The Russian Cyber Saga

In an election season that has been nothing short of a reality TV show, the latest developments include a personal appearance by Russian president Vladimir Putin, accused by US intelligence sources of personally approving Russian hacks during the US election. US intelligence officials testified in front of the Senate Armed Forces committee and, shortly thereafter, released a declassified report to the public. If you have a few spare moments, I highly recommend reading the report for yourself.


The testimony provided by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper; Admiral Michael Rogers, Director of the National Security Agency; and Marcel Lettre, the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, mirrored the released report. The intelligence community has determined that the highest echelons of the Russian government ordered interference into US elections through hacks of the DNC and Clinton campaign emails. The remainder of the report addresses the Kremlin’s unofficial mouthpiece, Russia Today (RT), and its role in disseminating political propaganda around the world. The unclassified report was otherwise understandably sparse, given the gravity of the issue. There was no shocking announcement or new revelation for anyone who regularly follows the news: everything Clapper and other government officials have been saying publicly was simply confirmed on paper. As David Ignatius of the Washington Post wrote, the report “isn’t enough” for the American people. A bipartisan commission is still needed, and the unsubstantiated reports of compromising information that Russians have on Trump needs more research.

Nevertheless, the report is a reminder of the far reaches of Russia’s political machine, and the lack of understanding the US policy community often has with regards to Russia.

One important piece of information omitted in the report is the influence of cyber attacks on external election processes and the observation that this was not unique to the United States. Cyber interference in elections is not a new and novel tool for Russia. In fact, it’s been used with varying degrees of success all over Europe and the former Soviet states. Russia has targeted Ukraine and Georgia using offensive cyber tactics, and has been accused of meddling in elections in Europe quite often. Rather than focusing solely on the interference in the US elections, important as it is, we should simultaneously be looking at this as one event in a series, a part of a trend that informs us about Russia’s foreign policy priorities. The hacks, as noted by Bill Burns, are part of Russia’s larger strategy, and we are in danger of losing the big picture.

The intelligence report states that “the Russian government developed a clear preference for president-elect Trump,” and “aspired to help [his] election chances.” The underlying implication confirmed by the report is that the hacks were meant to undermine the foundations of American democracy. Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State, where she took a hard line against Russia after the shaky “reset” may have made her a more appealing target, coupled with accusations from the Russian government of Clinton’s personal involvement in mass protests against Putin’s election in 2011.  

Ultimately though, what the report fails to tease out is that Trump is not a perfect candidate for Putin’s Russia. The uncertainty of Trump’s policies and the varying opinions among top advisors is still cause for caution for Russia. Whispers on Capitol Hill suggest that Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State with very close ties to Russia, may be changing his tune in order to appease mainstream Republicans. His confirmation hearings certainly offer a different, and harder stance on Russia than we’ve heard before. This should all be a cause for concern for Putin. While Putin’s inner circle has monetarily benefited from the election results, and Russian companies have continued to secure major investment deals, Russia must still take into account the fact that the Trump administration’s Russia policy is very unclear and will be checked by a hawkish, Republican dominated Congress.

With this information in mind, we turn to Obama’s last days in office. The administration publicly retaliated by expelling a number of Russian diplomats from their posts in the United States, harkening back to an old Cold War tactic of declaring persona non grata. Russia’s foreign ministry called for a response in kind, but Putin announced he would not expel any US diplomats. Congress has been calling for a bipartisan commission to address the hacks further, and with any luck, this will come to fruition. If there’s one thing the polarized Congress might be in agreement on, it’s their disagreement with Trump over his Russia policy.

The tit-for-tat sparks worries about how realistic yet another reset of relations could be under President Trump. Every administration since Bill Clinton has called for better relations with Russia, and has touted that his administration will be the one to set the US and Russia on a better bilateral track. At the end of the day, can we really expect Trump to overcome the very serious challenges that are straining the current US-Russia relationship?