The Russian cyberattacks that targeted last year’s U.S. presidential elections were as much about wanting to keep Hillary Clinton out of the White House as about proving to the world that the Kremlin was capable of pulling off this feat, a leading Russian expert on cybersecurity said Monday.
“Russian hackers deliberately tried to weaken positions of Hillary Clinton,” said Andrei Soldatov, author of a 2015 book on the Kremlin’s cyberwars against its critics. “She was seen as Russia’s enemy No. 1, a person who inspired Moscow protests [against President Vladimir Putin], a person who would harm Russia the most.”
But Moscow may have miscalculated the fallout of its intrusion, which has so far led to resignation of a high-ranking U.S. official, congressional investigations and a bipartisan circling of the wagons around the need to protect the integrity of America’s democracy, several leading Russia experts said.
“The blowback has been very strong,” William Courtney, an adjunct senior fellow at the Rand Corp., said in an interview as the House Intelligence Committee opened hearings into allegations of Russian hacking into the 2016 presidential campaign. “The story has magnified more than the Russians expected,” Courtney said.
Traditionally, former Soviet governments were reluctant to get involved in the internal politics of America because of the risk of possible retaliation. “But Putin has been willing to do that and to take extra risks,” said Courtney, a former U.S. ambassador to Georgia and onetime presidential special assistant for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia.
Moscow has rejected claims that it meddled in the U.S. presidential vote, but subversion tactics reportedly included propaganda spread through Russian government-backed media, the use of Internet trolls to disseminate fake news and sow discord through social media, and cyberspying. Efforts to destabilize the U.S. presidential vote included hacking the emails of the Democratic National Committee and top Democratic officials and releasing them to the whistle-blower website WikiLeaks, according to declassified intelligence information published in January.
“The fact that they were willing to do it openly suggests Putin is trying to fire a shot across the bow, in a political sense, to show that Russia has the capacity to make it look like the integrity to the U.S. elections is not as strong as Americans think it is and to undermine confidence … that the democratic process is honest,” Courtney said.
FBI Director James B. Comey acknowledged during Monday’s hearings that the Russians were “unusually loud in their intrusions,” though others said the use of private hackers was a typical Russian tactic aimed at maintaining deniability.
“This is the salt, the uniqueness of the Russian system of conducting such operations,” said Soldatov, who is one of Russia’s leading experts on cybersecurity. “It allows [the Kremlin] to deny responsibility, to always say, ‘This was not our job.’”
Although Russia may have been caught off guard by the swiftness and extent of the reaction, the power pendulum might still swing in Putin’s favor, some analysts said.
“On the one hand, the political context in Washington is more hostile to Russia as a result,” said Leon Aron, director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington-based think tank. “On the other, Russia is seen as a force shaping U.S domestic politics. Given Putin’s self-imposed mission of restoring Russia to the glory of the Soviet superpowership, I think on balance he is quite content.”
On Monday, Kremlin loyalists argued that the hearings were aimed at undermining Moscow’s ties with Trump, who many in Moscow believe supports Russia’s attempts to maintain its traditional spheres of influence around the world.
The aim of this week’s hearings in Washington “is not to allow Trump to improve ties with Russia,” said Sergei Markov, a Moscow-based political analyst and a former lawmaker with the ruling United Russia party. “Very serious circles in the U.S. think that they can’t let Russia become a great power, that Russia should be pressed, pressed, pressed.”
Aron said he doubted that Russia’s aim was specifically to help Trump get elected, at least not at the outset.
“Between the two candidates, Hillary Clinton was viewed much more negatively because Putin falsely accused her of instigating protests against him in 2011,” Aron said. Clinton became a target “because there was already bad blood that existed between them.”
The scattershot nature of the Trump campaign, the ineffectiveness of the Democratic National Committee’s cybersecurity, and the extreme polarization of the American electorate all played a role in allowing Russia to more easily infiltrate the system, he said.
It was “not due to an extraordinarily brilliant effort on the Russian side,” Aron said. “It was in effect a combination of very skillful effort and constant pressure that was met with incompetence, mistakes, a lack of diligence and a candidate that became a sensation in the United States.”
Simmons reported from Los Angeles and Mirovalev from Moscow.
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