THE BLOG
01/03/2017 01:51 pm ET Updated Jan 04, 2018

It's Time To Get Russia's Strategy Straight

In assessment of possible Russian hacking of the American election, American analysts, journalists and policymakers need to study Russian (dis)information practices more carefully. In 2011 tens of thousands of Muscovites came out into the streets to protest rigged Russian elections. The Kremlin responded not only with denials and paid counter-protests, but by circulating stories that the opposition protestors themselves were being paid (by then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton). In response to accusations of conspiracy and corruption, the Kremlin released its own conspiracy theories. When in July 2014 separatist fighters in Ukraine misguidedly shot down flight MH17 with weapons supplied by Russia, a tsunami of absurd alternate stories appeared in Russian media (for instance, that the Ukrainians had planted wreckage from Malaysian flight MH370, lost the previous year in the Indian Ocean). For Kremlin strategists, conspiracy is as important in theory as it is in practice.

As a professional Russia watcher, I must admit that I have no idea whether or not the Kremlin hacked the US election. Unless US intelligence services and the Obama Administration present smoking-gun evidence, there is no way to be certain about this (and given that they have not done so, I doubt they have such evidence). Yet even if they do, there will be good cause to doubt the trustworthiness of any new evidence they acquire, and this is because western observers have missed the boat in assessing the Kremlin's strategies and aims.

All along, the ultimate goal of Russian interference has been to weaken American political cohesion and international authority by delegitimizing the future president. Clearly, Vladimir Putin is pleased that Donald Trump will be sworn in as the forty-fifth president of the USA. Yet he is even more pleased that half of the population thinks he is a Manchurian candidate in the Kremlin's pocket. As is true in the Russian Federation, the Kremlin's strategy in this affair is not only to pull strings behind the scenes, but also to foster conspiracy theories that disarm political institutions and commitments. In short, the Obama administration's poorly substantiated public pronouncements and the overheated response of the American media have so far played directly into the hands of the Kremlin.

Some things here are clear. The Putin administration was rooting for Donald Trump in the election and working to boost him in the polls. Email hacking aside, this is evident enough just from press coverage in the Kremlin's English-language information service, RT. Justifiably, the Russian administration viewed Trump as a far more Russia-friendly US presidential candidate than Clinton.

However, let's dial back our estimation of the Russian intelligence services. Unless it can be shown that US ballot counts themselves were hacked, we must conclude that Trump's election was as much of a surprise for the Kremlin as it was for anyone else who was reading election forecasts. The primary aim of the Russian information campaign before the election was to delegitimize the presumptive winner, Clinton, by nurturing conspiracy theories about her. Trump's win was in all likelihood an unexpected, but welcome, outcome.

Yet following Trump's triumph, Kremlin priorities have shifted. Now, Russian interests benefit not only from conspiracy theories about Clinton, but also from conspiracy theories about Trump. Nothing suits the Kremlin more than a president who is not only friendly to Russia, but also weakened domestically and abroad by doubts about his legitimacy and loyalty. This is why new intelligence concerning Russian hacking must be treated with skepticism and why the claims of our own intelligence services must meet very high standards of proof. Since Trump's election, Russia can only gain by nurturing conspiracy theories against him, while maintaining a stance of "plausible deniability" and perhaps even generating murky information leaks intentionally.

So what should the US response to this situation be? Unless incontrovertible proof can be provided to the public concerning Russian hacking, the Obama administration and the US media must adopt a much more sober and critical stance towards what is, at this point, merely an allegation. No one gains from the circulation of conspiracy theories but the Kremlin. President-elect Trump, for his part, must face the implications of Russian involvement, both overt and covert, in the US elections: the Kremlin is no friend to democratic politics and the US must take steps to safeguard the integrity of future elections by reforming electoral procedures and media policies. US elections must become debates over policy, rather than battles between competing conspiracy theories.