University of Wisconsin–Madison

CREECA Hosts “Russia & the 2016 U.S. Election”

On February 22, 2017, CREECA and the Wisconsin Union Directorate Society & Politics Committee hosted “Russia and the 2016 U.S. Election: Cyberwar and Prospects for Future Conflict.” The panel brought together five UW-Madison faculty to discuss international cyberwar and the state of U.S.-Russia relations after Russian hacking targeted key players in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, most notably Hillary Clinton’s campaign staff.

Panel of UW faculty
The panel from left to right: Gerber, Kaiser, Machoian, Gehlbach and Herrera. Photo credit: Yasha Hoffman

CREECA Director and Professor of Sociology Ted Gerber moderated the panel, which featured Professor of Geography Robert Kaiser, Senior Lecturer in International Studies Ron Machoian, and Professors of Political Science Scott Gehlbach and Yoshiko Herrera. Gerber began the discussion by prompting the panelists to address the nature of Russian cyberwar and what kind of influence Russia might have over the U.S. government.

Kaiser speaking
Photo credit: Yasha Hoffman

Kaiser spoke first, relating the history of the first cyberwar, which revolved around the 2007 relocation of the Bronze Soldier of Tallinn, a Soviet World War II memorial in Estonia. The monument’s relocation prompted local protests and cyberattacks against Estonian institutions. The memorial had long been controversial due to differing interpretations of World War II among local populations. In the international political arena, the Estonian government successfully shifted focus away from this origin of the controversy, emphasizing instead that the event was the world’s first example of cyberwar—warfare waged by one sovereign state against another in cyberspace. Estonian officials accused the Kremlin of orchestrating the cyberattacks, although they were ultimately unable to prove direct involvement by the Russian government.

Kaiser explained that this event has had a lasting impact on the U.S. approach to cyberwar. Russia’s involvement in the Estonian cyberattacks established a new ‘Cold Cyberwar.’ The U.S. has adopted the position of cyber-defender, portraying the East as cyber-villains. This reinvigorated Cold War mentality, argued Kaiser, has created a kind of cyber-Orientalism, in which the U.S. has delayed cyberwar negotiations with Russia, China, India, and other nations, keeping them out of international agreements on cybersecurity.

Machoian speaking
Photo credit: Yasha Hoffman

Machoian, the UW-Madison international safety and security director, then addressed how cyberwar fits into Russia’s broader political and military strategies. He explained that cyber-operations over the past decade are part of a wide-ranging Russian campaign to reestablish its prestige and power on the global stage. Covert cyberattacks that Russia does not explicitly claim are being used to supplement Russia’s more overt political and military actions, as in Ukraine and Syria.

Machoian said that Russia is leading the way in innovating cyber-operations as a new tool for hybrid war strategies. Cyberwar will likely have great value in furthering Russian goals that cannot be achieved purely through brute force. The Russian example will lead other nations to follow suit in developing cyberwar capabilities, and, Machoian noted, the U.S. will not be able to effectively deter other countries from adopting such strategies.

Gehlbach speaking
Photo credit: Yasha Hoffman

Gehlbach next spoke about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s possible motives for tampering with the 2016 U.S. presidential election. He presented four conceivable motives for the audience to consider:

(1) Retaliation for the U.S. meddling in Russian affairs, via NATO and other political arenas;
(2) Persuasion of the Russian populace, to bolster the appearance of Russian democracy by undermining American democracy;
(3) Disruption of the global stage, assuming that creating chaos in the American polity would distract from Russian actions elsewhere, for example in the escalating fighting in Eastern Ukraine;
(4) Infiltration in the U.S. government, by aiding the election of a president (Trump) who would be sympathetic to and cooperative with Russia.

Gehlbach noted that all four motives are reasonable, but it is unclear which is most likely to have guided Russian hackers or any Kremlin-directed intervention.

Gehlbach also emphasized that Trump was consistently opposed to Putin throughout much of his career and that he only adopted a more sympathetic approach to Putin during the recent presidential campaign. Citing a recent discussion piece by Columbia University political scientist Tim Frye, Gehlbach offered a set of possible reasons for Trump’s apparent change in tone on Russia:

(1) Trump wants to protect his business interests in Russia.
(2) Trump admires Putin’s strong persona.
(3) Trump wants Putin as a geopolitical ally, for example against ISIS.
(4) Putin may indeed have blackmail material on Trump.

Gehlbach concluded by reminding the audience that these motives were neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive.

Herrera speaking
Photo credit: Yasha Hoffman

Finally, Herrera addressed the impact of Russian hacking on the 2016 U.S. election. Herrera said plainly that Russian hacking did not pose a significant threat to the legitimacy of the 2016 election. That is, Russian hacking did not undermine or unduly influence the election outcome. In Herrera’s view, however, Russian hacking ties into broader rhetoric that undermines confidence in the electoral process. Russian hacking exacerbated claims of voter fraud and a rigged electoral system. Taken together, such rhetoric has a tangible impact on citizens’ disillusionment with electoral politics.

Herrera emphasized that the true threat to the U.S. government is not election hacking, but officials who have conflicts of interest that may favor foreign powers. There is bipartisan agreement that the U.S. has serious tensions with Russia. Russia is in conflict with East European and Middle Eastern allies of the U.S. and is hostile to NATO. Russia wants to undermine U.S. global power. Given such tensions, it would pose a real threat to the U.S. government if any member of the Trump administration was in collusion with Russia.

In her conclusion, Herrera noted that the negative depiction of U.S.-Russia relations belies the potential for bilateral cooperation. The U.S. and Russia do share interests in fighting radicalism in the Middle East, preventing North Korea and Iran from gaining nuclear weapons, and developing oil drilling in the Arctic. Rex Tillerson’s appointment as Secretary of State, for example, indicates that the U.S. and Russia could conceivably work together to extract oil from the Arctic, over environmental concerns. Ultimately, Putin needs the U.S. as an enemy, the foil against which he restores Russia’s prestige. This means that U.S.-Russia relations will remain tense for the near future and are not likely to improve under the Trump administration.

A livestream of the entire discussion is available on Facebook.