Good fences make good neighbors, as the saying goes. For more than three quarters of a century, the United States has maintained its fences in an adversarial but remarkably stable relationship with the Soviet Union, and now Russia. Despite the deep and enduring antipathy between the two countries over that span, moments of true exigency—the Cuban Missile Crisis, for instance—have proven the exception rather than the rule.
Both countries have deployed highly capable intelligence services extensively against each other, constantly testing their own defenses and probing each other for weaknesses. But no publicly-known espionage operation—save the Soviet Union’s atomic spying in the late 1940s—has been as strategically consequential as Russia’s “hacking” of the United States election of 2016. Last year, the Russian state launched a successful multi-dimensional attack against the foundations of the American political system—an attack that we must assume is ongoing for at least as long as Donald Trump remains in office.
But the premise of this post, and the worry that underlies it, stems from a simple question that I don't hear many people asking yet: How does this resolve? How will the United States deal with the fallout of this attack after Donald Trump leaves office? Will we retaliate, or will this assault on our most sacred national institutions go unpunished? Will there be a war?
I confess that I don’t entirely understand why the American press and political class insist on referring the Russian interference in the 2016 American election simply as “hacking.” To say that the Russians “hacked” our election is akin to saying that the Germans illegally discharged their weapons on Polish soil in September of 1939. Although accurate in a narrow sense, calling it "hacking"—or even "meddling"—vastly understates the event's magnitude and consequences, and elides entirely the intentions of those responsible.
Yes, the Russians hacked the DNC. They used Wikileaks to make those files public. They apparently tried to hack the machinery behind the election itself, although there is no proof yet that Russian hacking directly changed the vote counts in any precinct. But hacking (i.e. using computers to gain unauthorized access) was merely one modality of what is proving to have been a shockingly broad and complex assault on the foundations of our political system: one that combined the tools of cyber-warfare with some of the oldest tradecraft techniques in the book. One that exploited the United States' most critical security vulnerability: the win-at-any-cost, utterly corrupt faction that is the modern GOP.
In fact, the single most effective tactic Russia brought to bear against the United States last year dates back to the days of the old Russian Empire at the very least. In his 1839 travelogue, Letters from Russia, the Marquis de Custine noted the widespread use of disinformation to deceive foreign visitors. “The profession of misleading foreigners,” de Custine wrote, “is one known only in Russia, and it helps us to divine and comprehend the state of society in that singular country.”
When they came to power in the 1920s, the Bolsheviks weaponized disinformation, using it to curry favor in the Western press, among other things. The Soviet Union’s success in hiding the mass starvation in Belarus and Ukraine from the West during the early 1930s owed itself in large part to these efforts. Throughout its history, the KGB concocted elaborate disinformation campaigns, including the 1980s-era Operation INFEKTION, which sought to manipulate global opinion into the belief that the United States had invented the AIDS virus to rid the world of non-whites. The fall of the Soviet Union did not stop, or even slow, the use of Russian disinformation against Estonia, Latvia, Ukraine, and the United States.
It is now the consensus view of the American intelligence community that the Russian government was responsible for much of the disinformation, or “fake news,” that appeared on social media during the 2016 presidential campaign. Aided by algorithms targeting specific voter groups in swing states, the Russian government harnessed both Facebook and Twitter to disseminate “news” stories that were uniformly critical of Hillary Clinton. More than likely, Russian intelligence used American help to determine which voting groups to target, and how best to reach them. Regardless how it was done, Russian electioneering via social media played a key role in elevating the furor over Clinton’s emails to the front pages of major American newspapers for days on end, even as Donald Trump was doing everything he possibly could to tank his own campaign.
The Russian government also used old-fashioned tools of tradecraft to approach—and ultimately turn—Donald Trump, his family and close associates, and possibly the Republican Party itself. It apparently began cultivating Republican lobbyist and future Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort in 2004, when he went to work for Putin’s Ukrainian puppet Victor Yanukovych.
At the same time, Russian money began pouring into Trump’s enterprises, helping to prop up the company when no American bank would loan to him. In 2008, Trump’s son Donald Jr. told a real estate conference that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.” President Trump himself seems to have been firmly captured in Putin's orbit in 2013, when he held his Miss Universe pageant in Moscow at the invitation of billionaire real estate developer and Putin associate Aras Agalarov and his son Emin. From that point forward, Trump has unswervingly spoken highly of both Putin and Russia, even when doing so wasn’t necessary, and even at considerable political risk.
We know there were meetings between Russian government emissaries and Trump’s close associates during the campaign, and that those associates have lied repeatedly, sometimes under oath, about them. Those lies continue even as this post is being written, and will persist for as long as Trump and his cronies remain in power. But despite the Trump Administration's obfuscations, we’re now finally starting to learn a little more about what happened in those meetings, and the quid pro quos that tied this whole arrangement together. We know, for instance, about Donald Trump Jr.’s attempted collusion, in which he, Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort met a Russian lawyer, who offered the campaign dirt on Hillary Clinton, possibly in exchange for a pledge to repeal the Magnitsky Act of 2012.
We know about the existence of a still-unexplained settlement last month by Jeff Sessions’ Justice Department of a major Russian money-laundering case involving the son of a powerful Russian official represented by that same Russian lawyer. (This was one of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s cases, before Trump abruptly fired him.) We know that the Trump administration is preparing to return two of Russia’s diplomatic compounds, which had been seized by the Obama Administration in retaliation for Russia’s election interference. We have witnessed the inexplicable American pullback from NATO, and the damaging political line that Trump has taken against the European Union, Putin's other major geopolitical headache. It is not unreasonable to surmise that what the public knows about Trump’s collusion with Russia constitutes just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
In short, the Russian government couldn’t have done what it did to us entirely on its own. It relied on the collusion of a considerable number of American citizens—from the top of the ticket to the political trenches—in order to pull off its attack on our elections last year. Russian intelligence has been working for years on this.
What do the Republicans in Congress have to say about it? Collectively, aside from a few feckless grumblings, they’ve said almost nothing. Entire stories have been written on how adept Republicans have become at dodging questions about the Russia investigation. But individual Republicans have certainly distinguished themselves as active enablers of those ties. There is, for example, Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell who, after being briefed on Russian election interference last year, threatened to politicize any effort by the Obama administration to respond. There is House Intelligence Committee chair Devin Nunes of California, who has sidetracked the House investigation into those ties, and even briefed the White House on undisclosed topics related to his own committee’s investigation—twice—without telling the other members of his committee. There was the House Appropriations Committee that, just yesterday, rejected two amendments to revoke Jared Kushner’s security clearance, even though Kushner omitted all his meetings with Russian nationals on his initial SF86 security clearance form, and several that later came to light on his revised form. Each of these omissions potentially constitute separate federal crimes.
By both their silence and active enabling, congressional Republicans have made a pact of convenience with the Russian government to hijack the American political system. Both sides have taken a tremendous gamble, and for the moment at least, both sides are getting a lot out of the deal. The Russian government is neutering its most powerful geopolitical foe far more effectively than its Soviet antecedent could have done. And the Republicans are (theoretically, at least) clearing the field to enact long-held but wildly unpopular policy objectives, which include repealing Obamacare, rolling back social and educational programs, restricting the franchise, slashing labor and environmental regulations, and delivering massive tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans. The cynicism that sustains this vile marriage of convenience rivals that of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact at the outset of World War II.
Like the grotesque arrangement by which Poland was carved up by the Soviets and the Nazis, this bargain will also come to an end, one way or another. Putin's government and the Republican Party are not closely ideologically aligned, and their interests will not remain convergent indefinitely. But the high-risk (and in the Republicans' case, potentially traitorous) nature of their current alliance makes it difficult to see how they'll be able to gracefully disentangle themselves from one another.
Assuming Trump leaves the basic fundaments of our political system in place when he goes, how will the next administration deal with the fallout from what Russians did to us? How will it handle the revelations about the Americans who might have helped them? It will fall to the next administration to grapple with the truth that Russia's attack on our political system—one of the few threads that binds us as a nation—was in fact an act of war. There will be pressure to “restore” American sovereignty, possibly militarily. There could be a neo-Red Scare the likes of which we haven't seen since at least the days of Joseph McCarthy. And the longer Trump and his Republican enablers remain in office, the more explosive that eventual reckoning could potentially become.
So much of what has transpired over the last year is without precedent, and the worst of it is likely yet to be uncovered. But the Russian operation against the 2016 American election was clearly intended to harm the United States. The fact that we are still describing what was actually a full-scale attack on our political system as "hacking" and "meddling" is testament to how devastating that attack truly was.