Why Putin’s DNC Hack Will Backfire

The Kremlin has a track record of ineptitude when it comes to meddling in foreign elections. And this gambit against Hillary may not play out the way Moscow thinks it will.


The hack of the Democratic National Committee’s email servers and the subsequent leak of embarrassing internal documents appear almost certainly to have been carried out by Russian intelligence agencies, making it the most serious case yet of Kremlin interference in U.S. politics.

That it is a serious interference is clear. The confirmation — long suspected by many in the Bernie Sanders camp — that at least some DNC officials were on Team Hillary over the course of the Democratic primary has divided the party on the verge of its nominating convention and alienated Sanders’s base. If it hasn’t convinced them to back Donald Trump, it’s at least given them second thoughts about voting for Clinton.

The move has also helped cement Russian President Vladimir Putin in the minds of many U.S. observers as not only a strategic mastermind, but also the Trump campaign’s secret weapon. Clinton, the thinking goes, is regarded in Moscow as a classic, hawkish “Russophobe.” (Putin even blamed her for instigating the protests against his alleged rigging of elections in 2011.) Whereas Trump — with his focus on business, his apparent willingness to put realpolitik over moral considerations, his admiration for Putin, and his disdain for institutions like NATO — has thoroughly won over the Kremlin, even spurring some to refer to him as Putin’s “de facto agent.” With the DNC hack, according to this version of the story, Putin was just throwing a bone to his (soon-to-be) man in Washington.

It’s a good story — and many elements of it are true. There is much for the Kremlin to enjoy in sitting back and watching Trump’s continued, seemingly unstoppable rise to power.

But it’s also a little too tidy. Plenty of Russian foreign-policy insiders also appreciate that Trump’s volatility — currently wreaking havoc in U.S. presidential politics — could mean he’d make for an unpredictable and potentially problematic interlocutor for Moscow, too. As one told me, “Trump is good for Russia so long as he’s in America. God knows what would happen if he were in the U.N. or the Situation Room.”

In addition, when subjected to scrutiny, the Kremlin’s track record when it comes to staging interventions in foreign democracies doesn’t exactly scream “mastermind” so much as “bumbling meddler.” Russia is notoriously inept when it comes to predicting how the aftereffects of its interventions will play out; the chance that the DNC hack will backfire, as other attempts to interfere have in the past, is very real.

It’s worth keeping in mind that what the Kremlin really wants is not so much a Trump victory as a United States that is less united and less able to play a powerful global role. Thus, although the DNC hack may wind up helping out the Republican nominee, that may not have been its primary aim. Rather, the simple goal was likely generalized chaos.

A leitmotif of Russian political and information operations in Europe, including so-called “active measures” — that is, those, like the hack, carried out by the intelligence services — has been to spread division and disarray. Having realized it is unlikely to make any real or lasting friends, Moscow has instead turned its efforts into paralyzing and demoralizing its enemies. From secessionist movements to anti-globalization radicals, from ecological activists to social conservatives, every potentially divisive force is worth an approving interview on the government-funded television network RT or an invitation to a glitzy conference in Moscow. In more extreme cases, the Kremlin’s support may extend to open or covert funding.

There have been some such efforts in the United States, from support for the “Occupy” movement (ironic, for a government run by kleptocrats and embezzling .01 percenters) to more surreal efforts to back Texas secessionists.

However, with the DNC breach, Russia has distinctly upped its disarray game. The hack looks likely to make the U.S. presidential election even more of a mudslinging contest. Clinton has already begun charging that Trump is “Putin’s man”; this seems likely to push Republicans toward questioning Clinton’s honesty and patriotism all the more shrilly. The Trump camp, meanwhile, now revels in the confirmation that the Democratic primary actually appears to have been “rigged” in favor of Clinton — as they’ve been claiming all along. Even if Clinton becomes president, she’ll start with a reputation that is that much more problematic as a result of the leaks and a base that is that much more divided. Would such a White House be able to take bold steps to deter or resist Russian adventurism?

Finally, there is also the wider propaganda dimension to leaks that show a DNC leadership actively maneuvering to support “their” chosen candidate. One of the key aims of the Kremlin’s propaganda in general is not so much to convince people that the Russian government is in the right, but to persuade them that everyone else’s government is just as bad. Moscow must hope it can use this scandal and the ensuing fallout to convey the message that the Washington political elite are hypocrites and that U.S. democracy is every bit as “managed” as Russia’s.

So far, so good. But the Kremlin’s professional meddlers shouldn’t pat themselves on the back just yet. Historically, Russia has proved much better at making mischief than at channeling it toward its own ends.

Time and again, Putin has failed to appreciate the innate strengths and checks and balances of democratic societies and even the basic notions of how these countries work. Putin tends to assume, for example, that the people in democratic societies are easy to scare and easier to fool. In January, for example, pro-Moscow media outlets and social media tried their best to whip up ethnic tensions in Germany over the alleged rape by “Arab-looking” men of 13-year-old “Lisa F.,” a Russian-German girl from Berlin — at a time when anxieties over the influx of refugees from Syria and Iraq into Germany were running high. Russia’s main TV channel showed Lisa saying that she had been raped by “southern-looking” men; another report claimed that in Germany “residents are regularly raped by refugees.” It soon became clear that this was a false story: Lisa F. was simply seeking to hide activities from her parents. But Russian media and officials did not back down, accusing German authorities of trying to conceal what happened to her out of political correctness. Not only did this personally anger Chancellor Angela Merkel, but it also embarrassed the so-called “Putinversteher,” or “Putin Understanders,” in Berlin, who seek to advocate for better relations with Moscow.

The Kremlin has also made efforts to cow the Baltic states with an array of tools. Some have been heavy-handed: Moscow threatened military repercussions, for instance — up to and including the use of nuclear force — if any of the Baltics invited NATO troops onto their soil. And two days after U.S. President Barack Obama visited Tallinn to show solidarity, an Estonian security officer was kidnapped across the border by Russian commandos. That’s not exactly subtle. At the same time, Moscow has also backed Russian-speaking political parties in the region and engaged in other, more understated forms of manipulation. None of it has worked. It has only made the Baltics more alarmed about their eastern neighbor and more insistent about the need for allied protection. NATO battalions are now being deployed in every country in the region.

But perhaps most striking of all were Moscow’s efforts to create a pro-Russian insurrection in the Donbass in 2014 with money, men, and military support, based on the assumption that the Ukrainian government would quickly buckle and accept Russian suzerainty. Not only did Putin not anticipate the popular enthusiasm that saw volunteers rushing to do what the Ukrainian army could not; he also didn’t realize the dynamics were such that even if Kiev wanted to make a deal, it wouldn’t be able to. It could never survive the public backlash. Moscow’s efforts to keep Ukraine in its own backyard have since led to it being stuck in a war and slapped with economic sanctions.

The Kremlin’s efforts to influence the U.S. election and sow divisions may, in the short term, make a bad-tempered election year even more divisive. But moves like the DNC hack could well wind up hurting Trump if the label of “Putin’s man” can be made to stick. And, if so, that may cause the next White House to regard Putin’s government as even more of a danger than the present one already does and ensure that the sanctions regime will not only stay in place, but even be expanded.

Or Moscow might succeed in what many seem to believe is its aim: helping Trump all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. In that case, Putin, the geopolitical gambler who has relied on being able to break the rules with impunity and on the restraint of the West, might suddenly find himself dealing with an American president every bit as willing to bluff and operate beyond the traditional limits — and with the economic, political, and military muscle of the world’s leading power behind him. Maybe the Kremlin ought to be careful what it wishes for.

Photo credit: Konstantin Zavrazhin/Getty Images

Mark Galeotti is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and an honorary professor at UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies. His recent books include We Need To Talk About Putin and the forthcoming A Short History of Russia. Twitter: @MarkGaleotti

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