US weakness to blame for Russian interference — they exploited our vulnerabilities

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From spy thrillers at the box office, to a Trump campaign aides recent guilty plea tied to Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, ominous news about Russia seems to be everywhere.  

But while Russia’s election meddling was very real, and the implications of this intervention quite serious, it is also important to avoid hysteria about an overstated Russian menace. 

{mosads}As a political scientist who conducts research on Russia, I believe that the key lessons to be learned from Russia’s successful election meddling operation have less to do with Russian strength than with U.S. weakness in an era of rapidly changing security threats.


To be sure, Russia’s ability to project power is greater now than it has been at any point in the quarter century following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

As a result of significant defense sector investments, Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and 2015 intervention in the Syrian conflict showcased professional forces and impressive technology such as advanced ship-based cruise missiles.

Its nuclear arsenal ensures that Russia is and will remain one of the few existential threats to the United States.

But aside from nuclear weapons, the United States’ ability to project power overwhelms that of Russia. In 2017, the U.S. boasted a nominal GDP of more than $19 trillion compared to Russia’s $1.5 trillion.

At the peak of Russian spending in 2016, U.S. military expenditures of approximately $600 billion were still nearly nine times greater than Russia’s $70 billion.

Rather, one of the truly remarkable aspects of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election was its low cost. 

The multi-pronged attacked involved direct outreach by Russian operatives to Trump campaign officials, the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign, cyber-probing of state voter registration systems, and social media disinformation campaigns. Yet, by some estimates the Russian government spent as little as $500,000. 

Larger estimates focus on the million-dollar per month Internet troll factory budget in the months preceding the election, but even these figures are minuscule in the grand scheme of Russian defense and intelligence operations, and funding by private tycoons with ties to the Kremlin, rather than the Russia state itself, might further have defrayed costs.

Meanwhile, Russia’s network of hackers consists not just of spy agencies, but also of civilian contractors and cybercriminals. This facilitates plausible deniability, such as President Vladimir Putin’s claim that “patriotic” Russian hackers acting of their own accord could be to blame for election meddling. The attack was therefore not only cheap but also low on risk.

The upside of such low-cost, low-risk operations is that when they fail (as in they did in the 2017 French presidential elections), not much is lost. When they succeed, the return to investment is enormous.

The direct impact of meddling on the outcome of the 2016 U.S. election is difficult to assess, but there is no question that Russia succeeded in its larger goals of fomenting political crisis and undermining the electoral institutions at the heart of America’s democratic system.

The second remarkable aspect of Russia’s meddling was the extent to which it appears to have caught the United States unprepared. Russia has for at least a decade been developing a doctrine of “hybrid warfare,” which combines disinformation, hacking, economic influence and covert operations with conventional military might.

Many of the tactics employed in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections had been tested in Europe or on Russia’s former republics, most notably in Ukraine. 

Despite these warning signs, the FBI’s efforts to inform the Hillary Clinton campaign – as well as a number of other politicians and U.S. officials — they were at risk of being hacked were woefully inadequate.

Social media companies remained dismissive of the potential abuses of their platforms until well after the 2016 election. The federal government failed to designate elections as critical infrastructure, and even now it remains unclear whether measures against cyber-threats will be in place by the 2018 midterm elections.

These failures alone, however, are not what make the United States weak. Our true weakness stems from the divided nature of contemporary U.S. politics and society on topics such race, religion, immigration, and police brutality.  

We now know that Russia explicitly and intentionally exploited these divisions, the most symbolic example being a Russian troll factories use of Facebook to engineer a real-world clash by organizing dueling protests at the same place and time, one to “Stop Islamization of Texas” and the other to “Save Islamic Knowledge.” 

But the sad truth is that a disinformation campaign on this scale was effective only because so many Americans eagerly liked, shared, and posted divisive information. In many cases, even Russian-created fake news was based on real social media postings created by Americans.

The American people similarly bear responsibility for allowing a major political party to nominate a candidate as unorthodox and disorganized — and therefore uniquely vulnerable to Russia’s spy apparatus — as Donald Trump. 

Outrage at Russia is like outrage at a lion for eating a gazelle that was too slow to get away. In Russia’s view, not only are they merely looking out for their own national interests, they are using the same playbook of political interventions long employed by the U.S. in countries such as Ukraine and Georgia, as well as in Russia itself.

It is therefore time to take a hard look at our own role in this crisis, and seeing Russia’s election meddling operation not as their strength but as our weakness offers three key lessons.

First, dismissing the importance of Russia’s intervention is naïve, but at the same time proclamations of a new Cold War are overblown. This balanced perspective simultaneously recognizes that a response to deter future Russian aggression is necessary, but also that longer-term avenues for reconciliation and cooperation can and should be pursued.

Second, the importance of Russia’s meddling is not just about Russia. It’s about all of the vulnerabilities exploited by Russia, which until addressed will remain targets for other geopolitical challenges, ranging from North Korea to China. 

Finally, political polarization is no longer just a threat to our domestic political system. It increasingly is a threat to our national security.  The former was frightening. The latter is cause for true hysteria. 

Jordan Gans-Morse is an assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University and a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project.

Tags Donald Trump Hillary Clinton

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