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29 December 2016

Barack Obama’s message to Russia has 22 days to play out

Then it's time for President Trump. 

By Julia Rampen

President Barack Obama’s order to expel 35 diplomats and send them back to Russia without love seems decisive, especially compared to his previous tactic of quiet words at an international summit in China. 

It also seems reasonable. The hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s computing network was embarrassing for the party’s candidate, Hillary Clinton, and her rival, Donald Trump, capitalised on it. Many different US departments – from the US Department of Homeland Security to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence – have scrutinised the hacking allegations. All 17 intelligence agencies are in agreement that the hacks were directed by the Russian government. In other words, regardless of the impact, a foreign power appears to have directly attempted to influence the outcome of the presidential race.

Announcing the decision to expel the Russian diplomats, as well as close two Russian compounds on US soil, and sanctions against Russian intelligence agencies, Obama said he was responding to cyber activity designed to “interfere with or undermine our election processes”.

But however strong Obama’s words, this moment may seem like ancient history in less than a month. On 20 January 2017, Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States.

While campaigning in the election, Trump was accused of encouraging Russian hacking, after he urged Russia to “find the 30,000 emails that are missing”. He has since downplayed the idea that the hacks are directly linked to the Russian state and said Americans should “get on with their lives”. 

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More strategic, perhaps, is Trump’s insistence that the intelligence authorities cannot know for sure who hacked what. Identifying Russian fingerprints comes down to technical details such as the fact the hackers did not seem to work on Russian holidays.

While a terrorist attack, replayed on TV screens across the country, immediately reveals what is at stake, hacks are subtle and anonymous. It’s up to the authorities to convince the general public. And 22 days after President Obama’s decisive action, those authorities will be led by President Trump. 

Meanwhile, the Russian embassy in the UK seems to be inspired by the future President’s social media style: