Dr Harry Bennett writes:
Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin…. No, he isn’t running in the election but he has the opportunity to gain considerably from the outcome of the Presidential election as millions of Americans proceed to cast their ballots. With the outcome of the election likely to be A) close B) disputed and C) a cause of on-going division within American society Putin has already won the election whether it is Donald or Hillary that ultimately gets to sit in the Oval Office.
The security services in the West have repeatedly asserted that Russia is trying to use cyber-attacks and disinformation to destabilise those powers which have opposed Putin’s foreign policy in Syria and Eastern Europe. The head of MI5 recently identified Russia as a security threat to the UK, and the Chancellor announced major investment in cyber security to protect national infrastructure from power or powers unnamed. Militarily Russia is testing the resolve of those states which are part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation with violations of sovereign waters, sovereign air space, by policies from the Ukraine to the Middle East, investment in Russian armed forces and by major military drills (conventional and nuclear). It is in this context that the security services are concerned that Russia is waging an on-going campaign to influence elections in the West to fracture public opinion, create political divisions, on-going uncertainty and to raise questions about the democratic legitimacy of governments. To those in Britain these problems may sound curiously familiar.
With Western sanctions on Russia as a result of the seizure of the Ukraine, Putin has a vested interest in destabilising western powers. Divisions in the western powers weaken the international resolve against aggressive Russian policies and Putin’s ambitions. Influencing the domestic politics of states can play a role in this campaign.
If the best guesses of security analysts are correct Russia has already played a major role by computer hacking in the American election. Amongst other targets, the Democratic National Convention, was hacked in early 2016 and Hillary Clinton’s difficulties over a private e-mail server stem from the fact that it too was hacked (allegedly by a state-backed Russian hacker group). Key e-mails have been released at intervals during the campaign to maintain a steady drip-drip of negative publicity for the Clinton campaign. Last week the Director of the National Intelligence and the Homeland Security Department publicly accused Russia of being behind the hacking programme. The results of the steady drip, drip of e-mails has played a key role in allowing Donald Trump to close the gap in the polls opened late in the campaign by public disgust at his “locker room” talk and his apparent attitudes towards women.
The e-mails hacks, and news that the FBI is set to launch further inquiries into Hillary’s electronic activities, have played a major (and potentially key) role in America Decides 2016. Political and racial divisions have deepened during the campaign and the legitimacy of the outcome is being questioned before the polls close. Trump has repeatedly said that the outcome of the election is being fixed, but strangely refuses to be specific on details or to countenance briefings which identify Russia as a threat to the validity of the election. It is now feared that on election day Russian hackers may further try to influence the election by accessing electoral systems to inflate the number of votes cast in swing states, or to otherwise give the appearance of a gerrymandered outcome to the election. A cyber-attack
on key infrastructure targets in the United States could create sufficient chaos to prevent large numbers of Americans from being able to vote, further undermining the moral authority of winner of the election. In all likelihood the damage has already been done even without such nefariousness. For either candidate to pursue a robust policy to contain Putin’s Russia after the election may well be difficult in the midst of on-going wrangling and partisan bitterness between the Trump and Clinton camps.
The reality is that the United States has been under silent attack for months and democracy has become a powerful weapon in the hands of one of its opponents. It is a measure of its effectiveness that Americans have focussed on the divisions within their society instead of a clear and present danger to the American Republic. The example is moot. Given suspicions about Russia’s intentions to use democratic processes in Western democracies to create a disputed poll, open social divisions and to foster political instability, questions are being raised about the outcome of the Brexit referendum and its outcomes for Great Britain.