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Is Russia hacking democracy?

As Putin’s relationship with the rest of the world grows ever more significant, what destabilising powers does his regime really have?

Whether the bombing of Aleppo, the hacking of Democratic Party’s email servers or the threat of incursion in the Baltic states, Vladimir Putin is readily framed as the West’s public enemy number one. But it is not useful to frame the Kremlin as the source of all our problems.

It is true that Donald Trump’s path to the White House was helped by the DNC hacks and WikiLeaks attack on the Hillary Clinton campaign. Not least because WikiLeaks suspiciously left Trump alone.

But it is also crying wolf to claim, as Ben Bradshaw MP did late last year, that Brexit was “probably” interfered with by Russia. It seems doubtful that Bradshaw could ever provide any conclusive evidence of this.

Rather, it plays into a latent Russophobia stemming from the Cold War as a strategy to divert from problems that are mostly domestic. We should focus on where Russia is misbehaving, not where it is not.

Since 2014, Russia’s state-sponsored media outlets, such as RT (formerly known as Russia Today) and Sputnik, have vastly expanded their global reach.

Explicitly, RT tries to put forward the “Russian perspective”, while implicitly seeking to erode trust in institutions, such as the BBC. Just like the Morning Star, RT reported that Aleppo had been “liberated”, with no criticism of Russia’s bombing campaign. During the US presidential race, RT also seemed to be uncovering emails from Clinton’s campaign. This comes at a time when western media outlets are increasingly finding it difficult to balance their budget, and thus resort to more click-worthy news or reduce their reach through consolidating bureaus into regional hubs.

It is also true that Russian state-sponsored hacking and trolling is taking on unprecedented momentum. From Aleppo to the internet, the Kremlin is causing chaos. But this is not universal or inevitable.

The Cold War provides a convenient way to understand the present: a Russia seeking to rebuild its evil empire and assert itself as a geopolitical player rivalling the US. But the present is more unpredictable than the past. Russia is guided by a different ideology from the Soviet Union. Russia is not seeking to promote an international form of communism but seeking to undermine democracy – a motive that is primarily about Putin’s survival. If democracy looks flawed in the West, how can it be a model for reform in Russia?

There are real reasons to be concerned about Putin’s desire to hack democracy. Since the coloured revolutions and Arab Spring, Putin has increasingly cracked down on domestic dissent as a way to maintain power. Even Putin’s incursion in Ukraine is, in part, a way to shore up Putin’s power in Russia by undermining the pro-European and anti-corruption Euromaidan protests that ended Viktor Yanukovych’s hold on power in Ukraine in February 2014.

A recent report by the Atlantic Council concluded that organisations and institutions in the UK are relatively resilient to Russian perversion. The UK does not have the same pro-Russian organisational network as France. Nor do we have electronic voting procedures, as several US states do, which might be exposed to hacking. In fact, the behaviour of several Conservative MPs and Ukippers has courted the most criticism. For example, former Culture Secretary John Whittingdale has faced ongoing scrutiny concerning his links to Ukrainian oligarch, Dmitry Firtash.

However, we should not slide into blithely blaming Russia just to escape our own reality. Russia is responsible for sponsoring conflict, in Ukraine and Aleppo. The Kremlin is sponsoring hacking scandals that help undermine the legitimacy of candidates, such as Clinton, who are seen as less favourable to Russia.

But this is not inevitable. We have a choice about how and what we report, and about whether we equate using the wrong email server to sexual harassment. We have a choice about the funding of political parties and whether we accept foreign or clandestine funding or not. Finally, we have a choice about the value we give to democracy and political freedoms. In this regard, Russia is not something to emulate. Rather than blame Russia for Brexit, we need to get behind rule of law and freedom of speech. These values may not be perfect but compared to Russia they are incomparable and will be the best defence we have.

Dr Eleanor Knott is a Russia expert and LSE fellow at the Department of Methodology.

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Donald Trump's cartoon nuclear rhetoric draws on a culture of American jingoism

Senior Republicans avoided condemning Trump's incendiary speech, and some endorsed it. 

From recent headlines, it seems as though Donald Trump isn't content with his Emmy-by-proxy. The US president told the United Nations General Assembly this week: “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” Trump’s speech raised eyebrows for its bellicose tone, especially when contrasted with his predecessor’s endorsement of a war-averse approach. 

A widely circulated image of Trump's chief of staff John Kelly with his head in his hand might suggest that most listeners loathed the speech. But Trump said many outrageous things on the campaign trail and voters - at least a critical number of them - agreed. So how did his words go down at home? 

My contacts in international security were unwilling to go on the record condemning it. They were mainly Americans in their twenties, hoping for a government job one day, and fearful of saying anything that could be interpreted as "un-American".

The one person who would speak to me asked for their name to withheld. A former military analyst in the US Department of Defence, they told me that “the US has the military capability and legal responsibility to address threats to itself or allies". What Trump said, they suggested, should be seen in the context of the wider US institutions. "While Trump may have advocated for isolation in the past, the political and military forces he leads are built to enforce the adherence to international law and regional security," the former analyst said. "They provide a real counterweight to the bombast in Pyongyang.”

Trump's speech may have been colourful - his nickname for the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, "Rocket Man", is a reference to Elton John’s mid-Cold War musical hit – but the speech should be seen as yet another reassertion of US military dominance. North Korea may boast of its Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) development,  but its arsenal is simply not well-equipped enough to present the same existential threat to the US that the USSR did at its peak. 

Rather than lacking comprehension, the analyst said of the speech: “Trump's rhetoric is intended to galvanise recognition that the current rules based order is threatened by North Korea's actions”.

Trump’s jingoism is not unique amongst the current American elite. Back in 1983, in his book, The Wizards of Armageddon, the liberal journalist Fred Kaplan characterised the hawkish US military strategy as simply ejaculating combative statements without a long-term plan. Kaplan quoted Herman Kahn, one of the early nuclear strategists, who called one proposal targeting the USSR a “war orgasm”. 

The US Senate recently passed a defence policy bill to increase military spending to $700bn, which includes $8.5bn for missile defence purposes. Overtly catastrophic language, meanwhile, has long been a staple of US foreign policy debates. In 2015, Trump's rival for the Republican presidential nomination, Ted Cruz, made headlines when he vowed to carpet-bomb Isis until he found out "if sand can glow in the dark". While most leading Republicans chose to stay silent after Trump's speech, a few, such as Paul Ryan and Rand Paul, publicly endorsed the message. Cruz, despite the rivalry, was among them. 

On social media, the American public are vocally divided. Some called for Trump to be denounced for his inflammatory speech, but others tweeted #MakeAmericaGreatAgain. Even some Trump sceptics agreed that the North Korea “nuclear summer” needed to be kept in check.

By contrast, overseas listeners have perceived the speech, and this administration’s foreign policy, as unnecessarily incendiary. Matt Korda, a Canadian research assistant on strategic stability at the UK-based Centre for Science and Security Studies,  told me: “Kim Jong-un perceives his nuclear weapons to be the only thing guaranteeing his regime's survival”.

“He will never give them up, no matter how much Trump threatens him," Korda added. “On the contrary: Trump's threat to ‘totally destroy’ the entire country (including millions of innocent and oppressed civilians) will only tighten Kim's grip on his nuclear weapons”.

The effects of Trump’s speech are yet to fully play out, but it is clear that his words have rallied at least a section of American society, and rankled everyone else. The Donald may seem to be mirroring the culture of nuclear recklessness his North Korean opponent helped to create, but this is also the kind of hostile and hyperbolic rhetoric which fuelled his rise to power. In reality, once Trump’s unpleasant vernacular is decoded, he can be seen to be echoing the same global view that has long pervaded the collective American consciousness. Trump's speech was not addressed at his UN doubters, but rather at his domestic fan base and his allies in the South Pacific. This is not a shift in US foreign policy - it is tradition with a spray-tan.

 

 

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman