June 7, 2017

Meddling in Western Elections: Russia’s Aims and Gains

AFP/Scanpix
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with French presidential election candidate for the far-right Front National (FN) party Marine Le Pen at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 24, 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with French presidential election candidate for the far-right Front National (FN) party Marine Le Pen at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 24, 2017.

Some say that Russia simply gambles when it meddles in other countries’ elections, like a poker or roulette player who walks from one table to another to try his luck.

This may be partly true, given President Putin’s well-known ability to play various games, and his audacious willingness to take risks and exploit promising opportunities. Moreover, the world is not a casino where, as a rule, the house always wins, and gamblers turn out to be “losers” (to use a favourite word of the former casino magnate now in the White House).

That is why Putin does not play for fun -he is desperate to win, and seemingly believes that he has a very good chance of emerging triumphant. In fact, the Kremlin’s meddling in Western elections is an inseparable part of Russia’s broader if occasionally incoherent effort to weaken and manipulate Western nations and their main institutions, the EU and NATO. Certainly, Putin is aware that Russia would ultimately not benefit from a dangerous collapse of the Western world; however, a sufficiently feeble (but still prosperous) and manageable West would be perfect for fulfilling Russia’s unhidden ambitions.

This approach also holds true from the opposite perspective as well. The West would benefit greatly from a Russia reasonably weak in economic and military terms, one that could not even pretend to be a real threat on a global scale. An increase in Western sanctions and a significantly harder political stance towards Russia would greatly support this goal. Sadly, most Western nations and organizations do not even wish to acknowledge this reasoning, and not only because many of them struggle with major institutional, political, economic, migration-related, and other issues.

The Western powers prefer to pretend to play Russia’s game in which the world’s nations, and even individuals, are divided between opposing camps of Russophiles (Verstehers) and Russophobes—based on George W. Bush’s Biblical doctrine that those who are not with is us are against us. In addition, Russia has repeatedly demonstrated its ability to create crises, and the West –in general-does not want trouble. Therefore, President Putin’s regime is not seriously challenged or opposed, and continues to enjoy relative stability even as it regards the increasingly turbulent West as the perfect target for cyber-attacks, disinformation campaigns and, of course, the promotion of its favourite candidates or political forces in national elections.

These overt and covert activities by hackers and Internet trolls, the FSB and GRU, as well as many other actors controlled or condoned by the Kremlin are all part of Russia’s hybrid war against the West. Since the annexation of Crimea, most Europeans and North Americans thought that Russia’s hybrid warfare was a threat primarily to the Baltic states and Poland. Many observers were alarmed: “Would Narva or Daugavpils be the next Russian targets?” However, that focus is far too narrow; this is an acute threat against the entire Western world, not just Russia’s neighbours.

The US

Russian leaders have repeatedly complained that it is hard to build a stable relationship with the Western countries, especially the US, because—as a result of their fair and democratic elections—these nations have rather short-lived governments and leaders compared to Russia. President Putin sees no reason (and has no intention) to leave office. Therefore, in order to get the Russian-Western relationship “in order”, the “right” new Western leaders have to emerge.

President Donald Trump is not a Russian “creation”, but rather the Kremlin’s Manna from heaven. Russia immediately realized that Trump had a real chance of victory in 2016, and thus did not hesitate to support him by all possible means. Whether Russia’s support to Trump’s campaign was ultimately decisive—given the fact that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote but lost in the electoral college the crucial states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania by very narrow margins—will most probably remain unclear. What is clear is that Russia desired and got Trump, and employed literally every means to that end –from official statements that claimed that the election of Trump’s opponent meant (inevitable) war, to cyber-attacks and organized leakage of stolen information against Clinton and her campaign team, as well as the spread of provocative misinformation through huge numbers of fake social media accounts and “alternative news channels” etc.

In this context, Russia acted and continues to act along the same lines as it does in the occupied parts of the Donbas region; there, the Kremlin actively supports “separatism” in order to weaken and manipulate Ukraine, but persistently denies its obvious involvement in the crisis. President Putin’s explanations to Megyn Kelly (NBC News, 4 June 2017) that Russia did not interfere with the US presidential election in 2016 were not at all convincing. Putin already explained at the Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum two days prior that “patriotic hackers” do exist. He claimed that the (Russian) hackers join “the justified fight against those speaking ill of Russia,” and spend their day attacking adversaries, just as “artists” who get up and paint all day. He was quick to add: “We are not doing this on the state level.”

President Trump, who recently instructed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to do everything possible to redress the US-Russian relationship, and President Putin are evidently both engaged –in their own ways- in a major effort to suppress and downplay the scandalous (and dangerous) Russian meddling in the American presidential election, as well as the various connections between Trump’s team and the Russians. However, this affair is far from over, and could in fact escalate at any moment, assuming that more revelations are yet to come. The Trump administration brought its first case under the Espionage Act on 5 June 2017, charging intelligence agency contractor Reality Leigh Winner with leaking a classified document1 to The Intercept, a news outlet. The former FBI director James Comey will testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee on 8 June 2017 about the investigation into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.

Russia’s main goal was to offer a friendly “service” to Donald Trump, who unwittingly failed to (pretend to) decline and say: “Thanks, but no thanks!” Instead, Donald Trump (on 27 July 2016) encouraged Russian hackers to continue their cyber-attacks. Even before occupying the White House, Trump’s entourage engaged in dubious contacts with Russia, and even attempted to establish secret “channels of communication” with the Kremlin via the Russian Embassy in Washington. Consequently, the White House and Russia now find themselves in a rather critical situation, in a battle that does not allow Trump to fulfil either his “reset” promises or Putin’s expectations, and could prove fatal to his future as President of the United States.

France

Another “friend” of Vladimir Putin, the leader of the far-right Front National Marine Le Pen, was the next “project” of the Kremlin. Like Donald Trump, she was Russia’s clear favourite in her country’s presidential election—held over two rounds in April and May 2017. The ultimate winner, Emmanuel Macron, could not be portrayed as a god of war like Hillary Clinton, but -unlike almost all other candidates- was considered clearly not pro-Russian, and therefore “anti-Russian”.

Interestingly, Russia’s support to Le Pen, which was marked with the same fingerprints as was its intervention in the US presidential election, including massive disinformation and cyber-attacks against Macron’s campaign headquarters, did not cease until the day of the final round (7 May 2017) despite opinion polls, which promised a landslide victory for Macron. Russia’s rationale might have been that it presented better chances of denial (after all, who would support a clear loser, as President Putin indeed later, argued in his joint press conference with Macron at the Salle des Batailles in Versailles on 29 May 2017), and a clear message that the Kremlin stands by its friends and allies to the end. Perhaps the calculation was also that Le Pen and the Front National are on the rise, and it would be inappropriate to prematurely write them off due to their future prospects. Nonetheless, the result of such support was that Putin’s relationship with Macron soured before it could start.

Some conclusions

Russian meddling in Western elections, including the connected cyber and non-cyber actions, tend to “prove” that the Kremlin is politically far more potent than it actually is. This fits with Russia’s general approach to its image-making, including by intimidation and aggression, heavily promoting the skillfulness of its special services and might of its military, and so on.

Furthermore, Russia–perhaps has more useful idiots than real friends in the Western world. They are all valuable assets, but more devoted—or beholden—elite allies at the very top of Western political establishments are the ultimate prize desired by the Kremlin. Through them, the “necessary” changes in the Western world may be achieved without a major conflict between Russia and NATO or EU, which Moscow seeks to avoid.

However, Russia’s expectations could turn into disappointment. Thus far, this policy of meddling has brought about more trouble than benefits for the Kremlin, regardless of whether or not Russia’s preferred candidate has emerged as the electoral winner. Nonetheless, Moscow will probably continue to take sides and interfere in Western election, at least as a means of continuously testing its political and informational hybrid warfare capabilities.

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1 An NSA report that describes how Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, cracked into a U.S. voting database software supplier and then used the information it stole to create fake emails (laden with malware) that were sent to more than 100 local election officials.

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