"There is nothing new about the Kremlin trying to subvert liberal democracies. It's been going on for a long time" ©Reuters/Alexei Nikolsky/Ria Novosti/Kremlin

Click for regime change

Vladimir Putin has exposed democracy's technical frailty—all the way to the White House
January 13, 2017
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The email looked real. Headed with the subject-line, “Someone has your password,” it was sent to John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman. The date was March 2016. Most observers then believed that Clinton would easily win the forthcoming US presidential election, as did Clinton herself. The message warned Podesta to change his password. Helpfully, it offered him a link. According to the New York Times, Charles Delavan, a Podesta aide, spotted the email and realised something wasn’t right. He sent it to a computer technician. By mistake, Delavan wrote that the email was OK, or “legitimate,” as he put it. Podesta got a new password.

The blunder didn’t necessarily change the course of history—who is to say which one of the multiple twists in the 2016 campaign proved the fateful one: the FBI?; vote suppression efforts in Republican states?; the quirks of the electoral college? But Delavan’s omission gifted Moscow 60,000 messages from Podesta’s private account, and eventually led to a whole run of unflattering stories about the private insecurities and back-room schemes of Clinton and her staff. And thus it certainly nudged events in the direction that would lead, eight months later, to the election of Donald Trump as the 45th American president.

In December, US intelligence officials concluded that the phishing email targeting Podesta had arrived from Vladimir Putin’s Russia. In January, they published a report explicitly charging that it was part of a campaign of interference in American democracy that was “ordered” by Putin himself. Official Washington-Moscow relations have sunk to a level not seen since the early 1980s. Just before New Year, the outgoing President Barack Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats—almost certainly spies—from Washington. The White House and Treasury Department sanctioned nine entities and individuals for meddling in the US election. All were from or linked to the GRU and FSB, the two Russian military and civilian intelligence agencies deemed responsible. Republican establishment figures, such as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, came forward to urge that the new administration should also ensure that Putin’s meddling did not go unpunished.

But as the intelligence agencies bluntly put it, Putin’s campaign of e-sabotage aimed to “help” Trump where possible. And Trump’s initial reaction to the emerging assessment of the intelligence agencies was to rubbish it. When in January, James Clapper, the US Director of National Intelligence, told Congress that he was “resolute” in his belief that Russia hacked the Democratic Party during the election, Trump emitted a string of tweets questioning the motives of the intelligence agencies. Putin will have been delighted. He had already announced he wouldn’t be expelling any US diplomats in response to Obama’s move—a gesture clearly aimed at the new man in the White House, and one which immediately earned a tweeted endorsement from Trump, who advised his 19m Twitter followers that Putin was “smart.”

Trump tried to shrug the whole thing off, saying it was “unfair” to blame Russia for the hacking and that it could be China or “some guy sitting on a sofa in New Jersey.” Only after he had been briefed by the US security state did he shift his ground. He now said he respected the agencies and no longer contested their conclusions about Russia, but at the same time attempted to move the argument on—to the “negligence” of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) for having “allowed” the hacking; the dangers of e-interference from other states; and the unremarkable fact that the agencies did not prove that the election had been swung by Russian meddling. In sum, the “Great Again” America seems decidedly relaxed about this particular foreign meddling.

A murky dossier—reportedly written by former MI6 agent Christopher Steele—emerged in January, provoking new questions about why that may be. It stated that during a 2013 visit to Moscow, Russian agents obtained enough material “to blackmail him.” It is a lurid document, making disturbingly detailed claims about prostitutes in hotel rooms, and doubts hung over its reliability even before Trump claimed it was “completely fabricated.” But parts of it at least looked plausible. It said secret meetings had taken place in Moscow and in Prague, between Trump’s team and Russian officials. Instead of cooling the temperature, Trump drew new attention to the allegations by using a scheduled news conference to point the finger at the US intelligence agencies as the potential source of the leak. Whether the report’s claims are true, wrong or unknowable, the links between the new White House and the Kremlin will be closely watched.

Moscow’s operation to hack America was brazenly opportunist. Its principal goal was to damage Clinton and undermine American democracy; the aim of boosting Trump, who looked like such a long-shot for so much of the campaign, was secondary. For sure, Putin wanted Trump to win. But despite claiming at his press conference in December that he knew Trump would prevail, Putin more likely thought the “US establishment” would deliver for Clinton, but spotted valuable work to be done in undermining her Presidency before it began. In the words of an FBI document released before New Year, the GRU and FSB had hacked “government organisations, critical infrastructure entities, think tanks, political organisations, and corporations.”

There is nothing new about the Kremlin trying to subvert liberal democracies. The Soviet Union had a history of seeking to disrupt its capitalist foes. The KGB even had a term for it: “active measures.” From the late 1960s it had a dedicated Active Measures Department, known as Service D, which specialised in propaganda and invented “news.” Nor, during the Cold War, was this entirely a one-way street: the CIA undertook covert actions against the Communists in post-war Italy, and went on to meddle in many elections in Latin America and elsewhere.

For Putin—a former KGB man—meddling in other people’s politics is just something great powers do. He also has some pertinent experience at home. Russians even have another special term for this: “administrative resources.” The methods vary but routinely include ballot-box stuffing, carousel voting and payments to voters. Regional governors are told to deliver the “right” result; those who don’t are fired. In certain precincts in Chechnya, the number of votes “cast” for Putin has exceeded the number of voters. Almost certainly, Putin would win an election without fraud. TV propaganda, the genuine rise in living standards since 2000, and the euphoria—now somewhat dissipated—over the “return of Crimea” mean that Putin’s ratings are extremely high. However, his United Russia Party is unpopular and would probably lose a competitive poll. Russia’s genuine opposition was wiped out long ago, in some instances literally: in 2015 the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot dead by a Chechen gunman just 300 metres from the Kremlin.

Now, cyber-space offers new opportunities to distort democracy. The earliest major cyber-attack took place in 2007, when suspected Kremlin hackers took down the websites of several government institutions in Estonia, Putin’s least favourite Baltic state. It shocked Nato and emboldened Moscow, which has since escalated its cyber-activities. Kremlin hacking teams have targeted the US, the European Union, and international organisations. The cyber break-in at the DNC is merely the most spectacular example of an aggressive and ongoing strategy.

It points a way for how globally ambitious powers might act in the future. As America’s former ambassador to Russia, Mike McFaul, noted in the Washington Post, other nations, including China, Iran and North Korea have the capability to wreak havoc in democratic processes. After the experience of 2016, the motive for doing so is plain. Ahead of the US’s next election in 2020, and with polls this year in Germany and France, there is every reason to expect disruptive capabilities to improve. And don’t assume that it is only the US and its friends that need to pay attention. After all, the US’s cyber-hacking capabilities revealed by Edward Snowden are very great indeed. Who might these be turned against one day?

This isn’t the world’s first cyber-war, but it looks like the overture. Why spend billions on conventional weaponry, or nukes, when you can manipulate other people’s elections—and even effect regime change—with the click of a mouse? The devastating potential is most clearly seen by considering some of the tricks which the American agencies didn’t find proof had come off. The US agencies reported in January that Russian “intelligence obtained and maintained access to elements of multiple US state or local electoral boards,” the machinery of American democracy. They judged, however, “that the types of systems Russian actors targeted or compromised were not involved in vote tallying,” which is a relief, but the very thought of foreign powers remotely stuffing ballot boxes illustrates the gravity of the potential risk. In November, New York Magazine explored suggestions that voting machines in swing states had been hacked, and found experts asserting that it could happen. Even if it didn’t this time, what guarantees does America have that it won’t in future?

Even if you’re not forging votes, the internet offers a world of opportunity to debase the democratic process. Candidate not to your liking? Smear him or her. Better still, why not invent a story, say of an ethnic Russian girl raped by migrants in Berlin? (That “story,” spread by Russian state media outlets in January last year and endorsed by a senior Russian minister, was entirely made up.)

Such active measures, it turns out, aren’t expensive. Moscow’s US cyber-operation was a textbook example of how to get big results with minimum outlay. According to the FBI, Russian hackers directed over 1,000 spear-phishing emails containing a malicious link to US officials. The hackers worked their way down a list of US institutions. They began with the White House and State Department, without success. Next, in the summer of 2015, they tried the e-mail accounts of the Democratic National Committee. US intelligence officials believe the Russians penetrated the Republican National Committee, but didn’t release anything. (The RNC disputes this.) The technology involved was kid-like in its simplicity. Once someone clicked on a malicious email, the hackers could “exfiltrate and analyse information,” as the FBI put it. With the DNC they got lucky. Several senior Democrats fell for the bogus emails before Podesta, one—a New York Times investigation found—while half-asleep in Hawaii.

At times, the events of 2016 resemble the plot of a spy novel: cyber-warriors working for Moscow; an autocrat with a personal grudge against Clinton; and another improbable figure, stuck in the Ecuadorian embassy next to Harrods, Julian Assange. The US believes Moscow passed the hacked emails to the WikiLeaks website. Assange denies this, insisting they didn’t come from “a state party.”

The plot took another twist when Trump popped up on Twitter and approvingly cited the views of Assange, perhaps the number one hate figure for the American security state. Whether acting in cahoots with Moscow or not, WikiLeaks released the emails with devastating effect. The first tranche appeared in June, before the Podesta emails in October. The news cycle was dominated by Clinton’s speeches to Wall Street, and evidence of how elements within the DNC had conspired against her Democratic rival Bernie Sanders. None of this was criminal; but it all allowed Trump to hype the message of “crooked Hillary.”

Putin’s visceral dislike for Clinton dates back to 2011-2012 when she was Secretary of State, and in charge of a doomed attempt to “reset” US-Moscow relations. Thousands of Russians took to the streets to protest against Putin’s decision to stand for a third term as president. Putin pushed aside Dmitry Medvedev, who had occupied the job on a titular basis for four years. The Kremlin didn’t see these protests as spontaneous. Putin chose to believe that the state department had paid the demonstrators to stand in the cold. This was another manifestation of what Putin regards as an unsleeping anti-Russian American plot. His FSB spy agency—the main successor to the KGB—told the boss that Washington was to blame.

For Putin, the hacking operation was payback for years of unfriendly US actions. He has many geo-political grievances: Nato’s “encroachment” in Russia’s backyard; the sanctions that followed his annexation of Crimea; and the war in Iraq, seen by Moscow as an example of American arrogance. Putin’s vision is of a global order in which the US no longer dominates, where Russia is its equal, indispensable to any diplomatic settlement: in Syria, Ukraine, Iran or elsewhere.

Less explicable is Trump’s devotion to Putin, which at times has verged on the fawning. The January dossier suggested that the FSB may have obtained compromising information about Trump in a Moscow hotel room, and if true that could explain his favourable attitude. Another, more probable, scenario involves Russian money. There are long-standing business ties between many in Trump’s team and Russia. The Guardian recently revealed that Rex Tillerson, the ExxonMobile CEO and Trump’s pick to be Secretary of State, was the director of a US-Russian oil company registered in the offshore tax haven of the Bahamas.

Tillerson is close to Igor Sechin, the head of the Russian state oil company Rosneft, and a former KGB officer. It’s widely assumed that a Trump administration will dump the sanctions relating to Ukraine. This will delight Putin and reboot Exxon’s stalled joint venture with Rosneft in the Russian Arctic, potentially earning the US firm tens of billions of dollars. Others in Trump’s entourage have Kremlin connections. They include Paul Manafort, his ex-campaign manager. Manafort’s client was Viktor Yanukovych, the former president of Ukraine who fled to Moscow in 2014. Manafort persuaded two influential oligarchs, Dmitro Firtash and Oleg Deripaska, to invest in New York real estate. Then there is Carter Page, a foreign policy aide with long-standing links to Russian companies including Gazprom. It is unclear how much Russian money—if any—underwrites Trump’s real estate empire. His tax returns might enlighten us, but he won’t release them. In recent years the only institution willing to lend money to Trump has been Deutsche Bank. Deutsche is not generally a real estate investor. The US is investigating Deutsche’s Moscow office which was allegedly involved in a money-laundering scheme with political connections.

Trump and Putin appear to be acting in concert. In his annual press conference, two days before Christmas, Putin denied allegations of hacking. He accused Clinton of being a bad loser. He said of Trump: “Nobody believed he’d win. Except us. We always believed.” It was classic Putin: denial followed by a knowing wink. (On US election night one imagines the clinking of champagne glasses inside the Lubyanka, the FSB’s forbidding Moscow HQ.)

This apparent Putin-Trump alliance has profound implications for the UK, whose spy agencies must be in a state of near panic. For in intelligence, Britain genuinely has a special relationship with Washington. The Snowden files revealed that GCHQ and the US National Security Agency function as a single organisation. The post-war Anglophone spying alliance known as “Five Eyes” is made up of five countries: the US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. The great fear is that if Trump could be tempted to share British intelligence secrets with his new friend in Russia, then Five Eyes could become Six Eyes. After all, British spooks are increasingly outspoken about the danger to the UK that they perceive from Russia. In an interview with the Guardian in November the head of MI5, Andrew Parker, warned that Moscow was “using its whole range of state organs and powers to push its foreign policy abroad in increasingly aggressive ways—involving propaganda, espionage, subversion and cyber-attack.” Another huge question mark hangs over Trump’s relations with the CIA and FBI: this is the first time a US president has come to office after pouring scorn on their work.

Russia’s goals in the UK are broadly the same as towards Europe as a whole. Putin dislikes strong multilateral blocs. He prefers to negotiate one-to-one energy deals with sovereign states, preferably weaker ones. The Kremlin has long sought to undermine the European Union. This has become more urgent since the EU imposed sanctions on Russia in 2014; getting rid of them—and Angela Merkel, the EU’s most potent leader—is Moscow’s top priority.

The Kremlin’s strategy has been clever: to support the anti-establishment far-left and far-right across Europe at a time when many voters are already disillusioned with austerity and immigration. Right-wing populists have been winning elections everywhere. In 2016, Putin got Brexit, Trump and Aleppo. Bulgaria and Moldova have new pro-Moscow leaders.

In December, Ben Bradshaw, the Labour MP, asked in Parliament whether Russian hackers had played a role in last summer’s EU referendum. He conceded he had no proof that they had. And yet Brexit was the Kremlin’s preferred outcome. It diminishes the UK, and means political and economic turmoil. It increases the likelihood of a second Scottish independence vote; it’s no coincidence that the Russian state news agency Sputnik has quietly based its new HQ in Edinburgh.

It seems certain that France’s next president will be favourable towards the Kremlin. In 2014, Marine Le Pen, the likely run-off candidate, received a €9.4m loan from a Moscow bank. The frontrunner, François Fillon, is a conservative Catholic who considers Putin a friend. Both are opposed to sanctions. The Kremlin has cultivated ties to xenophobic parties in Hungary and Slovakia; in December 2016 Putin’s United Russia Party signed a co-operation deal with Austria’s right-right Freedom Party.

Germany remains the next big prize. The Kremlin has been keen to exploit the migrant crisis, which its military campaign in Syria has intensified. Politically, Merkel is being squeezed from both sides. On the far right the anti-Muslim Pegida movement and the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) have signalled support for Putin and his “vision” of a conservative Christian Europe. On the left, several leading figures are part of Moscow’s soft power friendship network. In 2014 deputies from Die Linke, the German left-wing party, travelled to Crimea to certify Moscow’s “referendum” there, which was conducted by “little green men”—elite undercover Russian special forces officers.

Last month Merkel said internet-based attacks and misinformation campaigns from Russia could play a role in September’s election. The head of Germany’s foreign intelligence service, Bruno Kahl, agrees, as does the chief of domestic intelligence, Hans-Georg Maaßen. Maaßen described cyber-space as “a place of hybrid warfare” and said Russian intelligence had recently shown a willingness to “carry out sabotage.” And sabotage has already happened. In 2015 suspected Russian hackers carried out a major attack on the Bundestag, the German parliament. As in the US, it involved phishing emails sent from an account—un.org—which appeared to come from the United Nations. The hack may have gone on for six months. German intelligence officials say these hacks are aimed at “comprehensive strategic data gathering.”

The EU is mounting something of a fightback. Germany’s defence ministry is creating a 13,500 strong cyber unit, with beefed-up electronic warfare capabilities. It’s due to be ready by mid-2017. Meanwhile, the Czech government is setting up a specialist “anti-fake news unit.” It believes the Kremlin is behind around 40 Czech-language websites, spreading radical views and inaccurate stories. The eventual goal: to flip the Czech Republic from west to east-aligned.

The Obama administration has named two hacking groups linked to Russian intelligence. It was one of them, a cyber-espionage group from the GRU known as Fancy Bear, that hacked the DNC. According to Le Monde, Fancy Bear also recently breached the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe which has been supervising the ceasefire in Ukraine. It has also penetrated the anti-doping agency WADA, leading to a leak that revealed that hundreds of western athletes had received medical permission to take banned drugs for medical or therapeutic reasons.

The Kremlin has denied all of these claims. Interestingly, some in Russia’s opposition are also sceptical. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oligarch who spent a decade in jail in Putin’s Russia, says there is not much supporting evidence. An article on the website of Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia foundation suggested that we’ll probably have to wait a hundred years to discover the truth, once the archives of Russia’s secret services are finally opened. He warns that the west’s overreaction to Russian hacking flatters the myth of Putin as an all-powerful superman. The Open Russia article concluded: “You [the west and its media] have turned a near-pariah country into a world-conquering evil genius. That’s right, you. I don’t know if these Russian hackers exist or not, but the one thing that’s been hacked for sure is your brain.”

This, ultimately, is the point of Putin’s information war. The aim isn’t to persuade television viewers that Russia is a terrific place. Rather, the goal is to convince Europeans and Americans that their own countries are no better than Russia—that everywhere is base and corrupt. Western elites may talk of human rights and universal values. In reality, goes the Kremlin’s message, this is hypocritical cant. Beneath the surface, western politicians are as lying and venal as their Russian equivalents.

Putin and Trump have grasped the malleable nature of our post-modern times. What’s true is unimportant. What’s important is what people can be made to believe. Or as one Kremlin media executive put it: “There’s no such thing as truth, only narrative.” The Kremlin’s energetic information war—from hacking to fake news to conspiracy theory—is designed to ensure that Russia’s sovereign narrative wins.

The philosophy, if you can call it that, is cynicism, shading into nihilism. It leaves the stage free for unscrupulous powers to do what they have always done: ruthlessly pursue their own self-interest. The lesson of 2016 is that hacking pays. Once the medals have been awarded, and the toasts drunk, Russian cyber-teams will be keenly looking to new projects: France, Germany and the triumphant reelection in 2020 of Donald Trump.

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