The most common refrain on the left about the DNC hacks is that there is not enough evidence to attribute them to Russia. This peculiar epistemology applies to Russia, and only to Russia. In recent years critics of the mainstream liberal line have expressed skepticism about the Russian government’s role in everything from the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 to the presence of Russian troops in Ukraine last year. The standard of proof applied here is far higher than for equivalent US actions abroad, such as the US’s alleged contribution to creating ISIS.
This attitude is healthy and justified—and often correct: critics are right to resist the lies and innuendo on which the US media and military-industrial complex habitually rely to ramp up war fever and Russophobia. Establishment media figures have taken to drawing all manner of irresponsible analogies between Putin’s Russia and the Soviet Union (including the prominent use of hammers and sickles)—ample evidence that facts are not their primary priority. And since those making this case are typically not Russian, it’s only appropriate that they apply a higher standard to the regimes that rule them at home.
But the rhetorical hunger for irrefutable evidence is misguided, not because Russia is always guilty, but because it obscures the point. Joe McCarthy’s famous list may have been a tissue of errors, yet widespread KGB infiltration of the United States government was a fact. That does not mean McCarthyism wasn’t a moral or political catastrophe. Likewise, the theft of private emails and their selective publication to the press was not an act of war even if Russia was responsible, as indeed seems to be the case. By the standards of what the United States has done in other countries’ elections it is at worst a venial sin, especially since there isn’t actually any evidence that Russian meddling was responsible for the outcome. (If Trump had lost, would Pope Francis’s widely publicized feud with him have been cited as Vatican interference in our affairs?)
Instead of generating clarity, the preoccupation with incontrovertible evidence is something Russia uses deliberately as a way to confuse and troll Western media audiences. During the annexation of Crimea, Putin appeared at press conferences to declare smugly that the Russian soldiers that had been spotted on the peninsula were just locals dressed in uniforms “they could have bought in a store.” After the annexation was complete, Putin suddenly became free to publicly admit Russian involvement. One aspect of the hacks many skeptics (like Andrew Cockburn in Harper’s) have cited is that one of the leaked documents had been edited by someone with the username “Felix Edmundovich,” the first name and patronymic of KGB progenitor Dzerzhinsky. The sheer obviousness of this seems to constitute evidence against Russian involvement, but it also seems to be evidence against any other plausible explanation (such as a different nation state’s attempt to set the Russians up as patsies). Given the Russian strategy’s fondness for trolling, however, these kinds of leads don’t appear out of character at all. Surely a subtler substance than polonium could have been used to kill Litvinenko. The attempt to extrapolate from clues that seem either too blatant or too indirect to constitute evidence is a dead end.
It is more helpful to focus on the alleged perpetrator himself. The Russian media continues to deny Russia’s involvement in handing over the DNC documents to Wikileaks, painting it as a bizarre Western conspiracy theory. But its alternative explanations are implausible. The reigning theory I heard on Russian television on Thursday was that the leaks were internal, not hacked. It is hard to imagine John Podesta voluntarily allowing someone else full archive access to his Gmail account, and what we have learned of DNC security policies makes it clear that his password was private, until it wasn’t. (It is important to distinguish between the Podesta hack, the result of a basic phishing email, and the hack of the DNC itself, which involved infiltration of its systems and left behind telltale intrusion tools, one of which pointed to a server already linked to attacks on Germany, Ukraine, and the Baltic states.) The lack of a compelling counterargument—as in the case of the MH17 crash, on which Russia has put forth a flurry of mutually incompatible and equally poorly defended alternate versions—is a circumstantial but real indicator of Russian guilt.
Beyond the question of evidence lies the much more interesting question of what Putin was hoping to accomplish by interfering in US elections. The American public, even the foreign policy-savvy pundit class, has remarkably short memories. Putin can trace his enmity to the Clintons as far back as the 1990s, when the US intervention in Kosovo under the leadership of sometime centrist Democratic presidential hopeful General Wesley Clark nearly sparked a shooting war with Russia. (It was prevented at the last minute, bizarrely, by schlocky pop singer James Blunt, then a captain in the British army.) More proximate causes of enmity lie in Hillary Clinton’s policies as Secretary of State, which added insult to injury by kicking off with a purely cosmetic “reset.” These included US support—real or imagined—for a series of election protests in Russia in 2011, but especially the US intervention in Libya. Russia had abstained from a UN resolution ordering a no-fly zone there, but saw its trust, as Putin sees it, immediately betrayed when the no-fly zone turned into a full-fledged regime change operation.
So why choose this particular tactic to destroy, or at least damage, Hillary? Simply put, Putin (if his media is any guide) believes that the US has already tried to influence Russian elections through leaks. While most Americans have already forgotten about them, the Panama Papers were timed deliberately or accidentally to coincide with Russian parliamentary elections this year. In Russia they are widely seen as having been released by US intelligence to target Putin specifically, because of the $2 billion they revealed to be in the offshore account of a close friend. The hacking operation that targeted the DNC succeeded only two months after the Panama Papers were released. These dots are easy to connect.
But especially compelling are the ideological dots. The core ideological message of Putinism is that all governments are corrupt and unaccountable, but Western governments are also deeply hypocritical about it. Nothing could have been better placed to demonstrate this fact than the internal scheming of the Democratic Party apparatus in favor of the very candidate who had preached in Putin’s face about free and fair elections. This is why the cyber-libertarian tone of the (clearly Russian-linked) DC Leaks front page is at least partially sincere. It represents a challenge to American liberal democracy on the basis of its own ideological clichés.
If Hillary had been successfully elected, this message would, if anything, have been even more potent—and it is unlikely that Putin expected any other outcome. Yet Trump makes for an excellent consolation prize. As the prominent right-wing ideologue Alexander Dugin has put it, Trump’s election “brings us much closer to the multipolar ideal for which we’re struggling.” (He does not, as has been represented, believe Trump to be Putin’s puppet.) Dugin has even called for an alliance between Putin, Trump, and Erdogan as leaders all dedicated to making their own countries great again, as opposed to enforcing American global hegemony. But Putin may well be disappointed. Regime change doesn’t always lead to the results you expect.