January is typically the month of new beginnings. However, the first portion of 2017 has offered everything but a break from the tumultuous wreckage seen in the past year. This past week the U.S. intelligence community released its first public assessment of Russian interference in the US elections.
The results of this assessment leave the United States and Western nations with a choice on how they will respond to Russian actions designed to disrupt and undermine the integrity of democratic political systems.
As the report confirms, not only were the actions taken by Russia during the U.S. presidential election provocative, they also evolved over a long period — with extensive cross-government coordination and planning.
This report substantiates Russia’s use of fake news and propaganda to help support far right political movements achieve similar political results in different locales. Whether it is aimed at the U.S., NATO or the European Union, Russian policy seems determined at undermining and delegitimating the leadership and coherence of Western countries it sees as opponents.
The actions and strategies implemented by Russian government agencies (the SVR and the GRU) to try and influence the results of the U.S. election — are not rogue operations without central authorship.
This is Russia’s approach to its Western neighbors — Vladimir Putin’s preferred approach. Political developments in Germany and France confront the same long shadow. Cyber actions are, and have been, a means to that end.
The Hack & The Report
The cyber component of Russia’s influence operation encompassed intrusions at state voter registration databases, exfiltration of emails from major political parties, and the sharing of their contents with third parties, cue WikiLeaks.
Interestingly, there is also evidence of the synchronized transfer and release of information designed to disrupt and denigrate the candidacy of one US person involved in the 2016 presidential election.
Weaponized leaks of private information were used to great effect and fake news also provided leverage for the victorious Republican presidential campaign. These are the conclusions of the Jan. 6 Intelligence Community Assessment.
While avoiding comment on the “impact” of Russian actions, the message is clear. That this influence operation persisted for months reinforces the inference that these activities were centrally directed, supervised and re-authorized as the U.S. election process continued.
By any estimation this Russian operation was successful — perhaps beyond the wildest expectations of its authors.
Most discussions of the DNC (Democratic National Committee) hack, and the preceding email server controversy, focus on the technical minutiae of these cyber intrusions, paying less attention to the strategic intentions and perspectives of the authors than they do to the techniques used. As the Jan. 6 report concludes, the Russian principals directing these attacks had a preferred candidate, Donald Trump.
Whether one attributes that success to Russia’s influence campaign, or to U.S. elective politics, the fact remains that the outcome appears to show the effectiveness of Russian behavior in shaping the political conditions in another country.
What appeared to work in the United States may also work in France and Germany. How all three countries, and the political military coalitions they hold in common — the European Union and NATO — set to respond?
Collective Defense or Unilateralism?
From economic development to collective military defense, NATO and the European Union have stabilized and aligned political and social progress for decades.
Something that the intelligence community’s report doesn’t say is that Russia’s intrusions have played a definitive role in calling the political underpinnings of these organizations into question, as democratic political consensus in their most important members appear increasingly bruised and shattered.
One view is that fears of migrants, negative impacts from globalization, the return of ethnic nationalisms in many but not all Western countries have reinforced a sense of lost coherence and vision of a shared future.
In deciding how to respond, the United States should base its actions in the durable common values of the Western democratic community of nations. This, at least, is one view.
A second view holds that the West’s hypocrisy in its own international actions — wars, economic predation, and selective support for authoritarian regimes — robs it of any standing when it comes to charges of Russian aggression in its own “near abroad”.
Taken further, the West’s decadence leaves it indicted as corrupt and unworthy as the unchallenged arbiter defining the future of the international system.
For the United States, the choice — collective self-defense against the exploitation of political fissures at home by a hostile external actor, or a retreat from a Western consensus in national self-recrimination, is especially stark. The outcome of the election has caused many on the losing side to doubt the legitimacy of the President-elect, Donald J. Trump.
For the winners, many have chosen to support their candidate while ignoring facts uncovered that pose disturbing questions regarding conflicts and fitness for office. The disruption of political comity (to the extent there was any) could hardly be more complete.
What comes next?
An apparently successful Russian influence operation in the United States presents encouragement to its authors and a potential incentive to imitate its methods to lesser powers. Absent focused and coordinated retaliation against Russia that imposes costs for its actions, why should it change its behavior?
Its methods appear successful, and the winner of the U.S. election appears unlikely to continue President Obama’s late-stage sanctions response. Acknowledgement of the co-incidence of Russia’s influence operation and the election outcome is a required first step to coping with the emerging situation.
It is precisely here that the U.S. may be unable to act.
And for smaller Western countries confronting the same influence campaign, what are they to make of a situation where the leader of the Western alliance is seemingly unable to defend itself against intrusion into its most sacred political moment?
Are NATO or the EU ready to protect them, or are they unable to deliver durable predictable support because of an erosion in political consensus in Western capitals? It is difficult to find much optimism in these outcomes.
Political systems and their corresponding processes are under assault, democratic unity is under stress, and methods used by an external power seem positioned to take advantage of very favorable conditions.
The choice confronting the West is whether and how it will choose to respond to these challenges. Whether that choice will be recognized remains an open question.