Analysis

Israeli Experts Sensed Putin's Role in U.S. Election Ahead of Washington

American media are belatedly showing increased interest in the growing suspicions that a Russian cyberattack impacted the results of November’s presidential elections.

Artist Mindaugas Bonanu's mural of Donald Trump kissing Vladimir Putin, Vilnius, May 14, 2016.
Mindaugas Kulbis / AP

A person who has filled many senior positions in Israel’s defense establishment and who is very familiar with Russia’s leadership assessed, on the day after last month’s election, that Vladimir Putin had handed Trump his victory. 

This person, who had no definitive information, said that Putin’s personal revulsion towards Hillary Clinton (who as Secretary of State had assailed electoral fraud in Russia), Russia’s massive cyber-offensive capabilities and the way in which the results were decided by small margins in several swing states could attest to the depth of Russian involvement. 

Now, almost a month later, American media are presenting similar claims, coming from senior intelligence officials still in active service. The claims are serious enough to make several veteran Republican senators, belonging to the old establishment and opposed to Trump, to publicly demand an inquiry.

American media are belatedly showing increased interest in the growing suspicions that a Russian cyberattack impacted the results of November’s presidential elections. 

The New York Times described Russian intervention in the election (in an article on December 13) as “the first cryptic sign of a cyberespionage and information-warfare campaign devised to disrupt the 2016 presidential election, the first such attempt by a foreign power in American history.”

There is a gap between the decisive manner in which the CIA sees things and the softer version embraced by the FBI (the comments of its director James Comey probably making their own contribution to tipping the scales against Hillary Clinton in favor of Donald Trump).

NBC reported on Wednesday that anonymous sources at the CIA said the agency believe Putin personally ordered the attack which involved breaking into email accounts of senior Democrats and publishing the contents via WikiLeaks, thus embarrassing the Democrats and harming Clinton’s chances. 

In addition there’s the issue of reported close ties with Moscow on the part of several members of the new administration, such as Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson. These reports are also joined by speculation that the Kremlin or Russian oligarchs helped Trump’s business conglomerate to extricate itself from dire straits a few years ago.

Trump has denied the CIA’s claims as ridiculous, while his staff reminded everyone of the organization’s erroneous assessments of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq ahead of the American invasion in 2003 (the same war which Trump, in typical fashion, managed to simultaneously support and oppose). 

The dispute over Russian intervention is exacerbating tensions between the president-elect and the intelligence community in America.

Trump has already announced that he is too smart to bother with daily briefings by intelligence officers regarding strategic developments that should be addressed by the leader of the world’s largest power.

It is doubtful whether the multiple revelations of a Russian cyberattack on the eve of the elections will lead to an investigation that could endanger Trump’s status as president. 

However, it is likely that Trump’s motivation to purge the top echelons of intelligence agencies when appointing new chiefs, will only grow. Taking into account that this is a president assuming office with no experience in foreign relations, there is ample reason for concern.

Don’t expect that Jerusalem embassy move so fast

“Above every assessment disseminated these weeks should be a large cautionary note labeled Trump” says an Israeli intelligence official in the wake of the U.S. election.

While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is awash in optimism as advisers of the president-elect say moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem is a commitment Trump intends to keep, Israel’s professionals are more cautious and skeptical. 

The skepticism seems to stem from the fickle temperament demonstrated by Trump, especially during the election campaign, when he flip-flopped in making decisions, declarations and appointments. It also draws on his inexperience and lack of understanding of the web of alliances and interests (mainly economical) with which he will enter the White House.

In a recent unofficial meeting held recently in the U.S. between American and Israeli researchers, some hosts described the incoming administration as “terra incognita.” Its head has set ideas on many topics but lacks a professional background and structured worldview in foreign policy.

Trump, said participants at that meeting, prefers to operate in a chaotic reality, believing this gives him greater maneuverability and a chance to obtain better results. Relations between the U.S. and Israel, they added, are at a nadir. 

Aside from strong intelligence and military ties there is no trust between President Barack Obama and Netanyahu, with the outgoing administration concerned about the rightward shift in Israeli politics and construction in the settlements.

The Trump Administration will begin at this juncture. After expressing deep identification with Israel throughout his campaign, he will soon have to shape policies on several issues in the Middle East, chiefly the war in Syria, his attitude to the nuclear accords reached with Iran by his predecessor and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Yet it seems that the most influential factor shaping his foreign policies will be his ties with Moscow. Putin has already established facts on the ground by timing his peak efforts to defeat the Syrian rebels in Aleppo, which fell to Assad’s forces this week, to the end of Obama’s term, greatly embarrassing the outgoing administration. 

Trump’s term is not an entirely a new page but the failure in Syria has already been ascribed to Obama. In the reality that has taken shape Trump may be more open to formulate arrangements for power sharing (and in effect guaranteeing that Assad remains in power).

What is no less important for Putin is the likelihood that the president-elect will show much more understanding towards Moscow’s interests in Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic states.