MOSCOW — The recent spate of embarrassing emails and other records stolen by Russian hackers is President Vladimir Putin’s splashy response to years of what he sees as U.S. efforts to weaken and shame him on the world stage and with his own people, according to Russia experts here and in the U.S. intelligence world and academia.
Putin is seeking revenge and respect, and trying to reassert Russia’s lost superpower status at a time of waning economic clout and an upcoming Russian election, according to interviews with specialists here and in Washington, with a senior U.S. intelligence official, recently retired CIA operations officers in charge of Russia, and the last three national intelligence officers for Russia and Eurasia analysis in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
“He’s saying, if you think you have the chops to do this — well, we do, too!” said Fiona Hill, a national intelligence officer for Russia during the George W. Bush and Obama administrations who is now at the Brookings Institution.
First came the electronic break-ins of senior U.S. officials’ emails, followed by the Democratic National Committee’s email server just before the convention, then a few state election records. And this week, the medical files of celebrated American Olympians marked tit-for-tat revenge against the ouster of Russian athletes found to be illegally doping from this year’s Olympics.
“He’s giving us the finger . . . and the hacks are meant to intimidate the hell out of us,” said Hill, who went through five troubled iPhones in six months after the release of her 2015 book, “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin.”
Where the Chinese government takes a long-term, strategic approach to stealing U.S. secrets — vacuuming up millions of security clearance résumés for future espionage use, and commercial and military trade secrets to aid its own development — the Russian game is a tactical one where context and timing matter greatly, experts agreed.
After years of keeping its hacking activities secret, Russia picked this particularly unsettling moment in U.S. politics to make its exploits public. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump already has said the U.S. political system cannot be trusted and has hinted that the election results may be rigged. Now, after public revelations of Russian hacking, the Democrats as well as U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies are worried about the integrity of the elections.
“This is his country’s major adversary, and he sees a chance to exploit its weakness at a crucial moment,” said a senior diplomat based in Moscow, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
It all plays into Putin’s narrative that his democratic critics are simply U.S. agents and that American democracy is as politically corrupt as any other form of government. Some in Russia see a mirror image in the American response to the hacking.
“I find the political reaction from the United States very harmful to democracy all over the world,” said Alexander Baunov, a former Russian diplomat and now a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “They do the same that Putin does, ascribing every problem possible . . . to interference from abroad. You can’t imagine how much harm it does. . . . The image we see here is the Putinization of American politics.”
The antics have also forced world attention back to Putin, giving him the aura of a superpower leader. On Wednesday, for example, three of the six front-page stories in the New York Times were about Russia — its role in Syria, its latest high-profile hack and its secret influence campaigns in Europe.
“Putin is still recovering from belittling remarks” that Obama made when he described the country as a regional power, said Angela Stent, national intelligence officer for Russia from 2004 to 2006. “It’s a way of reasserting Russia. Whatever the truth, Russia is back.”
U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials have increased monitoring of what they see as a broader Russian covert influence campaign that could include tampering with the upcoming presidential election.
According to a senior U.S. intelligence official, Russia is using the playbook it has used in Europe to try to destabilize public trust in government, weaken support for the NATO military alliance and sway voters to candidates more amenable to Putin’s views and goals.
The campaign involves investing in Kremlin-controlled media such as RT and Sputnik, planting disinformation and other covert activities.
“Moscow appears to be looking to demonstrate its importance as a dominant regional player and world leader, but faces limitations in its capacity, given a stagnant economy, demographic decline and often ham-fisted foreign policy approaches,” noted the intelligence official. “Russia also seeks to counter U.S. leadership and influence in the international system.”
For more than a decade, Moscow has accused Washington of meddling in its sovereign affairs, alleging that the State Department sponsors political dissent while the CIA orchestrates coups d’état in the Kremlin’s sphere of influence.
The “color revolutions” — pro-democracy street protests that toppled governments from 2003 to 2005 in several former Soviet republics, including Ukraine — marked a turning point in relations between Russia and the United States. After Russia’s disputed 2011 parliamentary elections sparked demonstrations, Putin claimed that then-
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had “sent a signal” to protesters by declaring the elections “neither free nor fair.”
Russian military planners began treating color revolutions as a new approach to warfare and power projection. In 2014, when protesters toppled Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych amid a broader debate about whether Ukraine’s future lay with Russia or the West, Putin claimed he had intelligence that the demonstrators had been paid and trained by instructors abroad.
“What I believe is absolutely unacceptable is the resolution of internal political issues in the former U.S.S.R. republics, through color revolutions, through coups d’état, through unconstitutional removal of power,” Putin said on the “60 Minutes” news program in September 2015. “That is totally unacceptable.”
Experts who have worked in Russia said the security services’ budgets for influence and cyber-operations are ample and their operational skills, so active during the Soviet era, have only been sharpened since.
U.S. intelligence agencies, which have been overwhelmingly focused on countering terrorism abroad and at home, are now expanding spying operations against Russia on a greater scale than at any time since the end of the Cold War, U.S. officials told The Washington Post this week.
Russia has smarted over the Obama administration’s refusal to sign a formal treaty banning the use of attacks in cyberspace, especially after it was revealed that the United States and Israel had developed a malicious cyberweapon, Stuxnet, to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program.
Moscow and Washington disagree over the definition of cybersecurity. The United States wants the agreement to cover only computers and networks, the technology of cybersecurity. Russia wants it to include the content that moves on the Internet, which Washington interprets as condoning censorship.
The United States signed a cybersecurity agreement last year with China.
“It’s an emotional story of Russia not being treated like a superpower and, for many of them, it’s a personal story,” said Andrey Soldatov, an expert on Russian Internet surveillance and the country’s security services.
Soldatov said the recent anti-Russia rhetoric “is quite sad, to be honest. . . . Before, only Russians spoke about interference from outside countries during elections. And now we see the use of exactly the same words from the Americans. It gives a trump card to the Russians. . . . They can say, ‘Well, you started it, and we’re just defending ourselves.’ ”
Far from worrying about retaliation, Russia’s leadership is probably enjoying the attention, said Gleb Pavlovsky, Putin’s former political strategist and now an independent political consultant out of favor with the Kremlin.
“The kinds of statements from the United States about Russian hackers make the Kremlin happy,” he said. “They show the Kremlin is capable of affecting the U.S. elections. All that’s left is for Russia to affect the stock market in New York and everything will be perfect.”
Priest reported from Washington.