Spy novels and James Bond movies; post-war Vienna and East Berlin; Manchurian candidates and Third Men. The pop culture of the Cold War era created a set of stereotypes about hostile foreign intelligence services, especially Russian intelligence services, and they still exist. We still imagine undercover agents, dead drops, messages left under park benches, microphones inside fountain pens.
It’s time to forget all of that, because the signature Russian intelligence operation of the future, and indeed of the present, is not going to unfold in secret, but rather in public. It’s not going to involve stolen documents, but rather disinformation operations designed to influence democratic elections. It’s not going to use cash, but rather open support for candidates who will weaken Nato and the European Union, the two organisations which pose the greatest threat to President Vladimir Putin’s personal power.
How do I know this? Because this kind of operation has already taken place in several European countries, as I described in this magazine back in 2015: the use of secret tapes and hacked email in Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine; bank loans for Marine le Pen in France; even loud Russian media support for Brexit. More to the point, the most audacious disinformation operation ever attempted has been unfolding this week, in the US, at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia.
This time the goal is to disrupt the American election, discredit the process and, if possible, elect Donald Trump as President of the United States. All available evidence now points to Russian involvement in a thorough hack of the Democratic National Committee. As early as last April, the DNC thought someone had entered their servers; a company called CrowdStrike identified the hackers as Russian. Several others confirmed that assessment and the FBI is investigating.
Leaks duly began appearing. On the eve of the convention, Wikileaks, which has longstanding links to Russia (remember the operation to get Edward Snowden to Moscow?) dumped 19,000 emails on to the internet.
Predictably, the media jumped on the cache and discovered, unsurprisingly, that the DNC was resisting a hostile takeover by Bernie Sanders, and that some of the email exchanged over at party HQ is sarcastic or cynical. This, of course, is how people communicate during political campaigns, and I have absolutely no doubt the staff of the Trump or indeed the Sanders campaign write to one another in the same way. But few initially focused on who leaked the emails or why. Instead, the story played out as it was supposed to, riling the Democrats, spoiling the first day of the convention, leading to the resignation of the party chairman. If the Russians are true to form, they will slowly leak more material between now and election day, in order to cause the maximum damage.
Why would they bother? Maybe it’s because Trump has said repeatedly that he admires Vladimir Putin. ‘At least he’s a leader,’ he said. And indeed, Putin is the wealthy, vulgar boss of a system in which all of the political actors are oligarchs, and in which money and political influence work in tandem — exactly the kind of system that Trump and his children aspire to create.
Or maybe it’s because Trump’s business appears hugely dependent on Russian money. Trump has such a bad record that many US banks won’t lend to him, but Russian oligarchs will. He’s had multiple business partners and investors from the post-Soviet world, ran a Miss Universe contest in Moscow, and has sought hotel deals as far afield as Azerbaijan. The Russians like dealing with greedy and unscrupulous people; they also like dealing with people whose business secrets they know. One wonders whether his links to Russian money explain Trump’s unprecedented reluctance to release his tax records.
Trump is also surrounded by other people who have close links to Russia and Russian money. His campaign manager, Paul Manafort, worked for many years in Ukraine on behalf of Viktor Yanukovych, the thuggish and corrupt pro-Russian president ousted in 2014. Manafort staged a Yanukovych ‘makeover’, presenting him as the unlikeable but ‘reliable’ law-and-order candidate — exactly the same trick he’s trying to pull with Trump. In Ukraine he used many of the same tactics on display in this US election: the volunteer thugs, the appeals to extreme and negative emotions, and, of course, fake websites and internet trolls. A friend who follows these things says many of the computer ‘bots’ used by the Trump campaign — fake social media which post or tweet on his behalf — seem to be of Russian origin.
But the smoking gun, if you want to call it that, emerged at the Republican convention last week. Unusually, the Trump campaign had little interest in shaping the party platform. There was only one exception: they insisted on watering down a clause that referred to American support for Ukraine. Strange, no, that this marginal issue would interest the US presidential candidate above all others? A few days later, Trump himself told the New York Times that the US would no longer be a voice for democracy in the world, and that Nato’s Article 5 guarantee could no longer be taken for granted either: If Russia invades an American ally, he’d think twice before coming to their aid.
This is exceptional: US politicians have many contacts and even financial relationships with foreigners, but it’s very rare to find one at this level who has explicitly and publicly carried out a specific political favour on their behalf. Trump also has dealt with Chinese investors, but you don’t hear him talking about China’s rights to islands in the South China Sea. The Clinton Foundation has taken money from any number of people, but it’s not so easy to link Hillary Clinton’s actions to any one of them — and believe me, many people have tried.
I concede, the idea that Russia might try to throw a US election does sound improbable. But the potential rewards are enormous. Already, Trump is doing favours for Putin. Already, his comments have undermined the confidence of US allies and moved the Republican party well away from its decades-long commitment to transatlantic security. His demeanour and his bizarre behaviour make the US look crazy and unreliable. A Trump presidency would probably finish off the US as a world power for good.
Whatever risks there might have been to the DNC computer hack, in other words, the rewards for Russia could be many times greater.
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