Shadows of the Kremlin: A Tale of Cyberwarfare and Bureaucratic Reprisal

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“…There will be no lies. We will honor the American people with the truth, and nothing else.” ~ President-elect Donald J. Trump

Russia exercised its cyber muscle to influence the U.S. 2016 election. At least that is what the CIA, FBI, and everyone else, myself included, thinks. Liberals are wasting no time in calling Trump a puppet of Putin. Meanwhile the Trump camp denies any sort of aid from Russia. Conservatives are saying that this is just a liberal attempt to discredit Trump.

I would argue that these groups are in denial to some extent. I have no doubt that Russia involved itself in the electoral process, but I would scarcely call Trump an agent of the Kremlin. Furthermore, it is not just liberals who are attempting to weaken Trump: Democrats, the GOP, and bureaucracy are all capitalizing on the hacking.

Now, actually proving Russian involvement in the election is a difficult prospect. Throughout history Russia has proven to be a master of misdirection. The Soviets were experts of making their dirty hands appear clean and their successors are even better at this. Putin is, if anything, great at manipulating people and opinions (a trait he shares with the late Brezhnev). This is standard operating procedure: the West plays the role of accuser, Russia denies any involvement whatsoever and demands that the West prove its claims. The people who would argue that Russia is innocent are either ignorant, Russia-sympathizers, or paid propagandists of the Kremlin.

The hacking allegations follow the pattern and will continue to do so. The United States’ intelligence agencies will claim that Russia was involved but will furnish no evidence. There could be a few reasons for this. It may be that there simply is no evidence! Maybe Russia wasn’t actually involved (which seems unlikely) or perhaps Russia is just good at covering their tracks (which we would never admit). More likely they have found tangible evidence but don’t want to reveal it because doing so would expose weaknesses in the Russian cyberwarfare engine that we would prefer to be left exposed. In failing to provide proof, the CIA will only polarize domestic debates about potential hacking while allowing Putin to win more prestige  among his people for calling out the West on its constant need to vilify Russia. Regardless, I assume they have a good reason for keeping quiet on details.

Ultimately there will always be an air of mystery around the Russian interference. What is clear though is that their will be consequences, and soon. Obama’s 12/16 press conference brought up the prospect of cyberwarfare. He is still hesitant to employ an attack, both for fear of starting an escalating cycle of conflict and out of a desire to keep U.S. capabilities a secret, but I imagine we will see an attack of some sort before January 20th, 2017. Obama has authorized at least one cyberattack-against North Korea during the Sony debacle-and he will have less reservations about starting a full-scale cyberwar with the knowledge that his successor is on good terms with the Kremlin. Putin would be unwilling to annoy his ally, Trump, and wouldn’t retaliate once Trump is sworn in. We may very well see an attack on January 19th so as to minimize the Russian window for a response.

Cyberwarfare is a new and complicated field. It is certainly scary, with targets ranging from private emails up to infrastructure, finance sectors, and security agencies. While it lacks the raw collateral damage of atomic weapons the cyberattack could very well be the WMD of the future, and it could be even more common than other, conventional WMDs.  It could certainly cause much more mass “destruction” than chemical, biological, or even nuclear weapons in much more short order. Of course, the novelty of cyberwarfare is precisely what may keep any cyber-engagement limited. At what point does cyberwarfare deliver diminishing returns? How do you judge one nation’s capabilities against your own? Are there any gains to be had by crippling an enemy’s infrastructure during peace time? Is it worth the retaliation that will follow?

I think a retaliatory cyberattack from the U.S. won’t lead to a tremendous amount of escalation for these reasons. Russia’s attack was admittedly small; quite frankly they may have done a service by exposing the rigging of the primary process by the DNC and revealing what information Hillary dealt with on her private server. Intervening in the electoral process of a democratic nation is heinous, let us not disguise that fact, but what measure is such an action when the Democratic Party itself tried to fix the election in Hillary’s favor? The Russian hacks and the information they revealed helped me decide to support third-party candidate Jill Stein, but they weren’t a more significant factor than Hillary’s neo-liberal tendencies. A lot of liberals act as if Trump could not have won without Putin, ignoring the real factors for his victory-Trump’s charisma, dark horse status, and economic platform juxtaposed with Hillary’s unpopularity-at their own peril.

It is feasible that Russia (or the corporations running polling machines) could have directly intervened in the results in Michigan and Wyoming, but there have been no claims made to this effect. I don’t think Russia would have used its capabilities for anything so direct either; the Kremlin places a premium on preserving plausible deniability and therefore prefers indirect, sophisticated methods. Lets face it, their hacking was only an indirect factor of Trump’s victory, and it would have been useless without the context Trump created with his campaigning.

A U.S. retaliation will therefore be small: perhaps we will target a crony of Putin’s. We will likely be unable to dig up any dirt on Putin himself given that we couldn’t even directly implicate him in the Mossack-Fonseca leaks, but in any case we would definitely not want to launch a direct attack against Putin.

As for Trump being a puppet of the Kremlin: this is bogus. Trump admires Putin’s strongman approach to leadership and heaped praises on Putin as part of a strategy to increase criticism of Obama and, by extension, Hillary. Beyond cooperating on security matters I don’t see much other reason for the two to get along. I do appreciate the irony of a populist leader coming to power by praising and receiving minor aid from Russia, a historic rival of the United States. Sure, Putin has gained some political capital with Trump, but I don’t expect that Trump will march to the beat of Moscow’s drum. Most Americans still have profound distrust of Putin; they perceive him as expansionist (incorrectly), dangerously cunning (well-founded), or as an enemy of human rights (also on-point). Combine popular opinion with the mistrust of Russia found in the GOP and you find that Trump will be quite limited in what he can achieve regarding Putin. At the very least though Moscow is happy to have a friend, and placed enough of a premium on Trump to undergo hacking in his favor.

However, one cannot deny that these accusations do work to delegitimize Trump to a certain degree, even if hacking did not directly contribute to his victory. So often we look at the motives of big men-Obama, Trump, or Putin-we also need to consider the bureaucracy and their goals! Quite frankly, Trump is terrifying to the American bureaucracy. He has ignored the advice of the intelligence community or the State Department, and his cabinet choices and stated policy goals of “draining the swamp” are reminiscent of перестройка (perestroika! “restructuring”). Professional bureaucrats and federal employees are directly threatened by Trump. The desire to send a message to Trump is partly responsible for the current emphasis on hacking.

The intelligence community wanted to show, and has shown, that it still has the ear of the House, the Senate, the media, and other groups, not the least of which is the Electoral College. The bureaucracy exists as a sort of 4th branch of government. While they may not have constitutional powers to take advantage of, they have certain de facto powers that they can use to help boost or balance against the Presidency. Several members of the Electoral College are actually looking more into the allegations before they formally cast their votes. It is a long shot that this will keep Trump from the magic 270 needed to win the Presidency, but it will cut into his lead and is indicative of division. Already, the Trump-Right Wing/GOP coalition is showing signs of stress. Trump will also have a harder time seeking rapprochement with Russia on his own without losing political capital with these allegations floating around. I still think the “Trump Thaw” will take place, but it will be much more difficult for Donald to pull off. Regardless, the left’s fear of an ultimate, all-powerful GOP-Trump coalition is bogus. Trump may have goals to drain the swamp and use his “electoral mandate” to force through reforms (some of which are good), but he seems to have forgotten that the swamp* has its own agenda and is clearly willing and able to fight back. Trump runs roughshod over federal agencies at his own peril; already they are working to shackle him.

Putin may aided Trump in a tense election, but ironically he may have only helped to weaken his apparent ally. Yet again, continued division and tension in Washington would serve Moscow more than Trump ever could.

Meanwhile we hold our collective national breath, preparing our own cyberattack.

*Please note that by referring to the bureaucracy as the swamp I don’t mean to demean them. Quite frankly I think that they are doing an invaluable service for Constitutional democracy by trying to balance against Trump.