US-Russia Relations Part III: The Russian Experiment

President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence on the campaign trail. || Drew Angerer, Getty Images

President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence on the campaign trail. || Drew Angerer, Getty Images


In the previous two articles, this series covered how Russia and United States plotted against each other during the Cold War and their failed efforts to reconcile after the Soviet Union collapsed. To wrap it all up, the final part of the series will cover the accusations of Russian interference in the recent US Presidential Election and the current state of Trump and Putin’s relations.

Prelude to the Election

During the final years of Obama’s presidency, the relations between Russia and the United States were strained if not downright hostile. Putin’s government saw the Obama administration as a barrier to many of his interests, due to Obama’s sanctions on Russia over its annexation of Crimea as well as his support of rebels in the Syrian Civil War. However, as much as he despised Obama’s government, the prospect of a presidency under Hillary Clinton was even worse to Putin, due to her history of being an interventionist. She was more hawkish than Obama, and her foreign policy upon becoming president would probably deter Russia from establishing a strong regional sphere of influence. Putin also held a longtime grudge against Clinton, believing that she had incited the 2011 Russian protests against electoral fraud. Effectively, Putin sought to prevent Clinton from winning the upcoming election.

The rise of Donald Trump as a prominent presidential candidate greatly aided Putin’s efforts. Running on a populist campaign, Trump consistently mocked the Obama administration as weak and praised Putin as a “leader far more than our president.” Putin returned the favour and expressed support for a Trump presidency, while the Russian state media actively ridiculed Obama. Putin’s government also looked to infiltrate the American government and deliberately conjure up stories that discredited Clinton and Obama. Their tactics ranged from enlisting propaganda efforts to spread misleading information on Clinton, supporting hackers to attack government servers, and enlisting teams of paid trolls to overwhelm comments on social media.

Signs of Russian hacking in government servers were already found in September 2015, in which the FBI notified the Democratic National Committee that its networks may have been hacked. The Bureau never fully investigated the incident and did little to bolster the security of the Democrats’ servers. Obama did not publicly confront the Russians to avoid escalating tensions too, as the the United States needed Russian support for negotiating peace in Syria at that time.

Seeing that there was no retribution for hacking the Democrats’ servers, Russia escalated their hacking schemes. They tricked government computers into sending out data without leaving evidence and leaked the information they found, also known as doxing in the cyberworld. By the time the US government realized the magnitude of the hacks, and enlisted the help of cybersecurity firms, thousands of documents in their servers had already been rummaged. Investigators eventually sourced the attack to two hacking groups: Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear, both with connections to Russia. Further research discovered that these groups had already been notorious for breaking into world governments and organizations. Cozy Bear had previously hacked into the Pentagon, while Fancy Bear had attacked targets such as NATO, the World Anti-Doping Agency, and the Ukrainian government. 

In March 2016, evidence of another cyberattack from Fancy Bear, attacked numerous officials of the Democratic National Committee by stealing their credentials through disguised legitimate emails, commonly known as phishing. The Obama administration was on high alert again, but was reluctant to confront Russia once more. The Democratic Party instead looked to the media and went public with details of the hack seeking for sympathy from the public, but that tactic soon backfired.

Soon after Americans were notified of the Russian hacks, an individual known as Guccifer 2.0, who claimed to be the DNC hacker, leaked a series of documents through WikiLeaks in July. The documents suggested that many DNC members favoured Clinton over Bernie Sanders, another Democratic presidential candidate, and some even took measures to prevent him from winning the candidacy. The revelations caused Clinton’s support to dip to the lowest point during her campaign. Coupled with the FBI’s decision to resume investigations on Clinton’s use of private email servers, her support took another hit as fall approached. When the election rolled around in November, despite winning the popular vote by almost three million votes, Trump emerged victorious.

Supporters of Bernie Sanders protest at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. || Ruth Fremson,  The New York Times

Supporters of Bernie Sanders protest at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. || Ruth Fremson, The New York Times

Post-Election Antics

Immediately after Trump’s election, a number of independent American researchers began reporting on possible Russian interference in the election. As the topic heated up, Putin denied the American claims of Russian meddling, stating that it was impossible that Russia can influence the choice of the American people. Obama then ordered the US Intelligence Community to conduct a full scale investigation on Russia’s election-related hacks. At the end of the year, Obama also imposed new sanctions and expelled 35 diplomats out of the United States. Fearing that the incoming Trump administration may destroy evidence of Russian contact, Obama rushed to preserve all evidence regarding the hacks in his last days in office. FBI Director James Comey also stated that the Bureau had been investigating Russia's involvement in the past election since July 2016.

In December, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security released a report that had Russian malware samples and descriptions of how Russia hacked American servers. The same month, a CIA report concluded that Russia had assisted Trump in winning the presidency. James Clapper, the outgoing US Director of Intelligence, then released declassified documents that detailed Russian meddling in January. The documents revealed that Putin had ordered influence campaigns not just to promote Trump and oppose Clinton, but also undermine public faith in the US election process.” The document was more assertion than evidence, and American intelligence agencies scrambled to find the sign where Russia crossed the line from influence to interference. In order to uncover more answers, the Senate began an investigation on Russian meddling.

At around the same time, the House of Representatives announced plans to begin an investigation on their own as well. However, the House managed to stir up drama before the proceedings even began due to the controversy between Speaker Paul Ryan and Congressman Devin Nunes (R-Ca). Ryan had initially recommended Nunes, who led the House Intelligence Committee to lead the investigations, but soon received widespread criticism due to Nunes' known ties with Trump. Critics pointed out that Nunes was a part of Trump's transition team, and accused him of orchestrating a partisan effort to protect Trump. Nunes then generated further controversy by claiming that the Trump transition team had been wiretapped by the US Intelligence, leading to Trump's later remarks that Obama had wiretapped him. Losing more and more credibility, Nunes announced that he will temporarily recuse himself from the investigations, replaced by Mike Conaway (R-Tx). 

When investigations did take place, the parties involved did uncover several leads. In the House inquiry, Congressman Adam Schiff (D-Ca), a top member of the House Intelligence Committee, stated that there was "more than circumstantial evidence that Trump associates had colluded with Russia." Later on, the US Senate’s Intelligence Committee discovered further evidence of Russian meddling. Senator Mark Warner (D-Va), the chair of the investigation, stated that Russia hired 1000 people to produce ‘fake news’ that opposed Hillary Clinton

In the meantime, the new Trump administration was also being probed on their connections with Russia. By April, the American public discovered that a number of Trump’s closest allies, including National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and son-in-law Jared Kushner, had secretly communicated with Russian officials before the election. Flynn ended up having to resign from his position for denying his involvement with Russia, and these findings further fuelled the calls for Trump to be impeached.

As the current investigation continues to unearth more on the connection between Trump and Russian involvement in the election, many experts have begun to discuss the magnitude of the situation. Questions asked include why the American public was so susceptible to misleading information, and how the deliberate use of fake news will affect world politics in the future. 

In terms of how Russia managed to sow confusion among American voters, the United States already had the conditions for fake news to spread like wildfire. American political divide and media distrust had spiked in the past decade, and many began to retreat into echo chambers of shared political beliefs. A recent Pew Research Center report reported that political polarization in America was at its highest in twenty years, while Gallup reported that American trust in the media has fallen to historically low levels. Conspiracy theories such as Barack Obama’s birth certificate and the Chinese hoax of climate change were widely believed by the American public. UBC Professor Chris Erickson has called the process of Russian hacking the “weaponization of the consciousness,” in which their efforts of spreading misinformation simply turned the American public against themselves. In an environment where figuring out accurate information was already difficult, fake news easily persuaded opinions.

The current events unfolding in the United States have also raised alarm worldwide, as world leaders have begun to see fake news as a real political threat. So far, US Intelligence has already expressed their concern to France and Germany, scheduled to have elections later this year, that Russia had already started interfering. The Baltic states are currently detecting instances of fake news too, as they are currently involved in a NATO battalion to deter Russian aggression Ukraine. 

Senators Richard Burr (R-NC) and Mark Warner (D-Va), leaders of the Russia hacking investigations. || Doug Mills,  The New York Times

Senators Richard Burr (R-NC) and Mark Warner (D-Va), leaders of the Russia hacking investigations. || Doug Mills, The New York Times

Current Putin-Trump Relations

Putin lauded Trump’s victory in the election, and a week after his inauguration the two presidents held a phone call that was described by both governments as an improvement in US-Russia relations. Afterwards, he also lifted the additional sanctions that Obama had placed over the Russian hacks. But aside from those friendly interactions, Trump has made minimal effort in restoring good relations with Russia. 

In February, the White House stated that they expected the full return of Crimea by Russia, which the Kremlin refused. A month later, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that existing sanctions on Russia over Crimea would continue until the territory is returned, again frustrating Russian officials. The exchange also led to the Kremlin ordering Russian media to scale back pro-Trump coverage.

Last week, when Trump learned that the Syrian government had again used chemical weapons against its civilians, he ordered the bombing of a Syrian air base in retaliation. It was the first direct attack the United States had conducted against Syria during the civil war, and while the action was backed by the rest of NATO, many saw Trump's decision as impulsive and emotionally-charged. Russia condemned the attack, as Russian planes and military personnel were reportedly present at the air base. 

At this point, the relationship between Russia and United States remain fragile, with both sides knowing that even a small interaction between them could have significant global repercussions. Putin’s aggressive pursuit of its regional sphere of influence, combined with Trump’s erratic foreign policy, will only generate more uncertainties in the future.

The following articles were very helpful in writing the final part of the series. This lengthy post from The New Yorker does a detailed analysis of Russian interference and the American response. This article from The New York Times focuses more on the background of Russian hackers. Check them out to find out more on these topics.