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Global Affairs

The Kremlin factor in the White House race

Are the Russians behind the hacking of the Democratic Party's e-mail servers? Is Donald Trump a Russian agent? Such theories can be dangerous, in diverting attention from the fact that the greatest threat to US strategic interests is Trump in the White House, not Putin in the Kremlin.

LONDON • If current media allegations are to be believed, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his intelligence services are now behind any major crisis in the Western world.

It was Russia, allegedly, which encouraged refugees to come to Europe, and which is now "weaponising" the immigration crisis in order to destroy Europe, as one senior United States military commander recently put it.

Russian spooks are also, supposedly, responsible for the rise of right-wing extremist parties in one part of Europe, and extreme left-wing political parties in another part of the continent.

But the latest and most spectacular accusation is that Russian intelligence was behind the hacking and theft of embarrassing e-mail from the computer servers of America's Democratic Party, allegedly in order to help the electoral campaign of Mr Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate. Some US commentators went even further, by charging that Mr Trump is himself a Russian agent, an incarnation of the "Manchurian Candidate", the fictional character of a 1959 book and 1960s movie, who was brainwashed by Russian spies to take over the US.

But while there is plenty of evidence that Russian intelligence services have been engaged in some destabilisation operations, the belief that Russia could pick the next occupant of the White House is not only nonsense, but also dangerous.

For it obscures real analysis of what ails Western politics at the moment. And it does nothing to explain the rise of Mr Trump, a phenomenon entirely due to domestic US concerns, rather than dastardly Russian plots.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

It's worth recalling that Moscow dabbled in the internal politics of other countries for almost a century. During the Cold War, Moscow exported revolution and infiltrated every left-wing party in each Western country.

And even after the Cold War, the practice continued. In areas Russia regards as its spheres of influence - Central Asia, the Caucasus and, until fairly recently, also Ukraine - Moscow continues to pick or promote politicians it either trusts or believes it can influence.

Even in the West, the Russians are fairly brazen. Sometimes they offer cash to political parties which seek to overthrow the existing political order; that appears to have been the case with a €11 million (S$16.5 million) loan that France's far-right National Front party obtained from a Russian bank, a transaction which would have been unthinkable without Russian government support.

However, more frequently the Russian objective is not necessarily to install a pro-Russian government in a Western country but, rather, just to destroy the careers of hostile politicians Moscow identifies as too dangerous.

THE ART OF KOMPROMAT

And that's invariably done through a well-rehearsed strategy Russians refer to as kompromat, namely the careful assembly of compromising information about people Moscow wants marginalised, and their release at a moment calculated to inflict maximum damage.

A classic recent case of kompromat occurred last year in Poland - Eastern Europe's biggest nation and Russia's most implacable foe - where just on the eve of the country's general elections audio tapes of confidential talks between Polish government ministers were leaked to the media; they contributed to the government's decisive defeat at the ballots.

The hacking of the US Democratic Party's computer systems is, therefore, precisely the sort of activity Russia has been doing for years in many European countries. And the purpose in the case of the US hacking would be the same as in Europe: to obtain material harming the career of Mrs Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential candidate who is seen as anti-Russian.

No hacking operation produces complete and incontrovertible forensic evidence about its perpetrators. Still, what we know about the break into the US Democratic Party's computers is damning enough. We know that the "fingerprint" of malware found inside the Democratic Party's computers was identical to that isolated a year ago in a hacking operation into the computers of the German Parliament; the BfV, Germany's domestic security service, identified that malware as linked to the GRU, Russia's military intelligence agency.

The infrastructure between the two cyber intrusions - last year's in Germany and the recent one in the US - was also identical. And although the perpetrators of the attacks into the Democratic Party's computer systems tried to pretend they came from Romania, traces left by the hackers firmly pointed to software in the Cyrillic alphabet used in Russian software.

One could object that all these traces are simply too conveniently obvious, and that a "true" Russian cyber intrusion would have been far more careful in not leaving behind any incriminating evidence; the Russians are, after all, the world's acknowledged cyber masters.

Perhaps. However, this won't be the first time Moscow's cyber activities were unmasked not because Russians lacked professionalism, but more because they did not take into account how the forensic technology of tracking their intrusions has improved. In short, it's possible that they left evidence behind simply because they did not know it was traceable.

TRUMP AND PUTIN

Worse may be in the offing. Mrs Clinton's own e-mail from her stint as US secretary of state could have also been compromised. The Clinton Foundation's computers also appear to have been hacked, perhaps yielding additional material which can be leaked to the media on the eve of the ballots in November.

And, in what must surely rank as a first in US politics, Mr Trump has publicly called on the Russians to continue this work. Mr Richard Nixon was forced to resign as US president for knowing about a burglary into Democratic Party offices; Mr Trump calls on a foreign government to spy on US citizens and apparently gets away with it.

Yet none of this suggests either that Mr Trump is Russia's "man in the White House", or even that Russia's efforts to influence the US elections would have any appreciable effect.

For although there is no question that Mr Trump is Russia's preferred candidate, much of the evidence about a connection between the two remains contradictory. Mr Trump has said nice things about Mr Putin, and has promised to do precisely what the Russians have always dreamt of, such as discarding the US-led Nato military alliance in Europe, or recognising Russia's territorial annexation of the Crimea.

But in his often incoherent speeches, Mr Trump also warned that he'd order the shooting down of Russian planes if they get close to US navy ships. And on Crimea, he merely promised to "look at this", which may mean only that he will try to find the place on a map when he next has a moment.

He also boasted a few years ago that he "did have a relationship" with Mr Putin, but then more recently said: "I never met Putin, and I don't know who Putin is." As is often the case with the Republican candidate, both statements are true and false at the same time.

For the reality is that Mr Trump has always been attracted to Mr Putin's Russia, a country run by oligarchs who, like him, thrive on mega property deals and their love for the gold colour on everything, from the furniture in their homes to the hair of their busty girlfriends. Yet, as Ms Julia Ioffe, a veteran Western journalist in Moscow, pointed out, Mr Trump tried hard but never succeeded in clinching a single property deal in Russia because of "his abysmal lack of connections to influential Russians".

Nor is there any evidence that even if the Russian state is behind the smear campaign against Mrs Clinton, that would sway the vote towards Mr Trump. In fact the outcome could be precisely the opposite, as Professor Mark Galeotti from New York University, who has followed such Russian activities for decades, recently argued; "Russia is notoriously inept when it comes to predicting how the after-effects of its interventions will play out," he wrote. For, after all, appearing to be a Russian stooge may not work so well for the man who promises to "Make America Great Again".

Either way, it was not Mr Putin who created Mr Trump; the Republican candidate is the product of domestic US politics, a virulent and obnoxious example of populist and isolationist trends which have existed in the American electorate since the country rose to global power status. Previous generations of American politicians have fought against such trends successfully; Mr Trump proposes to come to power by riding them instead.

Russia and Mr Putin clearly have an interest in stoking up these discordant notes in US politics. But ultimately, the biggest threat to America's strategic interests comes from the man vying for the White House, and not from the man sitting in the Kremlin in Moscow.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 01, 2016, with the headline 'The Kremlin factor in the White House race'. Print Edition | Subscribe