Richard Nixon had “The Plumbers.” Donald Trump, it seems, has the Russians—either the FSB (Federal Security Service, formerly the KGB), the GRU (military intelligence), or some pro-Moscow outside group. Nixon had to resort to a physical break-in of Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate office complex; the Russians simply hacked their way in. Their act of cyberwarfare is another step in an escalation of US-Russia tensions that has lately included assaults and intimidation of US diplomats in Moscow.
To my mind, the cyber-hacking was ordered at the highest level in the Kremlin (as many cyber experts are saying) with the motive of influencing the US elections. The Russians hope not merely to embarrass the DNC and Hillary Clinton’s campaign by leaking tens of thousands of private emails, but also to elevate the candidacy of their new friend in the Trump Tower.
None of these assessments will probably ever be provable, but the coincidence of the hacking and turnover of materials to Wikileaks just days before the Democratic convention was to begin defy a different interpretation. Unfortunately, whereas Nixon’s attempt to cover up the covert operation failed and he paid dearly for ordering it, Vladimir Putin probably will be able to hide his role forever.
Some may excuse the Russians by arguing either that US administrations, after all, have a history of meddling in other countries’ elections, even those of allies (e.g., the Australians long ago); or that the hacking is payback for the US-engineered release of the Panama Papers in part to spotlight corruption at the highest levels of the Russian government. The current situation is different: It amounts to information warfare. Unlike the cyberwarfare now apparently going on between China and the US, which is “normal” intelligence gathering, Russia’s venture might be considered a serious breach of US national security.
While the full impact of the hacking incident on US-Russia relations may not be apparent for a while, it will be immediate on the presidential race. The Russians have already scored two successes—causing the resignation of the DNC national chair and forcing Hillary Clinton to have to deal again with Bernie Sanders, whose accusations during the campaign of DNC bias against him have now been borne out by the released emails. But their third target—helping Trump’s candidacy—is bound to fail miserably. For one thing, nobody anywhere likes foreigners to meddle in their politics. The result is usually blowback. And in the present case, Donald Trump’s open affection for Putin (along with other autocrats), his belief he can work with Moscow (much like George W. Bush’s claim he could look into Putin’s “soul” and see good), and his discrediting of the NATO alliance will not go down easily with the electorate.
If these were the Cold War years, Trump’s friendliness toward Moscow would guarantee his defeat. But now that the Cold War with the Russians is reviving, the Clinton campaign has a golden opportunity to benefit from the connection between Russian hacking and Trump’s campaign. We can count on blowback, and Trump may rue the day he befriended Putin.