After 20,000 emails from the Democratic National Committee were hacked and posted online last week, there are now reports of online breaches of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and a Hillary Clinton campaign analytics programme. Western cybersecurity experts say the needle of suspicion points to Russia.
With the national security division of the US Department of Justice being chosen to head the investigation, Washington clearly believes a foreign player is responsible. The New York Times reports that US intelligence agencies have told the White House they are relatively certain these cyber intrusions were done by two Russian hacking entities, dubbed Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear, both linked to GRU, the Russian intelligence agency.
That Russia has the capability to carry out such a straightforward hack is not in doubt. The question is whether Russian leader Vladimir Putin has sufficient motive. Governments, including the US, regularly hack each other, but they rarely let this spill out into the public domain. Handing over the hacked emails to Wikileaks, an organisation head by Julian Assange who has long disliked Clinton and would be expected to post them, was unusual for a state actor.
The motive being touted is a Russian preference for Clinton’s Republican rival, Donald Trump, as the next US president. Putin is known to have no love for Clinton who, as US secretary of state, supported dissidents against Putin in Russia’s 2011 and 2012 elections. She remains a strong critic of his takeover of Crimea and eastern Ukraine. During her convention speech, Clinton said, “I’m proud to stand by our allies in NATO against any threat they face, including from Russia.”
Trump, on the other hand, has expressed admiration for Putin’s style of leadership, questioned the purpose of NATO and spoken in favour of Russia’s intervention in Syria. “What’s wrong with Russia bombing the hell out of ISIS and these other crazies so we don’t have to spend a million dollars a bomb?” he once asked. Most strikingly, lines calling for the US to arm anti-Russian Ukrainian fighters were removed from the Republican Party platform by Trump aides.
Many of his advisors have had close business ties with Moscow. One of his foreign policy advisors, Carter Page, was an advisor to Russian state-owned gas firm Gazprom. His campaign manager, Paul Manafort, worked with pro-Russian oligarchs in the Ukraine and managed the election of the pro-Putin Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych.
Dov Levin of Carnegie-Mellon University has carried out an extensive study of overseas electoral interventions by the US and the Soviet Union/Russia from 1946 to 2000. He found the two nations intervened 117 times, Moscow doing so 36 times.
Levin said one of two prerequisites had to be met before such interventions took place. One, “a great power must perceive its interests as being endangered by a certain candidate or party within a democratic target” and that the candidate was “inflexible” in his or her hostility. Two, “a significant domestic actor must consent to, and willingly cooperative with, a proposed electoral intervention by the great power.” Levin calculated that such interventions could swing an electorate, on average, by about three percentage points.
One example: Soviet attempts to help Indira Gandhi avoid defeat in the 1977 election. Levin has calculated these efforts helped Gandhi increase her vote share by 2.2 per cent, but failed to save her from defeat at the hands of the Janata Party.
Do either of these prerequisites apply in the case of Putin and the US presidential race?
There is no evidence Trump has any direct connections or communication with the Kremlin – especially as he has been inside a Secret Service envelope for months. Trump simply seems to see Russia as a business opportunity, an ally in fighting terror and not as a strategic adversary.
Putin may, however, have sufficient reason to want a Trump victory. Partly thanks to Western sanctions, Russia’s GDP shrank between two to three percent in 2015 and it has been forced to accept humiliating terms for economic deals with China. Having a non-hostile US president would be a relief for Moscow. If that is sufficient motive and given that loose emails are Clinton’s forte, more embarrassing posts may be forthcoming before November.