Hysteria about Russian hacking does not help to solve the root cause of the problem, says Evgeny Pudovkin.
Western democracy is a sham. That isn’t because, as late Ralph Miliband asserted, political parties have become puppets of business elites. And nor is it because of the ‘corrupt mainstream media’, despite what some on the political fringes might have you believe. In fact, the main threat doesn’t even reside within Western countries themselves, but instead stems from without. Namely, the Russian President Vladimir Putin has hijacked Western elections, his corrupt tentacles wrapped tightly around the neck of the free world.
At least, that is the conclusion you might draw from various leading journalists and politicians these days. Tune in to Hillary Clinton – or read a few liberal publications – and it might seem there is no bounds to Putin’s almost pantomime nefariousness. He dominates over Donald Trump, the US president. And when not issuing instructions to the Donald, the Russian president is apparently seeking ever new elaborate ways to undermine the European Union.
On a more serious note, foreign meddling in Western elections is indeed unacceptable and worrying. And sure, steps have to be taken to make liberal governments less susceptible to threats emanating from cyberattacks. Whether current hysteria helps achieve this is unclear, though. Too much paranoia about Russian meddling – combined with this exogenous threat with domestic ‘populism’ – makes for the wrong approach to countering the perceived Russian threat. There are three main reasons why this is so.
First, mixing the issue of Russian meddling in the elections with other pressing issues for partisan purposes obscures public debate. This may have a damaging effect.
It has become customary to refer to anything that contradicts the status-quo as either ‘populist’ or something that Putin would have approved of. Yet, there are more reasons for public dissatisfaction other than Putin’s intrigues. A recent report by Chatham House clearly demonstrates the extent to which voters in Western Europe are dissatisfied with present scale and composition of immigration. The issue with high unemployment in southern Eurozone countries is hardly the Kremlin’s fault either. Mixing salient, if uncomfortable, problems with foreign meddling makes liberal democracies weaker, not stronger.
That is not to say one should express connivance when it comes to real collusions with foreign entities. If the US investigations into Russia’s influence do indeed yield evidence of cooperation between Trump’s team and Moscow, this must have tough consequences. But that is a different story from simply labeling every conservative ideologue as “Putin’s friend”.
Secondly, exaggerating the scale of the Russian threat is counterproductive. For the Kremlin, it may serve as a red flag, a proof that it is landing blows to the West exactly where it hurts. If Moscow’s meddling is designed to sow discord within democracies, it would be strange to grant it the prominence so easily. In reality, Russian attacks – assuming they took place at all – have entailed very limited ramifications.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign was shambolic enough even without Moscow’s assistance. Emmanuel Macron carried the victory without difficulties, despite the alleged attempts by the Kremlin to sabotage his candidature. As regards Russia Today and Sputnik, they may indeed rank favourably among hardcore leftists and reactionary right-wingers. They do not, however, carry much swing in the Western debate.
Rather, the West should take adequate measures to anticipate future threats. This requires two things: making government agencies more robust, while also adopting a stricter set of precautions when dealing with sensitive information.
Speaking of concrete measures, Western governments should consider concentrating responsibilities for protecting democratic institutions within one entity. That is one of the main recommendations presented in the report by the think tank ‘European Values’. Such an arrangement already exists in Sweden. There, the functions of protecting electoral mechanisms are entrusted to a special unit within the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency. Apart from that, security forces should hold more consultations with politicians on how to protect crucial data. For example, GCHQ, the UK intelligence agency, has started working more closely with MPs to make sure sensitive data is safe.
Finally, approaching the issue of hacking as something mind-bendingly unprecedented is the wrong attitude. To find long-term solutions to the problem, the West needs to adopt a more stoic perspective. “[Cyber-attacks have] come from several sources, including, for example, China”, noted Angela Stent, Director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian & East European Studies at Georgetown University. “Threats to security emanating from hackers are here to stay and we need to look at this strategically and find sustainable answers to that problem. Eventually we may require some sort of agreement regarding cyber activity between Russia and the US”.
The US, for instance, already has a cyber agreement in place with China that lays down ground rules concerning bilateral relations in this sphere. The pact is an important first step and makes further dialogue between Beijing and Washington easier. As Stent points out, Russia and the US had once opened talks on such an agreement in 2013, but those broke down soon after events in Crimea.
The dialogue concerning norms in cyberspace should be renewed and involve more participants, including the European states. One could justifiably argue that, given the current political climate, pursuing such a comprehensive agreement may be too ambitious. This being true, the effort should not be spared. At the very least Russia and the West can try drawing red lines to prevent the loss of life and infrastructure damage because of hacks. Another useful arrangement would be setting up a hotline for crisis management.