Old Tricks, New Targets: Russia’s Involvement in the 2016 Elections and the US Response

Photo Credit: Fortune.com

By: Emily Kangas, Columnist

While the United States’ 2016 presidential election can be described as anything but ordinary, perhaps one of the most controversial aspects was Russia’s alleged involvement in the election process.[i] This month, new evidence of Russian meddling emerged, with recent reports accusing Russia of coordinating a campaign of “botnets,” human “trolls”, and vast networks of social media accounts to magnify the distribution of “fake news” portraying Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton as an untrustworthy criminal.[ii] Previously, law enforcement and politicians also claimed that Guccifer 2.0, the online persona responsible for hacking the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and posting stolen material on WikiLeaks, was created by state-sponsored Russian hacking groups. Following the DNC’s investigation into the hack, which concluded that Russia was involved, the perpetrators released another slew of emails, resulting in the resignation of Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.).[iii] Even at the state level, the hackers who targeted voter registration systems in Arizona and Illinois over the summer are suspected to be Russian.[iv] Increased prevalence of social media as well as developments in cyber capabilities have allowed Russia to meddle in U.S. elections in ways previously not possible; thus, Washington must unify around a strategy to safeguard our democratic process.

Russia has a long history of inserting itself in foreign elections and America’s election was by no means the only one tinged with Russian influence in 2016.[v] In the Soviet era, involvement in elections was a common “active measure” to sow distrust in the American system, utilizing a state-to-people approach to influence voters from within the state rather than the political apparatus itself.[vi] But Russian involvement in democratic processes predates even the Cold War. The Soviet Union supported socialist candidates Konstantin Pats and Johan Laidoner in Estonia’s 1934 election to defeat the right-wing Vaps Movement.[vii] During the Cold War, the Soviet Union propped up socialist and communist candidates to fulfill ideological objectives. Even post-Soviet Russia continued this tactic, the most blatant example being Ukraine’s 2004 election. Despite Putin’s “president-select” Victor Yanukovich of the Party of Regions losing to Independent, and pro-West, candidate Viktor Yushchenko,[viii] Russia planted anti-American conspiracy theories, distributed anti-Yushchenko material, undermined Yushchenko’s financial support, and even paid extreme nationalists to carry out acts of terror in Yushchenko’s name.[ix] In 2014, Russian hackers allegedly crashed Ukraine’s central election commission website just prior to the post-revolution presidential election.[x] This year, in addition to the US elections, Moldova elected a pro-Russian presidential candidate in part due to Russian involvement.[xi] Igor Dodon of the Socialist Party won the presidency running on a platform advocating to end Moldova’s alignment with the European Union in favor of joining a Russia centered bloc.[xii] Moldova is of strategic importance to Russia as the contested Transdneister region is home to ethnic Russians and thousands of Russian peacekeeping troops. However, in this election, Russian influence was demonstrated via publicity stunts and economic policy rather than “botnets.”[xiii]

Ultimately, Putin’s objective is to weaken the public trust in liberal democratic systems and to shape governments friendly to Russia’s interests.[xiv] While today’s geopolitical climate is not dominated by the Cold War ideological division, motivations on both sides are framed by increasingly tense Russia-US relations. Election intervention was Russia’s “standard mode during the Cold War,” according to Foreign Policy Research Institute fellow Clint Watts, because Russia benefits regardless of the outcome. If Russia’s favored candidate wins, its ability to guide the relationship with that country increases. However, if its favored candidate loses, Russia has likely inflicted enough damage to the institutions or the electorate’s public trust to reduce the opposition’s power.[xv] Troublingly, the advent of new technology and social media only increases Russia’s capability to achieve these objectives not just against periphery states but against great powers, including the United States.[xvi]

Inaction and opaque information sharing between the intelligence community and policy makers is dividing Washington at a critical time. On October 7, the Obama administration officially accused Russia of election interference, to include the DNC hack, but offered no formal recommendation for a response.[xvii] In fact, the day prior, Obama’s counterterrorism and homeland security advisor Lisa Monaco questioned whether it was in America’s national security interest to act.[xviii] This lack of public action does not sit well with Congress. On November 29, seven Democratic senators, six of whom serve on the Senate Intelligence Committee, wrote a letter to the White House accusing the administration of hiding information about Russia’s involvement and requesting that the information be declassified. Additionally, Elijah Cummings, Ranking Member of the House Oversight Committee, called for an investigation, with backing from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.[xix] Regardless of whether the White House is keeping information from Congress, these arguments and accusations only serve to further Putin’s objective of disrupting the American democratic system even after the ballots are counted.

Promoting the liberal democratic system has served as the cornerstone of American foreign policy for the past century. Russian intrusions represent a tremendous threat to the democratic system at the core of the United States’ identity.[xx] Russia meets its objectives should allegations of malicious meddling crack American trust in the democratic system among its citizens, politicians, and among foreign observers in this, the supposed beacon of democracy. Undermining Western liberal democracy serves Putin’s objective of increasing Russia’s prestige or at least weakening the US relative to Russia. Thus, it is essential that the US response match the greater threat. That is not to suggest we adopt a “tit-for-tat” approach, one cyber attack for another. Rather, citizens and policymakers must see the forest through the trees and unify their message both internally and to our foreign allies. As imperfect as the democratic system may be at times, US policymakers and civil society must commit to defending it, or risk damaging the nation’s fundamental character and its most powerful foreign policy tool.

[i] Ellen Nakashima, “U.S. government officially accuses Russia of hacking campaign to interfere with elections,” The Washington Post, October 7, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/us-government-officially-accuses-russia-of-hacking-campaign-to-influence-elections/2016/10/07/4e0b9654-8cbf-11e6-875e-2c1bfe943b66_story.html?utm_term=.ae3ab83f7cd3.

[ii] Craig Timberg, “Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say,” The Washington Post, November 24, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/russian-propaganda-effort-helped-spread-fake-news-during-election-experts-say/2016/11/24/793903b6-8a40-4ca9-b712-716af66098fe_story.html?utm_term=.16ebfe49f165.

[iii] Ellen Nakashima, “U.S. government officially accuses Russia of hacking campaign to interfere with elections.”

[iv] Ellen Nakashima, “Russian Hackers targeted Arizona election system,” The Washington Post, August 29, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/fbi-is-investigating-foreign-hacks-of-state-election-systems/2016/08/29/6e758ff4-6e00-11e6-8365-b19e428a975e_story.html?tid=a_inl.

[v] Andrew Weisburd, Clint Watts, JM Berger, “Trolling for Trump: How Russia is trying to destroy our democracy,” War on the Rocks, November 6, 2016. http://warontherocks.com/2016/11/trolling-for-trump-how-russia-is-trying-to-destroy-our-democracy/.

[vi] Andrew Weisburd et al., “Trolling for Trump: How Russia is trying to destroy our democracy”

[vii] Jaak Valge, “Involvement and Loss of Democracy, Estonia 1934,” Journal of Contemporary History 464 (October 2011), 788- 808.

[viii] Stephen Shulman and Stephen Bloom, “The legitimacy of foreign intervention in elections: The Ukrainian response,” Review of International Studies (2012), 491.

[ix] Taras Kuzio, “Russian Policy toward Ukraine during Elections,” Demokratizatsiya (Winter 2005), 134.

[x] Ellen Nakashima, “U.S. government officially accuses Russia of hacking campaign to interfere with elections.”

[xi] Boryana Dzhambazova, Kit Gillet, and Rick Lyman, “Pro-Russia Candidate Appears Likely to Win Bulgarian Presidency,” The New York Times, November 13, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/14/world/europe/pro-russia-candidate-appears-likely-to-win-bulgarian-presidency.html.

[xii] “Pro-Russia Candidate Claims Victory in Moldova’s Presidential Vote,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, November 13, 2016. http://www.rferl.org/a/moldovana-face-critical-choice-in-presidential-run-off/28112323.html.

[xiii] Andrew Higgins, “Pro-Russian Candidate Leads Moldova Presidential Vote but Faces Runoff,” The New York Times, October, 2016. http://nytimes.com/2016/10/31/world/europe/moldova-presidential-election-igododon.html?_r=0.

[xiv] Paul Musgrave, “If you’re even asking if Russia hacked the election, Russia got what it wanted,” The Washington Post, November 28, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/11/28/whether-or-not-russians-hacked-the-election-they-messed-with-our-democracy/?utm_term=.86a3911c780f .

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Craig Timberg, “Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say.”

[xvii] Ellen Nakashima, “U.S. government officially accuses Russia of hacking campaign to interfere with elections.”

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Kaveh Waddel, “Is the White House Hiding Secrets About Russia’s Role in the Elections,” The Atlantic, November 30, 2016. http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/11/senators-probe-for-details-on-russian-involvement-in-election/509249/.

[xx] Craig Timberg, “Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say.”

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