With all of the attention surrounding the circus that is our presidential campaign season, it is possible to overlook other developments of significance. To my mind, one of those significant others is our increasingly deteriorating relationship with Russia.
As I wrote back in July when I focused on the role of NATO and the increasing belligerence Russia is exhibiting towards the Baltic States, Russian President Vladimir Putin sees his role as the one individual that can, and will, restore Russia to its previous glory. Since then he has continued to create discord around the world. In particular, he has helped to further inflame conflict in Syria and Ukraine. Just yesterday Secretary of State John Kerry pulled all of the United States’ negotiators from Geneva where they had been trying to work with the Russians to come up with a political solution to the civil war in Syria and thereby try to save some of the many civilians at risk in Aleppo and other areas of Syria. A cease-fire attempted last month failed when Syrian and Russian, or at least Syrian assisted by Russian, aircraft bombed an aid convoy trying to provide humanitarian relief to those trapped in the city. Since then negotiations aimed at restoring the cease-fire and creating more confidence building measures that might give a chance for a political settlement of the strife had been ongoing. Additionally, the United States had been working on an agreement to work with the Russians in a coordinated military effort against terrorism in the region, especially against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or as most people in the U.S. call it, ISIS). All of it went out the window when the Russians turned their full military might from the air on Aleppo in a brutal assault, even as negotiations were underway. What future course may be taken to alleviate the situation is up in the air, but it does lead to an increased probability that Russia and the U.S. will be working at cross purposes to fight terrorists in the area and increases the probability of Russian and U.S. military forces coming into contact with each other.
In retaliation for the United States withdrawing from the Syrian negotiations, the Soviets, oops, I mean the Russians, suspended a nuclear agreement signed in 2000 between the two nations that called for the disposal of each nation’s stocks of weapons-grade plutonium. While the Russian suspension of the treaty is mostly symbolic (both countries intend to continue to reduce their stockpiles) it does serve to show how the relationship has deteriorated and it also provided the Russian government an opportunity to complain about actions it believes the United States is taking to undermine Russia.
And what are those actions that so enrage Vladimir Putin you may ask? Foremost among them is the continuing deployment of NATO forces to the Baltic states and the enforcement of the sanctions against Russia for its actions in Ukraine. In Ukraine last August, President Putin raised tensions as he claimed that the Ukrainian government was moving to attack Crimea, the area Russia illegally annexed in 2014. The tension persists and even though it is currently relatively quiet, nothing is totally quiet along the front as periodic fighting continues and lives continue to be lost. Further exacerbating the toxic atmosphere in Ukraine, Dutch investigators clearly linked the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH-17 over Ukraine in July 2014 to the Russian supplied separatists. All 298 people onboard were killed. Despite continued Russian denials, the investigation showed a missile battery moved from Russian territory into rebel held territory and then returned to Russia after the incident. Russian actions in the area continue to be a threat to the rest of Ukraine and Europe, and President Putin seems to be relishing his ability to turn conflict off and on. Keep an eye on developments there as the rest of the world becomes increasingly distracted by the U.S. presidential campaign, events in Syria, and the fight against terrorism.
What is troubling to me about President Putin is his world view. While we have competitors and adversaries in China, Iran, and other spots around the world (President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines seems to be gong off the reservation for example), they have a different world view than does President Putin. Most nations of the world know that they are economically tied to the global economy which is powered by the United States. This does not stop actions antithetical to our interests, but it does serve to temper them. President Putin on the other hand, sees the world and especially Russia’s relationship to the United States, indeed politics in general, as a zero sum game. Whatever hurts the U.S. helps Russia and vice versa. Add to this that his country is not doing well economically and like most dictators, he is creating international foes in order to distract the citizenry from their troubles at home. This makes him ever more dangerous.
In this context, I am amazed that more reporting is not being done on the breaches of cyber security that occur almost daily in the United States, and most especially, the hacks that impact our free and independent elections. Of particular note are the attacks on the Democratic National Committee and the release of scores of emails concerning the primary race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and the attempts to get into the election processes of individual states, most notably Arizona and Illinois. Experts point their collective finger at the Russians as being responsible for these and other equally egregious cyber attacks.
While individual ballot boxes are not connected to the internet, and therefore cannot be hacked, there are other processes that are computer driven and may be susceptible to attack. Among these are voter registration lists. Imagine if large numbers of people show up to vote and are not allowed to do so because their names were expunged from the voting rolls or are otherwise tampered with so as to take away their ability to vote. Add to that one presidential candidate that is already talking about how the vote is rigged if he doesn’t win and that his supporters should go to the polls in urban areas to watch others vote to make sure that everything is on the “up and up” because “that would be one hell of a way to lose, I’ll tell you what.” (Incidentally, in study after study and in court cases concerning voter identification laws, there has been absolutely no evidence of voter fraud changing or even slightly influencing the outcome of any national election, despite urban myths and legends to the contrary.)
I am not a conspiracy theorist and do not want to be misquoted so I will say up front, I do not think that the Republican nominee is in any way aiding or abetting or otherwise involved in the Russian hacking efforts, even though last July he famously invited the Russians to hack his Democratic opponent’s emails. However, I find it disconcerting that thus far, only Democrats have suffered the embarrassing revelations of the Russian hackers. I would be willing to bet that a number of Republican accounts have been similarly hacked, but clearly the Russian hackers are trying to influence the election in one direction. One could speculate as to why that is, or even if there is some kind of reverse bizarro world logic that it could backfire on the other candidate. I don’t know, but clearly there is an effort to influence the outcome. It is bad news for our nation when a foreign power attempts to influence our elections and we do not stop it.
Ultimately, whether or not the attacks are successful at actually changing ballots, the real effort on the part of the Russians is to delegitimize our election process, call into question the results and spread further hate and discontent in an already fractured election process. Besides being cyber warfare, it is most especially also classic psychological warfare aimed at undermining the United States, our policies, and our stature in the world. Vladimir Putin and his cronies are ready and willing to fill the void left by the United States should their efforts be successful.
Unclear to me is whether or not our own cyber warfare forces deployed to counter the Russians and/or to similarly attack them in a way that sends a signal to knock it off or suffer the consequences. It is a tricky situation for the U.S. It is generally accepted that the United States has superior cyber warfare capabilities, but to deploy them now, in the month leading up to an election, and risk a wide-spread cyber war that could impact the election results dramatically (not in vote manipulation necessarily but rather in a wide-spread crisis that impacts infrastructure, banking or some other target that causes far-ranging panic) is a tough decision. On the other hand, we do not know where or when the Russians (and possibly others) might strike anyway if not deterred from doing so. A difficult choice. Unknown, of course, is whether such a counter sign of our capabilities and willingness to punish the Russians in our own attack has already been demonstrated to the Russians by our cyber forces under a stringent top secret operation.
Regardless, our next president must be prepared to deal with the Russians and do so with eyes wide open. Vladimir Putin is no friend of the United States and he never will be. He has one goal and one goal only — to turn his economically depressed country into a super power at the expense of the United States of America.