Hannibal Hanschke / Reuters Russian President Vladimir Putin in Berlin, Germany, October 19, 2016.

Russia's October Surprise

Its Failed Attempt to Hack the Election

The month of October is never a quiet one in a U.S. presidential election year. But this time, the run-up to the vote has been marked by a series of high-stakes cyber-skirmishes between Washington and Moscow. Over the summer, intent on derailing the campaign of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Russia released damning emails from the Democratic National Committee (DNC), leading to the resignation of chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Hoping to create yet another stir, Russia then handed over a batch of Clinton’s e-mails to WikiLeaks on October 7. But much to Moscow’s chagrin, Washington was able to rob Moscow of the element of surprise, and Russia’s “October surprise” fizzled.

Just before the WikiLeaks dump, the White House released a statement in which it directly accused Russia for the first time of hacking the e-mails of DNC and Democratic Party members. The unexpected and unprecedented announcement dominated the headlines, leaving Russia’s and WikiLeaks’ attempts to show Clinton as shifty and close to Wall Street as a sideshow.

On the same day, the now infamous “locker room” tape, in which Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump brags about sexually assaulting women, surfaced. This scandal blew the much-anticipated WikiLeaks revelations out of the water, and it became the focus of the second presidential debate, which further diverted attention away from the leaks. In the second presidential debate, discussion of the “locker room” tape took up 23 minutes and the WikiLeaks revelations only a few. Clinton dismissed them with an erudite story about Abraham Lincoln. One October surprise trumped another, so to speak.

The failure of Russia’s long-planned October surprise to tip the election appears to have angered Moscow, which had planned this operation well in advance in hopes of destroying Clinton’s chance of winning the presidency. While news of the DNC hacks first surfaced in June, it was widely reported that they had taken place months earlier, and the e-mails were purposely released in July just before the Democratic National Convention. On July 27, Trump explicitly welcomed Russia’s release of the hacked e-mails, stating, “I will tell you this, Russia: If you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing. . . . I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” When the leaked e-mails failed to get sufficient attention, Trump supporters were deeply disappointed. Trump associate Roger Stone tweeted on October 1, “@HillaryClinton is done. #Wikileaks.” There is every reason to believe that Russian hackers and their sponsors felt the same way and were disappointed when Hillary’s support surged after the release, while Donald Trump’s campaign hit the shoals. 

Moscow’s anger over the WikiLeaks debacle may be why it soon changed tack and escalated its verbal attacks against the United States over Syria. A few days after the leaks, Russia unleashed an exceptionally harsh barrage of threats when the United States pulled out of cease-fire negotiations in Syria. On October 10, for example, chief Russian propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov said that the United States’ “impudent behavior” toward Russia could have “nuclear” implications and that there had been a “radical change” in U.S.-Russian relations in recent weeks. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another of President Vladimir Putin’s hatchet men, advised Americans to vote for Donald Trump or risk being dragged into a nuclear war. At the same time, Russia positioned nuclear-capable missiles in Kaliningrad, which borders Poland and Lithuania, and test-fired three ballistic missiles elsewhere, making clear that its war of words was coordinated with the threat of military action.

Perhaps Russia thought that its aggressive behavior would cow the American public into supporting Trump, who advocates more friendly relations with Russia. But in reality, Moscow’s effort appears to have backfired.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton at the final 2016 presidential debate, October 19, 2016.

Trump’s continued decline in the polls throughout October suggests that Russia’s saber rattling has not had any clear electoral impact. International affairs are simply not central to most voters in this election. This is a fact that is hard for average Russians to understand, as their television propaganda keeps them on high alert to the possibility of a Western invasion. As a result, they tend to believe that Americans are also centrally focused on Russia, which is clearly not the case.

Further, Russia’s aggressive behavior, coupled with its ongoing bombing campaign in Aleppo, has seriously damaged its reputation in Europe. British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, French President François Hollande, and the Spanish government have led the way in condemning Russia’s bombing of civilians in Aleppo. And, with growing awareness that Russia plays the same games in Europe that it does in the United States—using covert methods to influence democratic elections through e-mail hacks and the funding of fringe political parties—European countries have begun to fight back against Russia’s information warfare.

On October 17, a British bank announced that it was shutting down the United Kingdom­–based bank accounts of Russia Today, a pro-Kremlin media channel. Although the measure will not take Russia Today off the air in Europe, it will most likely make it extremely difficult for the Russian state propaganda network to operate in the United Kingdom. This is the first time that a Western government apparently intervened directly in the media to curb Russian English-language propaganda stations. The move comes just before France and Germany face vitally important elections in the next year. Russian hackers are also suspected of stealing the e-mails of Germany’s Christian Democrat Union parliamentarians, who face a challenge from pro-Russia right-wing extremists. There will probably be selective releases of e-mails from the incumbents there, too, as the election approaches.

Ecuador’s decision to deny WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange Internet access should probably be read in the same light. Although the circumstances of Ecuador’s decision remain unknown, there is every reason to suspect that it capitulated to Western government pressure, given the sensitive timing of Assange’s involvement in the U.S. presidential campaign. After all, external efforts to covertly undermine democratic elections have an unfortunate resonance in Latin America. 

All in all, it appears that Russia’s October surprise was largely thwarted. So what will Moscow try next? Given Putin’s penchant for dropping bombshells, both figuratively and literally, further escalation is a given. Western officials should expect to take further countermeasures against Russian propaganda on television and social media, call out Russian efforts to influence elections in the United States (as well as in France and Germany), and send clear signals that cyberattacks on the U.S. political process will elicit a counterresponse, as Vice President Joseph Biden let slip while taping an interview with Meet the Press earlier in October. 

At the same time, U.S. policymakers must remain calm, so as not to fall into the trap of overreacting to Russian escalation during the election campaign. Russia is trying to create a sense of chaos in world affairs, and if, for instance, Russia were to shoot down a U.S. plane in Syria or undertake some other extremely provocative action akin to an October surprise, Washington should avoid stoking a hysteria that could impact the election results. U.S. officials must respond in a measured fashion and with measured rhetoric in order to protect the integrity of the political process. And respond after the election.

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