LONDON – When WikiLeaks dumped tens of thousands of often embarrassing internal Democratic Party emails, it didn’t take long for the finger to be pointed at Moscow.
In many ways, that should hardly be surprising. The distinctly idiosyncratic dynamic between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin has long been a topic of fascination for pundits. Some of the Republican presidential candidate’s approaches and statements — particularly questioning the U.S. commitment to NATO — are almost certainly appealing to Moscow.
The Russian intelligence services have a largely deserved reputation for excellence when it comes to cyberspying, not to mention dirty political tricks. And, perhaps most importantly of all, a growing number of Western officials and security experts are increasingly convinced that Russia is doing everything it can to politically destabilize the West.
Getting through the smoke and mirrors to work out to what extent that is actually happening, however, is another matter entirely. That’s always true when it comes to Putin, of course, but even more so when it also involves Trump.
For some, the pattern is all too clear. They see the hand of Russia — specifically, the hand of Putin’s Machiavellian genius — in everything from the Syrian civil war to the Brexit referendum. Moscow, they believe, has been deliberately exacerbating conflict in the Middle East — most particularly Syria — to send refugees pouring into Europe with the specific aim of fracturing European unity. They see Russian funding behind the growing plethora of anti-establishment groups undermining the traditional political consensus. Intervening in the U.S. presidential race to force the election of Trump fits perfectly within that strategy, shattering Western cohesion and giving Moscow a freedom of action unseen in recent history.
It’s an argument with a compelling internal logic. There is certainly no doubt that Russia — and Putin in particular — has been pursuing a single-minded strategy to reassert its influence in global affairs, particularly in its immediate neighborhood. As part of that, there is no doubt whatsoever that Moscow has pursued an aggressive campaign of “information warfare,” using convenient truths and disinformation alike to achieve a host of political effects.
In Germany last year, Russian-linked media outlets were widely deemed responsible for a host of stories about the alleged rape of an ethnic Russian girl by ethnic minority migrants. The story was untrue, but appeared to be an attempt to further exacerbate local political differences and complicate matters for Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Just how far that strategy goes, however, is something Western officials, experts and others do not honestly know. That scares them — and even at the top of government, there are very real differences of opinion.
“Russia is better at this kind of operation than anyone else, but it’s a mistake to believe they are responsible for everything,” one former European security official told me.
What is clearly true is that there is an overlap of interest, messaging and tactics between Putin and many of the more idiosyncratic political actors in the West.
In many respects, the new generation of eccentric often right-of-center politicians exemplified by Trump are playing entirely from the Putin-era Kremlin rule book. As with the output of Russian government-backed propaganda outlets like the Russia Today news channel or Sputnik news agency, they push a dark, nihilistic view of the world of conspiracy theories and ever-growing crisis, with Putin-style strongmen the only real options for stability. Facts and reality do not always seem that important, or at the very least can be readily bent to support the required argument.
In some cases, the links almost certainly go even deeper. The U.S. Congress has tasked American intelligence agencies with investigating reports of direct Russian support, including funding, of political parties in a host of mainland European countries. Unable to borrow from French banks, France’s far right National Front has openly sought out funders in Moscow, although it denies that funding directly affects its policy.
In other cases, however, it’s much less clear-cut. For all the assumptions from U.S. analysts in particular that Russia must somehow have been involved in Brexit, there is remarkably little evidence. The UK Independence Party denies having received Russian support, although it has done what it can to obscure the source of much of its funding. The Scottish National Party has gone to even greater lengths to avoid that assumption. Its senior membership now effectively boycotts Russian platforms such as Russia Today, where other Western politicians on both the left and right grant interviews.
Where does that leave Trump? There’s little doubt his real estate ventures have, on occasion, been dependent on Russian investors that in some cases may have been close to the Kremlin — but given the sheer range, breadth and sometimes dubious nature of his business partnerships, that’s hardly surprising. Trump’s chief political operative, Paul Manafort, has worked with Putin allies before, most notably twice-ousted pro-Russian Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovich. But that in itself does not prove a direct relationship.
When it comes to the leaking of the internal Democratic documents, there does seem to be evidence that more than one Russian entity had penetrated the systems of the Democratic National Committee. Security firm Crowdstrike reported as much in June. Its researchers found telltale fingerprints of unauthorized access by what they said appeared to be two separate Russian state-linked hackers, each apparently unaware of the other’s activities.
That doesn’t necessarily prove that Moscow was the source of the WikiLeaks revelations — it’s not hard to imagine that there also dissatisfied elements within the DNC who could have leaked it.
U.S. officials, however, seem increasingly confident Russia was involved. Moscow has long been implicated in these kinds of leaks, with some officials believing the 2013 revelations from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden — now resident in Russia — may have been coordinated by Russian intelligence all along. Again, however, not everyone believes that was necessarily the case.
Would Putin prefer Trump to Clinton in the White House? Probably — although in recent months he has tried to distance himself from comments verging on outright endorsements. Perhaps even more importantly, there is little love lost between the Kremlin and the Obama administration, particularly during the era in which Hillary Clinton was at the State Department.
Russian officials believed that U.S. counterparts were going too far in embracing local dissident groups opposed to Putin, something they clearly regarded as unacceptable interference in Russian domestic politics. It wouldn’t be particularly surprising if they had decided to return the favor.
If that is the case, however, the Russian president might need to be careful what he wishes for. A more destabilized West might serve Moscow’s short-term interests. But in the long run, Russia might suffer as much as everybody else.
Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist, writing on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues.