We now know that the CIA has determined Russia’s interference in our elections was for the purpose of electing Donald Trump. This should distress every American,” As a result of lies, fakes, gerrymandering, voter suppression, Comey’s interference, and possible collusion with Russians; Trump managed to win the electoral votes by a VERY THIN margin of 80,000. I can only imagine what the outcome would be without these factors.
According to Politico.com, the CIA’s professional conclusion about Russia’s involvement in our presidential elections: Russia hacked both the Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign, and the goal was to help Trump win. And the CIA isn’t out on a limb here: both the director of National Intelligence, who represents all 16 intelligence agencies, and the head of Homeland Security, have said Russia was behind the hacking. The FBI also holds Russia responsible for hacking, but hasn’t reached a conclusion about its motives.
We are only beginning to process the fact that a foreign country interfered with American democratic elections. But when it comes to Russia and its relationship with Donald Trump, the election hacking may be only the tip of the iceberg. The American public doesn’t have access to the data the intelligence community—all 16 agencies combined—have on the Russian government, its banks and oligarchs, and their relationships with Trump’s campaign, his business ventures, and the president-elect himself. That must change before January 20. The information needs to be made public.
I’ve worked in the defense community for the past 20 years, the past three as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia/Ukraine/Eurasia. Over that time, my colleagues and I have watched Russian cyber-operations become far more ambitious and insidious. They’ve moved from technical denial-of-service attacks—targeting Estonia in 2007, Georgia in 2008 and against Ukraine’s internet and cellular phone networks in 2014 and electrical grid a year later—to the use of cyber spying and release of captured information to influence publics, including their own. In 2014, during U.S. and European Union negotiations to build a transitional government in Ukraine, Russia made public a wiretapped conversation between my colleagues Assistant Secretary Toria Nuland and the U.S. ambassador in Ukraine, Geoff Pyatt, during which Nuland is heard saying “Fuck the E.U.” The objective was to embarrass U.S. officials and increase tension between them and their EU counterparts.
I watched as Russia funded far-right and far-left political parties in Western and Eastern Europe (most notably in France and Hungary), as well as NGOs and used its economic influence (especially in oil and gas) to pressure European politicians to support Kremlin objectives. This fall, we saw Moscow continue to intervene in other nations’ politics, funding pro-Russian political parties in Moldova, and sponsoring demonstrations against that country’s pro-Western government. This week, the head of the German domestic intelligence agency warned: “We see aggressive and increased cyber spying and cyber operations that could potentially endanger German government officials, members of parliament and employees of democratic parties.”
We know from the most senior intelligence officials that the Russian government hacks and transfer of information to WikiLeaks were conducted at a minimum to cause Americans to lose faith in their political process, and at a maximum to increase the odds that Trump could win the election. And we should heed their words: As a close consumer of intelligence on Russia for three critical years, I know our intelligence on Russia, unlike that on North Korea, for example, is excellent.
Given Russia’s capabilities and its recent patterns, it is not at all far-fetched to ask whether Trump is indeed the “puppet” Secretary Clinton mockingly named him in the second presidential debate. Is he financially and politically beholden to Russians close to the government and to the Kremlin itself? If so, is he prepared to accommodate Putin’s interests? Should we expect a robust “reset,” in the tense relationship between the two countries, perhaps one that even compromises U.S. interests, like the stability of its allies in Europe, and American values, like democracy and human rights? If the Trump administration attempts one, it is worth noting that whatever the U.S. gives up would likely be very temporary: For domestic political reasons, Putin needs the United States as its public enemy, given Russia’s current and foreseeable economic situation, and Russian presidential elections are coming up in 2018.
Today, we already have enough clues and too much undisclosed information to warrant worry about the puppet scenario. There are signs the Trump campaign was involved in coordinating this release of hacked information—then-adviser Carter Page’s trips and meetings in Moscow, and Russian statements that they were in touch with the campaign. And of course, Trump publicly called on the Russian government to continue hacking Hillary Clinton’s computers during a televised campaign appearance. His campaign dismissed it as a joke; it’s not clear everyone did. It may be too much to say that the Kremlin and Russian secret services put Trump on the path to seeking the presidency, but they certainly contributed to getting him there—even perhaps, to their surprise.
Since the election, various senior Russian officials, such as Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, have asserted that they’ve had ongoing conversations with the Trump camp. Trump spokesperson Hope Hicks has denied this. If the Russian officials in this “he said-she said” game aren’t lying, it raises the question about what they are discussing or planning.
We know, per Donald Trump Jr., that Russia makes up a significant amount of the family business. What we don’t know is how much Russian money is involved, and what Russian money. How did Trump get out of debt? To whom does he owe money? Who provides the collateral for his loans? Is he beholden to Russian oligarchs and banks who are under the thumb of the Kremlin and Russian security services?
If these relationships do exist, the basic foreign policy implication is that a President Trump will seek to accommodate Vladimir Putin’s objectives: equal status between the United States and Russia; a 19th century sphere of influence for Russia in Europe/Eurasia/Central Asia; and acceptance of brutal nondemocratic dictators even in the face of their people’s nonviolent attempts to force them from power. And the United States is unlikely to retaliate against Russian cyberattacks, and may not maintain strong deterrence against Russian violations of air, sea and space protocols for military behavior.
In Europe, this would mean no further NATO enlargement and no military or other assistance to non-NATO states like Ukraine and Georgia that are occupied in part by Russian forces and trying to maintain their political and economic sovereignty. It would likely arrest the movement toward democracy and free-market capitalism. In the Middle East, it would mean letting the brutal dictator Bashar Assad try to rule Syria by force, with Russia and Iran helping.
The result would be more insecurity—Eastern and Western European states would start looking out for their own interests, arming unilaterally and weakening NATO and further dividing the EU. With collective security diminished, and the chance of American resistance significantly reduced, Russia may be tempted to test NATO countries by sending security forces into the Baltics to protect ethnic Russians or by conducting risky military maneuver in NATO air or maritime space. If a conflict were to break out among major European powers—collectively our top trading partner, and individually our closest allies—U.S. basic interests would be affected. If America chose to side with Russia over our European allies, that would be a repudiation of U.S. interests and values. In Syria, the final crushing of the conventional opposition forces would spell the dawn of a bitter and destabilizing insurgency against Assad, Iran and Russia.
For the homeland, the failure to respond to Russian cyber-interference and to establish and maintain military deterrence against attacks on U.S. military and civilian infrastructure will make us less safe. There will be a greater temptation for the Russian government to use cyber and other means to disrupt normal life in America for smaller stakes, like getting sanctions lifted or retaliating against the Magnitsky human rights law. Being cooperative in this area will only make America weak, coupled as it will be by mutual distrust between our militaries and the conventional and nuclear balances between us.
For a lot of Americans, this whole Russian-intervention scenario may seem far-fetched. And political scientists and former policymakers like myself know not to jump to conclusions based on a few data points, and on the significant questions Trump has refused to answer. It is also possible that the somber professional Cabinet members like Jim Mattis and John Kelly will successfully advocate for U.S. interests, and the Trump circle’s evident impulses to accommodate Putin will be effectively countered or moderated.
Nonetheless, there’s already plenty to worry about. Nothing like this level of foreign interference in American democracy has even been imagined in modern political history. So before we even get to interagency debates on Russia, before the president-elect takes the oath, the American people deserve to know what the intelligence community knows about his business history and entanglements with Russians and Russia.
The intelligence community, especially the CIA, will be loath to reveal too much lest their sources and methods are compromised. But if our worst fears are realized, Trump has knowingly benefited from Kremlin help, but those means may be jeopardized by the next administration, anyway. His team would be motivated to eliminate means of collection and analysis and of informing others in the executive branch or Congress. As the public and legislators press for more clarity, there are a handful of specific questions they need to focus on:
1) What did Russia do to interfere in U.S. elections?
2) Did any American citizens collude with Russia to assist in the Kremlin’s efforts to interfere in elections? If so how, and were Trump associates, or Trump himself, aware?
3) Have Russians given or loaned Trump and/or his businesses money, or provided collateral or other financial assistance to him?
If the answers yield further evidence that the president-elect is indebted to the Russian government or individuals with Kremlin ties, the intelligence community and policy officials should also begin disclosing what they know about whether Trump’s associates have been in contact with Russian officials, and what they’ve been discussing.
There are U.S. government officials who know the answers to these questions; the most powerful among them, with the ability to declassify intelligence, will leave when power is transferred to Trump. It is bad enough that Trump has been labeled the biggest “Pinocchio” of all the presidential candidates by the fact-checkers at The Washington Post. But it would be far worse if his Geppetto, the man holding his strings, was Vladimir Putin—and if the people who were in a position to warn Americans did not do so.