Trump browsing the Internet. (Photo: Donald Trump/Twitter)
Is this the next step towards a cold cyberwar?
Last week WikiLeaks published thousands of hacked emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. Only a few days later his Twitter account was hacked and the message “I’ve switched teams.Vote Trump 2016.Hi pol” was tweeted. This was the second time that emails from the Democratic party were hacked. In July, more than 19,000 emails from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) were hacked and published by WikiLeaks, which prompted the resignation of its chairwoman, Debbie Wassermann-Schultz.
“I love WikiLeaks. It’s amazing how nothing is secret today when you talk about the Internet.” - Donald Trump
Of course, Trump’s campaign has also been the target of leaks, namely the tax returns leaked to the NYT and the notorious “sexual predator” video leaked to the Washington Post. The media went crazy about the two leaks, mostly because they confirmed long-held suspicions about his tax returns (which, judging by the few pages leaked, turned out to be even more catastrophic than thought) and his behaviour towards women. The latter being especially controversial, considering he is the presidential candidate for the socially extremely conservative GOP. The video even prompted several high level Republicans to distance themselves from their candidate (obviously only after they heard him use the words “grab them by the p*****” while talking about married women). Clinton’s email leak, on the other hand, confirmed the bias towards Sanders and her, rather unsurprising, pragmatic, careful and methodological (but still progressive) approach to politics. Clinton supporters weren’t exactly shocked when the latest leak again confirmed her closeness to Wall Street and big business.
There is, however, one huge difference between the Clinton and Trump leaks. According to American intelligence agencies and cybersecurity experts, the DNC’s and Podesta’s emails were hacked by two Russian groups connected to the Russian government. WikiLeaks hasn’t released its sources so there is obviously a degree of uncertainty. Both Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, and Donald Trump deny any Russian involvement. Although their actions or rather inactions hint at some kind of an alliance that includes Russia. Even after U.S. intelligence agencies made it clear that there is a pretty high possibility of Russian involvement, Trump denied Russia’s involvement in cyberattacks against the United States during the first presidential debate and claimed “it also could be someone sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, okay? You don’t know who broke into DNC.” That evening also showed viewers how uncomfortable and clueless Trump is with cybersecurity (something he refers to as “cyber”) and information technology in general (“I don’t do the email thing.”). In the second debate he even went further and claimed that “maybe there is no hacking”. This was only two days after the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Election Security made a joint statement saying that “we believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities”. Vladimir Putin’s spokesman described the allegations as “rubbish” and “unprecedented anti-Russian hysteria”. Of course this isn’t the first time Russia has been accused of hacking into foreign government IT systems. To be fair, the United States is not exactly innocent when it comes to hacking as the NSA leak revealed (such as the phones of some of America's closest allies). But the timing of the attack and the target make this attack especially worryingly and raise serious questions of whether Russia is directly interfering with the US presidential election.
"By dribbling these out every day WikiLeaks is proving they are nothing but a propaganda arm of the Kremlin with a political agenda doing [Vladimir] Putin's dirty work to help elect Donald Trump.” — Glen Caplin, spokesman for the Clinton campaign
Is this love? (Photo: Twitter)
This fits into a greater narrative of Putin’s “new Russia” trying to emancipate itself from the tumultuous 1990s and to become an equal with the United States again. Moscow claims that NATO’s eastward expansion and troop deployment in Poland and the Baltic States has resulted in a “major shift in strategic stability” that is threatening “the political, military and economic balance in the world”. Already for over one year now, Syria has been the latest victim of Russia’s new assertiveness. Unlike other conflicts, such as Georgia, Crimea and eastern Ukraine, Syria has become a direct battlefront for several world and regional powers, most notably Russia, the US, Iran and Saudi Arabia (and through the refugee crisis, as well as the support of "rebel groups" by member states, the EU). Russia’s involvement is quite clear: it wants to prove its geopolitical power to the West and prevent another autocratic regime from tumbling with a resulting power vacuum to be exploited by extremist forces. Russia’s ultra-violent military intervention, as Mark Galeotti from the European Council on Foreign Relations argues, can be viewed as a sign of weakness. Only last month Russia once again showed how far it will go to support Assad’s regime. In an air attack 18 people were killed while unloading humanitarian aid at a Syrian Arab Red Crescent warehouse in Aleppo. What has shocked many worldwide is, according to Galeotti, “tactical good sense” for Russia’s realpolitik because “its military capabilities are far less impressive than its geopolitical aspirations”. Moscow is simply not able to mobilise and afford enough well trained soldiers to win a war with as little civilian casualties as possible (that would require a huge deployment of ground forces).
“Unfortunately, the United States recently has taken several hostile steps with respect to Russia. (…) NATO military infrastructure is expanding, with an increasing number of US troops in proximity to the Russian border. (…) All these actions taken by Washington are leading to a major shift in strategic stability and are increasingly limiting possibilities for Russian-US cooperation on reducing nuclear arsenals.
Our decision is a signal to Washington that it cannot use the language of force, sanctions and ultimatums with Russia while continuing to selectively cooperate with our country only when it benefits the US. (…) If Washington adjusts its political course and fully eliminates the circumstances it created that adversely altered the political, military and economic balance in the world, we will be ready to resume the agreement.” - Sergei Lavrov
Galeotti calls this “aggressive defensiveness”. Similar to defending the status quo in Syria and preventing a regime change (or something more in line with the interest of the Syrian civilian population - even though the West isn't particularly helpful either), the Kremlin’s involvement in the Democratic party’s email hacks could be seen as protecting their national interest. This would be deterrence at all costs. While Trump might not be directly involved with the email hack (it’s quite unlikely), it is quite clear that it is a win-win situation for all parties involved. Although Trump has praised Putin on several occasions and has even encouraged Russia to hack Clinton’s emails (“Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”). Further, Julian Assange also knows that Trump will be more lenient on him than Clinton as a president after the elections. It appears that Assange’s hate for Clinton (from her time as secretary of state) and everything she stands for (i.e. US imperialism) trumps his dislike for Trump. His radical approach to transparency doesn’t seem to care much about the methods as long as the greater goal is eventually reached, which explains the awkward alliance with Trump and Putin.
“They started this hysteria, saying this (hacking) is in Russia’s interests, but this has nothing to do with Russia’s interests. But hysteria is evoked only to divert attention of the American public from the nature of the information that the hackers posted. And the nature of it - the manipulation of public opinion.” - Vladimir Putin
For the Kremlin it is quite obvious that Trump is the preferred candidate, with his non-ideological and often nihilistic (or rather completely ignorant) approach to foreign policy, especially with the low oil prices and resulting decreased sources of income for the Russian state. Despite his unpredictability and vagueness, Trump offers an alternative to not only Obama and Clinton but the entire U.S. political mainstream, including almost all Republicans (and even his running mate). He is extremely pro-Russian for a presidential candidate and is quite open with his sympathies towards Putin. If Jeb Bush, for example, were the GOP candidate, Russia (or some other non-state actor) would have maybe rather targeted his campaign or simply not hacked any parties’ email accounts at all. Putin is taking advantage of Obama’s lame duck status (and also the West’s inability to form a coherent Russia policy) in various conflicts, most notably Syria. Cyberwarfare seems to be one of them. If Clinton wins she will most likely pursue a more assertive position towards Putin’s geopolitical aspirations. While Obama chose to contain Moscow through sanctions and increasing military support to eastern European NATO partners (forcing Russia to constrain itself to avoid economic collapse), Clinton seems to be in favour of confronting Russia, including in its response to cyberattacks against American political parties and government institutions, i.e. a full-blown cyberwar (and possibly a direct confrontation in Syria). Trump’s approach would most likely be a third way, where he accepts the realities created by Moscow in Crimea and Syria and a focus on deal-making with Putin (basically accepting him as an equal). A future president Trump, which looks increasingly unlikely, might also have to deal with a Russian president who believes he has done him a favour (of course, assuming the allegations are true). However, considering that Trump has failed to give any consistent (or detailed) policy proposals, it is extremely hard to judge what he will do or even stands for.
“The president has talked before about the significant capabilities that the US government has to both defend our systems in the United States, but also carry out offensive operations in other countries. So there are a range of responses that are available to the president and he will consider a response that is proportional.” - Josh Earnest, White House press secretary
Russia wants to be seen as an equal to the US and not merely an irritating regional player. Putin doesn’t have to worry about a critical Russian public (at least outside of Moscow) and is so ingrained in Russian politics that he can (politically - not necessarily economically) afford an escalation of the relationship with the West. Despite all of this, Russia is still a rational actor that subscribes to a - maybe slightly old-fashioned - notion of realpolitik and evidence that Russia actually hacked the DNC server is not completely verifiable. Russia's realpolitik, however, will not stop existing proxy wars and cyberattacks from further escalating. Assuming that Clinton will win the elections, it seems most likely that the “cyberconflict” between the two countries, including public attacks from the US against the Russian government and infrastructure, will be one of the next flashpoints. Maybe Trump's promise of a detente aren't that ridiculous.
“Have you ever noticed, anything that goes wrong they blame Russia? They always blame Russia and then they say Donald Trump is friends (…) I don’t know Putin, folks. What the hell do I have to do with Putin?” - Donald Trump