Russian Cyberattacks

By Pointing Finger at Kremlin, Obama Administration Revealed Own Impotence

Obama's accusation of Moscow is unprecedented, but the real question is what the U.S. can do to retaliate for hacking its democracy. The answer? Not much.

Russian President Vladimir Putin at a military parade in front of St.Basil's Cathedral in Red Square in Moscow, 2005
AP Photo/ Misha Japaridze

Karl Marx famously said that “capitalism sows the seeds of its own destruction.” Today’s nationalist-oligarchic Russia is as far from Marxist as possible, but that strategy of exploiting the capitalist West’s tools to hack away at its weaknesses is still what Russia’s intelligence services do best.

The joint statement Friday by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the national intelligence director was unprecedented that the U.S. intelligence community “is confident that the Russian government directed the recent compromises of emails” of Democratic Party officials and Hillary Clinton campaign officials, as well as their publication online by WikiLeaks and other websites.

The Americans' belief that “that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities” was basically a direct accusation against President Vladimir Putin, as was the motive ascribed to the attacks: “These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process.”

This level of official allegation is very rare in the post-Cold War era. The decision by President Barack Obama – after all, such a statement would have to be authorized by the president – aims to safeguard the integrity of the election process. But it’s also a sign of the growing frustration and impotence of the Obama administration in its dealings with the Putin regime on all fronts.

America’s intelligence community and most independent analysts had been near certain for over two months that the DNC-hacked emails published on WikiLeaks two and half months ago were stolen by hackers working for Russia’s spy services. The leaks appearing on the web were from the same sources. So why did the administration wait until now to make its statement?

There are two obvious reasons. First, there was the administration’s desire not to escalate matters with Russia, especially while John Kerry was trying so desperately to broker a Syrian cease-fire with Moscow. Second, there was the hesitation to appear to be using the intelligence assessments for political uses; the Russian hacks were clearly designed to benefit the Trump campaign.

What has changed now? Just about everything.

The administration has very belatedly concluded that Russia has no real interest in a cease-fire in Syria, certainly not while it enjoys the strategic advantage of overwhelming firepower for bombarding rebel-held civilian areas and hospitals, or as it calls them, “terrorist targets.” In recent days, the administration has made clear that it has no intention to intervene militarily in Syria, and that words and statements are the only weapons it is prepared to use against Russia.

Regarding the fear of appearing to politicize the intelligence assessment, by this point, in the most bizarre American election in living memory, the regular rules no longer apply. It has become abundantly clear that the Kremlin is using both overt and covert propaganda tools to interfere in the U.S. democratic process, whether to help Donald Trump get elected or simply to sow confusion and discord. So many red lines have been crossed so blatantly by the Russians that it seems almost pointless to hold back now.

Syrian President Bashar Assad meets Russia's Vladimir Putin in October 2015 at the Kremlin.
AP

The real question is not why the administration has finally stated the obvious by blaming Russia for the hacking of its democracy, but what it can do to retaliate.

The United States of course has its own cyberwar capabilities that match Russia’s, but this is hardly a battle in which Washington can find similar targets. Hacking the computers of the Kremlin and Putin’s allies could yield embarrassing information (though pro-Russia WikiLeaks is unlikely to be the conduit for such documents), but the potential to disrupt Russian politics is limited. It’s not as if there’s a chance of a free and open election taking place under Putin’s rule, and multiple reports of how oligarchs from his inner circle have made billions in sweetheart deals have already been published.

Washington could sabotage Russian computer networks and servers in retaliation, but this would be a disproportionate escalation that could lead to similar tit-for-tat attacks by Moscow. A possible target could be the networks serving the presidential election itself, causing havoc on November 8.

“The way Russia is exploiting the weaknesses in the American system is not how we expected a cyberwar to take place, and the West has to find new ways of confronting this,” says Prof. Thomas Rid of King’s College London, an expert on cyberwar and the author of the new book “Rise of the Machines: A Cybernetic History.”

There is no clear legal definition of what constitutes a cyberwar. How is hacking to subvert the democratic process different from more traditional methods used by foreign governments, Washington included, to influence elections?

Electronic espionage is not war, and it’s being carried out constantly by both sides. America will seek retribution, but it’s unlikely to reveal its capabilities in these fields. Russia is a challenge to the administration on many fronts – in Ukraine, in Syria, by canceling nuclear cooperation agreements and by deploying ballistic missiles on NATO’s borders. The cyberthreat is only one of many, and so far Obama hasn’t found a way to effectively counter any of them.

The one ray of light is that while it took so long for the administration to come out with its statement, other forces in America were highlighting the threat to the democratic system. The much-maligned mainstream media launched a series of investigations on the ties between the Trump campaign and pro-Kremlin lobbyists, and the sources of the hackers and WikiLeaks. It succeeded where the administration failed. Perhaps the capitalist democracy isn’t as weak as Putin believes.