Every four years, whenever there is a U.S. presidential election, a melancholy settles over Russia. When global fascination mounts over the selection of the free world’s next leader, Russians feel ignored. They have tended to shrug it off during previous election cycles, saying they don’t care who wins despite typically favoring Republicans, whose harder lines fit more familiar stereotypes. This year is different, however.
Donald Trump has presented Russian President Vladimir Putin with an opening he could hardly pass up: a mutual admirer apparently also bent on undermining the U.S. political establishment. Deploying cyberattacks during a U.S. election—for the first time since Russia began using them as a political weapon at least a decade ago—in the republican presidential nominee’s favor has given the Kremlin a level of traction within the United States it could only have dreamed of less than a year ago.
The leaking of Democratic National Committee e-mails in July has already prompted the resignation of chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, while the attempted hacking of voter registration systems in Arizona and Illinois last month raised fears that Moscow would try to influence the vote’s outcome. Casting doubt on the democratic process enables Putin to dismiss U.S. criticism of authoritarianism at home, showing Russians that the U.S. system is possibly no less corrupt than their own. That reinforces years of Kremlin propaganda about the United States, which Putin has long accused of trying to topple Russia’s government and steal its vast supplies of oil and gas. It is also providing Americans with their first real lesson in the challenge Moscow has posed to European countries, from Ukraine to the United Kingdom, for years.
How seriously should Americans take such interference?
On top of its usual peddling of influence, disinformation campaigns, and, in some cases, war, Moscow tried discreetly hacking Ukraine’s elections in 2014. Ukrainian experts found malware on servers used to tally the vote count, but it was
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