When a trove of 20,000 emails from the Democratic National Committee was released on the eve of what Democrats had hoped would be a smooth and unified convention, suspicions as to who the hackers might have been fell on Russia for a reason.
Not only does the effort to exploit political divisions conjure up a path followed by Moscow since at least the cold war, experts in United States-Russia relations say.
Even more telling, some add, is how the timely exposure of the embarrassing material tracks closely with President Vladimir Putin’s sustained efforts to damage US and Western claims of moral superiority in global leadership.
In recent years, Mr. Putin “has been fixed on undermining US leadership in the world by essentially saying, ‘They claim the moral high ground for structuring and dominating the international security institutions, but in actual fact they have no grounds for demanding and being afforded that leadership,’ ” says Fiona Hill, director of the Brookings Institution’s Center on the US and Europe.
“This type of revelation would certainly seem designed to reinforce Putin’s argument, which is also the thrust of Russian propaganda – that the US has got as corrupt and hypocritical a political system as anyone else,” adds Dr. Hill, author of the biography “Mr. Putin.”
Russian officials were quick to dismiss the speculation around Russia as “absurd,” and some US-Russia experts cautioned that there are reasons to suspect a disgruntled source within the DNC itself. But there is circumstantial evidence, including apparent links to hacker groups believed to work in Russia.
The spotlight the leak has thrown on Russia – warranted or not – underscores how different countries have different targets with their spying. Russia comes under suspicion partly because the DNC case reflects the Kremlin’s global campaign to influence political outcomes – as opposed to say, China’s focus on hacking as an economic tool.
“China is all about its global rise based on its economy, and we can see that fixation in the cases we’ve seen” of hacking into corporations and focusing efforts on accessing corporations’ intellectual property, Hill says.
Russia’s cyber focus has evolved.
“The Russians at one point a number of years ago were also focused on their economic aspirations,” she adds, “but now they’re back to the old political space and are very much working from the playbill of the KGB in the cold war days.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation announced Monday that it was investigating the DNC hack, but cyber experts said the perpetrators behind the emails, released Friday by the WikiLeaks website, might not be known for months or even years. The emails backed Sen. Bernie Sanders’s claim that the DNC worked to weaken his campaign. DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz was forced to resign.
The leaks also focused new attention on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has declared it his objective to thwart Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid, and who is considered by many Western experts to have deep ties to Russian intelligence.
But for Russia – or any country – to involve itself in the politics of another so brazenly would be risky, says Paul Saunders, executive director of the Center for the National Interest and director of its US-Russian Relations Program. “For a government to try to do something like this would be very reckless, if for no other reason than that the risks of a backlash are so high,” he says.
“I can think of a plausible scenario by which someone on the DNC who was supportive of Senator Sanders and wanted to embarrass the DNC decided to leak this information,” he adds. “The point is that while it’s certainly possible Russia is behind this, it may also be that it’s not.”
Putin, Trump, and Clinton
Speculation also fell on Russia because Putin has noted his admiration for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump more than once, while he has made no effort to hide his disdain for Mrs. Clinton. Mr. Trump has said he considers Putin to be “someone I could work with” – a position that has earned him scorn from conservatives. Conservative foreign-policy blogger Jennifer Rubin went so far as to label Trump Putin’s “lap dog” last week.
Separate from the two leaders’ apparent admiration, Trump has also suggested policies that could benefit Russia. Last week, he told The New York Times that he might think twice and impose a kind of financial test on NATO allies before coming to their aid if threatened by Russia.
Mr. Saunders, however, says there is another way to read Trump’s comments – one that would not please the Russian leader.
“You can also say that [Trump’s] objective is to encourage NATO governments to live up to the spending levels that NATO has been pushing for for years,” Saunders says. “If Trump succeeded, if it worked to get those allies to act to ensure a strong US commitment to European security, that would not be positive for Russia.”
Meanwhile, the DNC leak has too many of the hallmarks of established Russian intelligence methods not to raise suspicions, Hill says.
The case is reminiscent of the Soviet covert campaign to deepen divisions in the British Labor Party in the 1980s over US efforts to ramp up European defenses against the USSR, she says. “They went to great pains to exploit the political divides and deliver a response in line with the outcome they wanted to see.”
The difference today is that such efforts no longer require human intelligence or old-style on-the-ground, cloak-and-dagger methods. “Now, with social media, you don’t need to have agents underground,” Hill says.
Whether or not the evidence ever points at Russia, Saunders says the uproar unquestionably provides a snapshot of the state of US-Russia relations.“This case tells us that most people in the US are prepared to believe the worst about Russia,” he says – “just as certainly most Russians are prepared to believe the worst about the United States.”