The U.S. presidential campaign just gets weirder and more unpredictable. This week’s revelations suggest that the narrative has moved from “reality show camp” to geopolitical thriller. As attention shifted from Cleveland, the site of the Republican National Convention, to Philadelphia, where the Democrats are holding their own convention, news broke of machinations within the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to favor Hillary Clinton. It soon appeared as though the proof — leaked emails on the Wikileaks website — may be an attempt by Russia to influence the U.S. presidential campaign and portend more aggressive efforts to upend Western democracies.
The story began in April when the DNC learned that its computer networks had been compromised. Two computer security firms were called in to investigate and identified two hacker groups — which had also broken into U.S. government networks — that were working independently of each other to obtain information. The evidence linking the groups to Russia is strong. The techniques — fake web pages and spearphishing — closely resemble those used in other occasions tied to Russians, the code that has been inserted is identical, as is the signature of the hacker groups. Parts of that code, including the metadata, are in the Russian language, the time stamps of hacker activity track with that of the Russian workday, Russian IP addresses are in the malware and the skills of the hackers are among the best the security experts have seen.
The leak of the emails is intended to cause maximum disruption of U.S. politics. Messages that show the DNC was trying to undercut the Bernie Sanders campaign would enrage his supporters on the eve of an event that is supposed to show party unity. DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz was forced to step down before the convention began, but the damage appears to have been contained.
Such meddling is not new to Russia. Leaked videotapes undermined the then pro-NATO government in the 2012 election in Georgia; subsequent investigation determined the tapes came from pro-Kremlin Georgian mafia. Similar tactics were used to influence elections in Estonia in 2007 and again in Ukraine. Audio tapes of private conversations among Polish leaders were leaked to discredit individuals and destabilize politics in that country. Moscow has been quick to provide financial support to like-minded politicians. Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi received Russian largesse, as has French right-wing nationalist Marine Le Pen. Russian state media backed the Brexit vote in Britain.
In Donald Trump, Moscow appears to have a very like-minded soul. Throughout the campaign, Trump has spoken of Russian President Vladmir Putin in admiring terms. Trump seeks to emulate Putin’s strongman style of leadership. He shares Putin’s contempt for weakness and is determined to crush all opposition to him, using whatever avenues he has or can bend to his use.
But the attraction goes deeper than that. Trump’s readiness to challenge U.S. alliances and question the pledge — and treaty commitment — that the U.S. will automatically come to the defense of its partners is music to Russian ears. During the Republican National Convention, it was reported that the Trump team had almost no interest in the party platform except for one plank — that calling for aid to Ukraine, a country that Russia seeks to destabilize. The original language in the platform called on the U.S. to provide “lethal defensive weapons” to Ukraine. After the intervention of the Trump team, the wording was changed to endorse “appropriate assistance,” a considerably weaker position.
There are two other troubling pieces of evidence. The first is the intermingling of Russia and Trump financial interests. Trump’s son is quoted in 2008 as saying that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.” When asked about that relationship this week, the Trump campaign has not provided a clear answer. The second piece of evidence is the tie between top individuals in the Trump campaign and Russian interests. The most prominent of these is campaign manager Paul Manafort, who served as a consultant for Viktor Yanukovych, the ex-president of Ukraine who was overthrown in 2014 for his leaning toward Russia.
The Ukraine connection provides another reason to believe Russia is involved. Putin reportedly abhors Clinton, whom he holds responsible for the uprising against his ally in Kiev as well as for demonstrations in Russia in December 2011 that protested national parliamentary elections. Putin publicly noted that Clinton called the ballot “dishonest and unfair,” which gave “a signal” to demonstrators working “with the support of the U.S. State Department” to undermine his power. The hack of the DNC, the release of the email and the disruptions that followed allow Putin to get even.
While the Democrats appear to have overcome this first leak, more will follow. Clinton and the Democrats need to prepare for more embarrassment. Meanwhile, Trump must provide more transparency about the nature of his financial dealings and interests in Russia. Providing his tax returns would be a good first step. Other governments must be alert to this new aggressive form of Russian meddling in their politics.
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