or not, supports Donald Trump and Bernie Sander’s claims that the democratic process in the US is essentially rigged. This weakens the US as the leader in democratic values around the globe. Another big win for Putin’s Russia, and its degrading democracy. In the end, tampering with leaked information before its release makes for just another reason not to believe everything that you read on the internet. But, like most of what we see posted on social media, the truth does not exactly matter – the level of interest does. 

Foreshadowing of things to come? Putin questioned the legitimacy of US elections and made it oddly clear that he does not meddle in US elections during a conference last month:

But that’s not the end of the story. The story started weeks ago, when word came that Russian hackers supposedly broke into the DNC’s servers, stealing all their opposition research on Donald Trump. Who knows how this critical information could be exploited. Was Moscow doing its own vetting of Mr. Trump before putting all its chips behind him with this massive email leak? Was it just for Russia’s intelligence services’ internal use? Will Russia try to clandestinely back channel key parts of this information to the Trump Campaign? We just don’t know, and might never, but that information was not sought out for stealing without reason.

In the long run, even if some of the information in those 20,000 emails is slightly altered or not, there’s enough truth in them to do major damage to the DNC at the most inopportune time, right as its convention kicks off in Philidelphia. All talk of Trump’s media-branded “dark speech” about a near apocalyptic America has ended, and the news cycle has changed in favor of The Donald.

Mission accomplished for Moscow and its hacker cutouts.

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Tyler Rogoway


Tyler’s passion is the study of military technology, strategy, and foreign policy and he has fostered a dominant voice on those topics in the defense media space. He was the creator of the hugely popular defense site Foxtrot Alpha before developing The War Zone.