Tensions between the United States and Russia are at their highest since the Cold War. And, as U.S. parties nominate their choices for president, and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton warns of a "day of reckoning" with threats from abroad, the President of Russia is plotting his own course.
U.S. security experts have concluded with near certainty that it was two groups of hackers known in the cyberworld as Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear that penetrated the computer network of the Democratic National Committee several months ago and copied thousands of e-mails and other documents. These hackers, they say, can be traced to two of Russia's security services: the GRU, run by Russia's military, and the FSB, the main successor to the notorious KGB.
These operations would not have been conducted without the knowledge of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the one-time head of the FSB.
Such espionage is not totally unexpected, says David Kramer of Washington's McCain Institute, a security-oriented "do tank" (as opposed to think tank). However, "weaponizing" the operation by releasing many of the documents through the whistle-blower website WikiLeaks, is "unprecedented," he said.
What was the Russian goal?
Some say it was to undermine Ms. Clinton and the Democratic Party by revealing collusion against the campaign of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. If so, it was not very successful. Events of the Democratic convention trumped what little effect the embarrassing documents had.
Others say it was an effort to help Republican nominee Donald Trump. That's not very likely, since the Russian leader would have known the trail of the hackers might lead investigators to Moscow and that would jeopardize the kind of pro-Russia policies Mr. Trump has advocated.
Why publish the documents?
For the same reason countries such as Russia and Iran parade their military hardware on May Day or some other anniversary – to show they can do such things. The display enhances national pride and can intimidate the enemy.
And make no mistake, says Dimitri Simes, president of the Center for the National Interest, "Russia and its people increasingly view the United States as the enemy." A recent poll found that 72 per cent of Russians consider the United States the country most hostile to Russia, he said.
What may be most intimidating about this episode is not what the documents show but what they don't reveal. There are thousands of unreleased documents that might be more damaging to Ms. Clinton, or to Mr. Trump. (The hackers got into the DNC network through its opposition research department, where the dark secrets about the Republican nominee are kept; those documents have yet to be seen in public.)
The very threat of more revelations could affect a candidate's, or a government's, policies toward Russia.
Why is Putin so against Clinton?
There's a long list of grievances, dating back to her husband Bill Clinton's administration from 1993 to 2001. First among them was the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization right up to Russia's doorstep.
Mr. Clinton's predecessor, George H.W. Bush, had "no plans to expand NATO and was hesitant to involve the United States in the emerging civil wars in the Balkans," Mr. Simes said. The Clinton administration thought differently and its NATO interventions in Bosnia and Serbia shaped Mr. Putin's views.
The Russian leader blames Ms. Clinton specifically for the 2011 protest by Russia's own parliament against that year's national election results, and also for NATO's intervention in Libya the same year, a move that sought to protect a rebel force and left the whole country in chaos.
He resents, too, Ms. Clinton's forceful opposition to Bashar al-Assad, Russia's ally in Syria, and her apparent willingness to send U.S. troops to battle against him.
Ms. Clinton, rather than Mr. Trump, has become the preferred candidate for many leading U.S. neocons, such as Robert Kagan, Max Boot and Eliot Cohen. This, too, troubles Mr. Putin.
What does Putin like about Trump?
First, he's not Ms. Clinton.
Beyond that the Russian leader undoubtedly appreciates that Mr. Trump has expressed interest in Russia's proposal of forming an alliance against the Islamic State terrorist movement, as well as his questioning the necessity of trying to defend some of NATO's Baltic States against a possible Russian attack.
Perhaps most significantly, he welcomes the Republican nominee's willingness to keep an open mind about Russia's claim to Crimea. The peninsula once was Russian, was given to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev when both countries were part of the Soviet Union, and the territory hosts Russia's only warm-water port, housing the Black Sea fleet.
Doesn't Washington try to influence politics in Russia and elsewhere?
It does, and probably uses cybertechnology to spy on Russian parties and individuals, say several security specialists.
But that's not the same as attempting to influence elections, they insist.
During the Cold War, the Voice of America broadcasts "told people in the Soviet Union what really was going on in their country," said Mr. Kramer of the McCain Institute said. That gave them "an accurate portrait of what the U.S. was all about." You can't compare that to the captive Russian media, he insisted.
"What we do," said Hannah Thoburn of the Hudson Institute, is promote independence. "We support foundations that call for free elections," she explained. "That's qualitatively different."
Such groups are funded through U.S. bodies such as USAID, the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House and others.
U.S. officials have acknowledged that more than $5-billion (U.S.) was spent on democracy promotion in Ukraine between 1993 and 2013.
"Russia," Ms. Thoburn said, "is trying to create a moral equivalence" between their surreptitious efforts and ours "to show that the U.S. is no better." Such a comparison is ridiculous, she said.