The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump won’t discourage Russia from interfering in 2020, so Congress has to

The headquarters of the GRU in Moscow in July 2018. (Pavel Golovkin/AP)

DID RUSSIAN military spies hack the Ukrainian gas company at the center of the U.S. impeachment trial? Well, why wouldn’t they?

It’s alarming that this has been the reaction to a report from a cybersecurity company indicating that Russia’s military intelligence service, known as the GRU, conducted an email “phishing” attack against Burisma Holdings — and sparking speculation that the Kremlin might use its findings to further foment discord among voters in the United States. Another firm was unable to validate the claim that the GRU was behind the breach, and even if it was, the incident could just be another example of Russia’s routine sabotage of its beleaguered neighbor. But there’s ample reason to believe Vladimir Putin’s agents did this, because their fingerprints are all over it, because they’ve done it before — and because the United States hasn’t given them sufficient reason not to do it again.

This last point is perhaps the most appalling. Political campaigns can harden their defenses, and platforms can moderate more aggressively against manipulation, but complete invulnerability is impossible. Russia wins as long as voters believe their democracy is in danger of manipulation, even when Moscow isn’t actively manipulating, by engendering distrust in everything from Facebook posts to vote tallies. It’s precisely this doubt that leads people automatically to assume the Burisma breach was an attempt by the GRU to gather dirt on former vice president Joe Biden to later scatter it on U.S. soil.

Complete invulnerability is impossible, but what is possible is deterrence. If Russia knows for certain that it will pay a high price for meddling, it will be less likely to meddle. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) last week continued his crusade to pass the bipartisan Deter Act, which would impose almost automatic cross-sectoral sanctions against Russia if it tries its tricks again. Key provisions of that act were recommended for consideration in this year’s defense reauthorization act by voice vote — but then Republicans turned around and refused to include them. Now Mr. Van Hollen says his Senate colleague Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) wants to work out a deal. Should that fall through, Democrats should keep doing exactly what Mr. Van Hollen plans: taking to the floor and daring their colleagues across the aisle to continue objecting to an obvious measure to protect U.S. elections.

It’s outrageous that Russia mounted a full-scale offensive on American democracy in 2016; it’s outrageous that Russia, by all assessments, plans to mount another next time around; it’s outrageous that President Trump won’t speak out against this; and, as Mr. Van Hollen said on the Senate floor, “It would be equally outrageous for us — knowing that is Russia’s intent in 2020 — to sit here and not do anything.”

Read more:

Greg Sargent: Sanders just defended Biden against Russian interference. Here’s why.

Michael McFaul: Be prepared to fight a dangerous new wave of disinformation during the Senate trial

Greg Sargent: Stop calling Trump a ‘Russian dupe.’ The truth is much worse.

Colbert I. King: Russian interference in 2016 was right down the Trump campaign’s alley