In DNC's Russia Controversy, Finger-pointing Trumps Analysis | Wilson Center

In DNC's Russia Controversy, Finger-pointing Trumps Analysis

As part of its “mainstreaming Russia expertise” project, the Kennan Institute sent experts on Russia to the 2016 Republican and Democratic presidential nominating conventions to assess the potential new administrations’ vision for their relationship with Russia and Ukraine. E. Wayne Merry is a Senior Fellow for Europe and Eurasia at the American Foreign Policy Council and former Political Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

Many foreign countries sent diplomatic observers to our presidential nominating conventions.  Russia did not, but a Russian image hovered over the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia, from start to finish.

Presumably, the last thing Hillary Clinton wanted to initiate her political triumph in Philadelphia was public confirmation that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) had functioned effectively as an extension of her own campaign rather than as a neutral party secretariat.  The confirmation via WikiLeaks of suspicions about the DNC greatly hampered Senator Bernie Sanders in his efforts to convince his ardent supporters to transfer their loyalty to Clinton in the final contest with Donald Trump.

The immediate response from DNC officials was to blame Russia and thus shift public attention from their scandal to presumed Russian meddling in the election campaign.  In American political tradition, this is called wrapping yourself in the flag.  The effort was greatly assisted by Mr. Trump’s remarks inviting the Russian government to pursue the missing emails from Mrs. Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State.  In Philadelphia, it was striking how quickly the concerns of die-hard Sanders supporters were overshadowed in the media by the image of a malevolent Vladimir Putin. 

Prominent American commentators on the left portrayed an almost transactional relationship between Trump and Putin.  Paul Krugman in the New York Times characterized the Republican nominee as a “Siberian candidate” (a reference to the 1962 classic Cold War paranoia film “The Manchurian Candidate”) and speculated about “some specific channel of influence” between the two men (without specifics). 

The controversy, while serious in its ultimate import, promptly lost any grip on fact-based analysis.  In the first place, suspicions of Russian official involvement were speculative and remain so.  This is not because Moscow has any ethical constraints in the matter, but because accusations of Russian involvement are also based on leaks.  Indeed, US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said publicly that it was premature to attribute the hacking of the DNC to Russia or any other government.  The reported presence of Cyrillic letters in the hacks proves nothing, as a smart hacker in Pyongyang or San Francisco might have used them to cover his tracks.  Some of Putin’s harshest domestic critics have expressed skepticism of Kremlin involvement in this affair.

The actual release of the hacked material came from WikiLeaks, whose head Julian Assange openly proclaimed his desire to damage Mrs. Clinton in the election campaign.  He chose the timing of the leak.  Mr. Assange is, to put it mildly, not squeamish about his sources, and he enjoys a global fan base of cyber sleuths.  His single biggest haul came from a US Army private soldier.  Given the intense passions engendered by this election and the risible cyber security employed by the DNC, the potential sources of the hacked materials are legion.

So, should Moscow be treated as innocent until proven guilty?  Not in my view.  The standard questions about a suspect are means and motives.  On means, the Russian Government is certainly on the short list of world-class practitioners of cyber espionage and digital warfare.  Moscow uses cyberspace to attack individuals, organizations and even countries (in particular, Estonia).  Russia’s cyber arsenal reflects the country’s stature in mathematical sciences and its long-standing belief in using any and all weapons at its disposal.  (To be fair, cyber war is a game any number can play, while other governments, including our own, were pioneers.) 

So, if Russia was not involved in the hack of the DNC, a conspiracy-minded Kremlin official (and there is no other kind) might see the fuss as a put-up job to damage Mr. Trump by associating him with Russia and also to damage Russia’s image in preparation for a new Cold War.   

What of motives?  The American media image that Moscow has embraced Mr. Trump is just not true.  You can find plenty of pro-Trump opinions in the Russian media, but you can find a range of opinions there on most topics.  The Kremlin maintains a careful stance of neutrality about foreign elections.  Mr. Putin’s own public comments about Donald Trump have been quite cautious.  His most generous compliment was to call Mr. Trump “a very colorful person.”  Other formulations in the American media are mistranslations.  When Trump claimed Putin had characterized him as a “genius,” the Kremlin issued a denial.  Russian elites tend to believe that relations with Washington are better under Republican administrations, but their experts are decidedly uncertain, if not actually baffled, by the Trump phenomenon.  Moscow might hope for the best from a Trump presidency, but Putin does not imagine Trump would be a pushover.

On the other hand, Moscow does regard a potential Clinton presidency with unease, if not outright dread.  Put bluntly, the Kremlin views Hillary Clinton as a convinced neo-conservative dedicated to a US policy of regime change in countries which challenge American global primacy.  In this view, as Secretary of State she shifted US-funded “democracy promotion” programs in Russia to the goal of regime change.  Doubtless, Secretary Clinton would reject the charge, but the Kremlin believes she overtly sponsored anti-Putin forces and used US programs to encourage what Moscow’s calls a “color revolution.”  The Kremlin leadership perceived those efforts as violations of Russia’s sovereignty and as threats to their own power and personal safety.  In Russian politics as well as ours, perceptions not only influence reality, perceptions effectively are reality.

Moscow considers American outrage about foreign involvement in this election as pure hypocrisy.  It recalls that four years ago the Israeli government campaigned quite openly (albeit unsuccessfully) against the reelection of President Obama, without serious consequences for that relationship.  The Edward Snowden revelations showed Washington employs cyber espionage on a global scale, including on its allies.  Moscow knows that Washington often has a finger (or hand) in many another country’s domestic politics, in recent years most conspicuously in Egypt and Ukraine.  It also knows the United States has pursued regime change with military means in Serbia, Iraq, Libya and, currently, in Syria. 

So, if Russia was not involved in the hack of the DNC, a conspiracy-minded Kremlin official (and there is no other kind) might see the fuss as a put-up job to damage Mr. Trump by associating him with Russia and also to damage Russia’s image in preparation for a new Cold War.   

However, if Russian cyber espionage in fact was responsible for hacking the DNC to embarrass Mrs. Clinton, the Russian leadership would justify the act to itself as comparable to US activities abroad, and as motivated by national interest and even personal self-preservation.  Mr. Putin has no intention of following Milosevic, Morsi or Yanukovich, let alone Saddam Hussein or Gaddafi.  The notion currently in Washington on both the left and right that Putin is weak and near the end of his political tenure is almost certainly wishful thinking, and dangerous as a basis for US policy.   

Despite some sound and fury, the release of the DNC’s emails was a fairly minor event on the long road to the November election.  Other events closer to election day could be far more important and constitute what in American political parlance is known as an “October surprise.”  What we learned in Philadelphia in July is that the automatic political response will be finger-pointing at Moscow, with assessment of the facts sometime later.

The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.