Wesley Wark is a visiting professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Relations, University of Ottawa
The furore over allegations of Russian meddling in the U.S. election continues to grow and poses one of the first big tests for the incoming Trump administration. The story has a long trail, leading back to the summer of 2016, when FBI investigations into Russian hacking targeted at the presidential election began in earnest.
Media reporting suggests that the growing body of intelligence on Russian involvement in U.S. domestic politics even made its way into President Barack Obama's top level intelligence report – the President's Daily brief – during the campaign. Very recently, the CIA reached a judgement, according to intelligence sources tapped by The Washington Post, that Russian hacking had a very specific aim – not just to undermine confidence in the U.S. electoral system, but to help Donald Trump win the election.
This is an explosive charge, but one not limited to the U.S. arena. Concerns about Russian cyber aggression caused the head of Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, Alex Younger, to make a rare public speech, delivered from SIS headquarters on the Thames, charging that cyber attacks and information warfare represent "a fundamental threat to our sovereignty; they should be a concern to all those who share democratic values."
These fears have been echoed by the directors of German intelligence, looking ahead to their own federal election. Questions about the role of false news, propagated by Russian outlets, in the outcome of the recent Italian referendum on electoral reform, have also been raised.
The epicentre of concern over Russian cyber aggression, for the foreseeable future, is going to be the United States. The reason is that the issue has now become highly politicized, with Mr. Trump denying the validity of any claims about Russian electoral meddling and casting aspersions on the credibility of the Central Intelligence Agency, a throwback to Richard Nixon's loathing of the CIA as a bunch of "clowns."
Meanwhile, Mr. Obama has ordered a full-scale investigation into Russian cyber attacks, to be headed by the Director of National Intelligence, with a report due before he leaves office Jan. 20. The U.S. Congress is set to begin its own investigations into the matter, to be conducted by the intelligence oversight committees in the House and Senate. Senior Republican support for these investigations has set Republicans in the Senate, in particular, at odds with the president-elect.
For Mr. Trump, allegations of Russian interference in the election are a deep blow: to his credibility; to his desire for a much friendlier relationship with Vladimir Putin's Russia as a hallmark of a new style of foreign policy; and to his control of the machinery of Washington. He has responded in a manner familiar from the campaign trail – by denying and lashing out. These tactics won't serve him well once he enters the White House.
Wherever the current investigations into Russian cyber disruption of the U.S. election ultimately lead, President Trump will have to confront two realities. One is that the United States is a major target of cyber attacks from foreign actors, both state and non-state, and as Commander-in-Chief he will have to come up with ways to strengthen cyber defences and make tough decisions on the extent to which the U.S. engages in its own brand of cyber offensive attacks.
The second thing that the Trump administration will have to understand is Mr. Putin's Russia. Mr. Putin runs a security state of a kind very unfamiliar to Westerners. Part of the makeup of that security state is a profound belief that Russia is the constant target of malicious information warfare and intelligence activities conducted by unfriendly Western states.
From a Russian perspective, information warfare and cyber attacks targeting the West are just a form of tit-for-tat, in the Russian lexicon, the "new normal" of international relations. If they can use their power to influence domestic politics in the West, so much the better for them.
Some Western leaders already appreciate this fact. German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently told reporters that "cyberattacks, or hybrid conflicts as they are known in Russian doctrine, are now part of daily life and we must learn to cope with them. We must inform people a lot on this point."
That sounds like good advice for Mr. Trump.