Vladimir Putin's Hacking Strategy Is to Divide and Conquer—and It's Nothing New

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin at the Business Russia Congress in Moscow on October 18. Putin's strategy is to divide and conquer his enemies to distract people from his own failings. Alexander Zemlianichenko/reuters

The recent allegations of Russia's hacking and interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections have raised fears of an escalating hybrid war with Moscow, causing imaginations to run wild.

After the release of tens of thousands of hacked emails from the Democratic National Convention, media reports indicate that the CIA believes that Russia not only sponsored this cyber attack, but also intended to use it to sway the election in Donald Trump's favor. But does this mean that the White House is going to be taking orders from the Kremlin? Not so fast.

So far, the overall response (or lack thereof) to the Russian hacking incident has been based on incomplete information, flawed assumptions, and partisan agenda. Instead, we should try to comprehend the breadth and meaning of this attack, and formulate a more coherent and united strategy to protect American democracy from these kinds of attacks in the future.

Russia's actions against the U.S. during this election are actually nothing new, but rather the continuation of a long line of non-military aggressive conduct. For years, the Kremlin has pursued strategies of disaggregation in many countries, ranging from the Baltics, Eastern Europe, and the Caucasus over the past decade.

Disaggregation is the process by which the Russian intelligence agencies identify a social or economic split in a country, and then work to exacerbate it and create conflicts. These campaigns seek to exploit open systems such as freedom of the press, social media, and representative democracy, to introduce misinformation—which may not be convincing but is at least successful in muddying the waters and diminishing faith in the very concept of truth.

We've previously seen economic disaggregation employed by Russia to masterful effect in the European Union during the energy wars, when pipeline and investment deals were struck with major German, French, and Italian energy firms to put the squeeze on Poland and Ukraine. There's been the overt political disaggregation with Moscow allegedly providing funding to ultra-right nativist parties in places like France, Italy, and Hungary. Then of course, a long history of cyber attacks believed to have been supported or tolerated by the Russian government against Estonia, Georgia, Ukraine, and a number of others.

By turning this fine-tuned cyber-weapon on the United States, Putin has chosen to go to war against us—not a war of bullets and missiles, but one of politics, argues Mark Galeotti, a research fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague . In Putin's view, this is an act of retribution for Washington's tacit encouragement of the 2011 protests against rigged legislative elections in Russia, if not the broader humiliations of Russia in the 1990s.

But does that mean disaggregation is successful? Hardly. The idea that Russia successfully "hacked" the U.S. election is an exaggeration. Trump managed to forge a national constituency of 62 million voters of free will who supported his platform, not because of hacked emails or Russian-generated fake news, but because he had a message that resonated with these communities. The real impact of the hacking cannot be known.

Secondly, we cannot yet pass judgment on the Trump administration's Russia policy when it is far from clear what it will be, even if some reasonable concern is warranted. While the incoming Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson should be subjected to thorough scrutiny to demonstrate his independence from both ExxonMobil and Russia, that is best done through constructive engagement rather than resigned dismissal.

Lastly, there are doubts over whether Putin would benefit from an improvement in relations, as he has for so long depended on portraying the United States as the number one external enemy, responsible for the disastrous performance of the economy, and forever holding Russia back from its promised greatness. Do we really think he is ready to actually be responsible and accountable to the people for his governance?

The problem with this kind of cyberwarfare is that there are not many equitable countermeasures. The United States should not betray what values it has left by sponsoring illegal hacking, though clearly an improvement in security is urgently needed. Instead, the best political response should be demonstrating the failure of Putin's disaggregation strategy. Putin may portray this election result as a victory, but for all his exploits, Russia has very few friends—even Belarus is busy signing military cooperation agreements with NATO states. No country anywhere near Russia trusts the Kremlin or seeks its guidance, leaving them with extremely little coercive influence.

In the short term, Russia believes it can convince the Trump administration to lift sanctions. Congress should firmly resist, or at least define specific conditions be met. There is nothing wrong about the new administration seeking a more cooperative working relationship with Moscow—but Trump and Tillerson should show that they are serious and independent by taking regular meetings with people like Bill Browder, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and Zhanna Nemtsova, among others who understand that rights and rule of law cannot be taken off the table.

Most importantly, this is an opportunity to have a serious public debate about how foreign influence is encroaching on U.S. democracy. "Hacking" should be understood beyond just stolen emails, to the exploitation of political donations, political action committees, indirect lobbying and other conflicts of interest. Had Hillary Clinton won the election, there would similarly be many concerns about informal foreign influence by other parties—just look at her alleged ties to exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen.

A successful U.S. policy toward Russia should not be measured by the hawkish vitriol or naïve disengagement that has tended to characterize the mentality in Washington. Instead, we should dispense with the outdated Cold War archetypes and work toward creating a functioning framework that protects and promotes U.S. interests. If Trump and Tillerson can find a new path to achieve it, then they deserve our support.

Robert Amsterdam is the founding partner of international law firm Amsterdam & Partners LLP. He is on Twitter at @robertamsterdam.