Amid the soaring oratory of Michelle Obama, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders at the Democratic National Convention last night, the media vociferously speculated on the drivers and implications of Russian interference in American domestic politics following the recent DNC hack and subsequent Wikileaks release.
Indeed, Michael McFaul, a former ambassador to Moscow, chimed in at the DNC, giving the American people in the span of a few hours an unprecedented combination: a dose of dirt on Russian intelligence just after receiving their fix of Demi Lovato.
Also worth noting, Kim LaCapria at Snopes.com dove deep into what has been verified so far, while John Marshall of TalkingPointsMemo.com provided the latest on a few shady financial dealings and personnel connections between Trump and Putin.
As commentators dream up grand conspiracies – a Russian-directed erosion of democracy across the transatlantic community through support for far-right movements or Putin’s personal control of the Republican presidential candidate to execute a vendetta against Hillary Clinton for starting the Bolotnaya protests in 2011-2012 – more discussion is needed on how the Russian intelligence apparatus actually operates under Putin’s policymaking guidance. Examine the how to better understand the why and thus the true level of impact.
Of utmost analytical importance, Russia is not a monolith; it is a hydra.
Putin has set the course for Russia to be in confrontation with the West. As the most powerful decision-maker in the system, his mandate is absolute. How that mandate should be carried out though to curry favor with Putin and his inner circles is broadly defined within the highly competitive Russian intelligence services.
It is not as far-fetched as it might first seem that an ambitious GRU or FSB mid-level official engineered the DNC hack using a state-linked cyber criminal proxy. But like any opportunistic group perhaps it went rogue and sent the sensitive information to Wikileaks for a bigger payday. The aim of most intelligence operations is certainly not to have ways and means end up on the front page of The New York Times.
For Putin to directly sanction such an overt move does not make a lot of sense. As Dr. Mark Galeotti explains in a recent study on Russian intelligence agencies, “it is Putin himself, and his dreams of Russia as a renewed great power, that is the real victim of this aggressive and badly managed beast…their activities reinforce a global image of Russia as a bully and a brat: at best, a power dismissive of the etiquette of international relations; at worst, an unpredictable threat with whom no lasting understanding can be reached.”
Putin is a leader obsessed with his personal prestige on the world stage. He wants to restore the parity of respect between Russia and the United States i.e. Kerry paying frequent visits to Moscow to solve the world’s biggest problems together. So blatantly intervening in the presidential elections of a sovereign state (even if the big bad United States) would bring his already tarnished image for Russia to a whole new level.
Of course, credit should be given where credit is due. Putin does create an environment of impunity to enable Russian intelligence operations against Western political processes. But the preferred approach covertly manipulates already existing dissent to showcase, particularly for popular support at home, the superiority of the Russian model of development compared to the instability in the morally corrupt West.
Putin does not want to be viewed by the world as starting American ‘color revolutions.’ He wants to be vindicated and accepted as an enlightened autocrat of a managed democracy, a respected leader of a great power with a regional sphere of influence. Maybe Trump would give Putin this based on some comments, but in his usual contradictory, unpredictable policy prescriptions, other remarks claim the opposite.
It is doubtful that the FBI investigation will find any evidence of a top-down plot showing orders from Putin to interfere in American domestic politics. Even determining attribution in sophisticated cyber malfeasance is often a difficult task. A closer look at how Russian intelligence services operate under Putin though suggests that the DNC hack into the Wikileaks release could have ultimately been a Russian intelligence operation gone awry. Посмотрим.
Peter J. Marzalik
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