Is Russia trying to influence U.S. election?

(CNN)Whoever orchestrated the release of emails hacked from the Democratic Party computers knew exactly what they were doing. But while there’s no question the content of the emails matters, it’s worth widening the lens for some important and troubling context to the hack, context that points to outside interference from an outside power.

The identity of the hackers, who shared a trove of Democratic National Committee emails with WikiLeaks, is yet to be confirmed. Yet many are already pointing the finger at Russia. And this is hardly surprising given the panoply of alleged Russian efforts to influence events across the West, including political contests in other democratic countries.


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But before looking at why Russia is being mentioned, it’s important to understand what happened with the DNC leak.


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The Hungarian consultancy Political Capital, meanwhile, has been tracking the Kremlin’s alleged ties with mostly far-right political parties across Europe. It has identified strong support from Moscow for France’s radical anti-EU, anti-immigration National Party. Russian-owned banks have helped finance FN’s work, even as Marine Le Pen supports Putin’s actions before European audiences. (Le Pen, incidentally, is leading in early polls for the French presidential race).
Political Capital also says it has found evidence of the Kremlin’s efforts to alter the political balance in Hungary, Slovakia and Greece. Hungary’s powerful far-right Jobbik party, it says, has become an “uncritical servant” of “the current Russian regime’s interests.”
But while the Kremlin is often accused of trying to influence events in the West through its sophisticated hacking operations — a particularly devastating cyberattack on Estonia in 2007 was reportedly claimed by a pro-Kremlin youth group — it is also willing to take a more old-fashioned approach.
When Ukraine started trying to drift toward the West, Russia first warned, then tried to intimidate, and ultimately invaded part of the country. It annexed Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula and supported a separatist war in the east of Ukraine, in the process sending a clear warning to other former Soviet states about the risks of upsetting Moscow.
Of course, Russia is not the only country that conducts cyberoperations or that seeks to influence global political events to its liking. The United States, for one, most certainly actively promotes its world view and maintains a highly advanced cyberwarfare infrastructure.
But this doesn’t change the question voters in the United States should now be asking themselves: What could Putin be after in the U.S. election?
In his year-end press conference last year, Putin described Trump as “a very bright and talented ” and “absolute leader” of the presidential race. Trump, for his part, has shown a particular affinity for “strong leaders,” including those with visible authoritarian tendencies. On hearing of Putin’s praise, Trump called it “a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond.”
This mutual admiration has been widely discussed. But beyond the manly backslapping, there are policy implications. And those are deeply troubling.
For a start, Trump has already made a startling vow to reverse the foundation of American defense policy in Europe, telling The New York Times that if Putin invaded one of the Baltic states, he might not fulfill America’s NATO commitment to come to their defense, unless those NATO members had “fulfilled their obligations” to America.
That kind of statement must be music to Putin’s ears, as must Trump’s earlier declaration that NATO is “obsolete.”
All this underscores how this is about more than just uncomfortable and embarrassing emails. Yes, voters should look at the content of the DNC emails and draw whatever conclusions they want about the actions of the DNC. But in this case, it is also important that they ponder how and why we have been provided that information in the first place — and what those who orchestrated the DNC email release might be hoping for in return for their efforts.

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