Vladimir Putin has confessed! At least, that’s what observers are reading in between the lines of what the Russian president told reporters this week. The Russian Federation’s chief executive did back off his previous adamant denials that Moscow had anything to do with hacks targeting another country’s infrastructure or political apparatus. It was a circumspect admission, but a big one nevertheless. Contrary to what the Russian president’s apologists would contend, what Putin admitted to is significant, and it will complicate the mission for the Kremlin’s more honest defenders.
At a press conference in St. Petersburg, Putin called the alleged hackers “artists” who select their targets on a whim. “We’re not doing this on the state level,” he declared. The Russian president did, however, confess that these “artists” are probably Russians. “If they are patriotically minded, they start making their contributions—which are right, from their point of view—to the fight against those who say bad things about Russia,” Putin averred. That’s no small allowance.
The Kremlin has a long history of creating artificial distance from the cyber operatives who execute attacks on sovereign targets operating on its behalf. For example, credit for the attack that crippled Estonia amid a row between Tallinn and Moscow over the removal of a Communist-era statue from the former Soviet Republic was claimed by “Nashi,” a pro-Putin youth group. Over the course of several weeks in 2007, a series of botnet strikes targeting Estonian economic, banking, political, and telecommunications centers paralyzed the Baltic country. Though forensic investigators never traced a “smoking gun” back to the Kremlin, this was hardly the work of a troupe of Komsomol scouts. “Intelligence officials and security researchers believe this outsourcing is done, in part, to preserve a measure of plausible deniability,” the New York Times reported.
In the years that followed the attack on Estonia, Georgia and Ukraine were both targeted with similar DDoS campaigns. In both cases, those attacks preceded kinetic military intervention. The United States is probably not about to endure a preemptive strike by Russian military forces. Yet the statement by Putin that these alleged freelancers had feelings of national pride that led them to target the Republican and Democratic Party’s computer networks does amount to a tacit admission of responsibility for the operation.
This admission also comports with the assessment of American intelligence agencies that Russian-led operations in 2016 were designed to harm Hillary Clinton’s electoral prospects and aid Donald Trump. Given then-candidate Trump’s antipathy toward NATO, his support for Putin, and his unbending deference to Moscow’s geopolitical objectives, this was not an unreasonable bet on Russia’s part.
Like the attack on Estonia, however, the Russian cyber attack on American political organizations ultimately had little lasting effect on the bilateral geopolitical dynamic. If Moscow’s objective was to secure closer ties with Donald Trump in the White House, the results of that operation are decidedly mixed. Trump might have entered office with the objective of pursuing a thaw in relations with Russia. If so, the conflicts that have arisen organically between two great powers with conflicting interests and antagonistic alliance structures have stalled that project.
The president routinely contradicted the intelligence community’s assessments regarding Russian involvement in attacks on Democratic targets and Russian military intelligence’s links to “hacktivist” outfits like “Guccifer 2.0” and WikiLeaks. As recently as April 30, Trump told CBS News that the hacks on American targets might have been attributable to China, despite intelligence assessments to the contrary. The revelation that Putin’s Russia is, in fact, the likely home to the hackers who targeted U.S. interests will only further embarrass Trump and make cooperation between Washington and Moscow more difficult.
Surely, if he had his way, Donald Trump would by now have pursued some of the rapprochement he initially promised to Russia. He might have relieved some of the sanctions imposed on Russian individuals in 2016, if not those put in place after the invasion of Ukraine. He might have repatriated the diplomatic facilities impounded by Russian authorities last December. He might have pursued closer military and intelligence cooperation or deferred more broadly to Russian proxies in theaters of anti-terror operations like Syria. But his hands were tied, not just by Russian antagonism, but by the political pressure on him resulting from the impression that Moscow helped facilitate his election victory.
The collective assessment of America’s intelligence community coupled with Putin’s concession that Russian operatives are responsible for the 2016 hacks have all but hung the conspiracy theorists out to dry. When the next Russian hack targets a U.S. ally, the weight of evidence against Moscow will prove difficult for all but the most detached from reality to shrug off. For Trump, as much as he might want to, it will be impossible.