3Qs: US, Russia, and the 2016 presidential election

Russia this week played a leading role in the conversation about the U.S. presidential race. First, American intelligence agencies said they have “high confidence” that the Russian government was behind the hacking of Democratic National Committee emails. Then, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said to Russia “I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” referring to emails from Hillary Clinton’s personal server. A comment he later said was made in jest.

maness150We asked Ryan Maness, visiting fellow of security and resilience studies in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities and an expert in Russian foreign policy and international cyberconflict and security, to examine what this could mean for the relationship between the two power nations.

How much of an impact do you believe the results of the 2016 presidential election will have on the U.S.-Russia relationship moving forward?

In terms of Russia’s interests, a Donald Trump presidency would be preferable to Vladimir Putin. Trump’s comments that call for discord in the NATO alliance is music to Putin’s ears. His comments regarding the consideration of recognizing and legitimizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea is also something that Putin sees as favorable. Lastly, the gutting of the Republican Party’s stance on the Ukrainian conflict in the platform is particularly appealing to Putin.

A Hillary Clinton presidency would not be particularly in line with Russia’s interests. Clinton would not push for NATO discord; in fact NATO expansion may happen with her in the White House. Clinton is seen by many experts as more hawkish than Obama, so we might see the rifts between Russia and the U.S. grow. Clinton could increase pressure on Russia regarding its involvement in Ukraine and expand sanctions. She is also more of a hardliner on regime change in the Middle East, and the cooperation between the U.S. and Russia regarding ISIS could suffer as a result. Thus if I were Vladimir Putin, I would prefer Donald Trump in the White House.

Trump has spoken highly of Putin’s leadership. Has Putin ever repaid the compliments?

Trump recently thanked Vladimir Putin for calling him a “genius” and “brilliant” and made it part of the campaign rhetoric for a time. However, Putin’s quote got lost in translation, as he used the Russian word “яркий,” which more accurately translates as “flamboyant” or “colorful.” This can be taken either as a compliment or a takedown, and I think Putin is smart enough to not publically announce preferences to the U.S. candidates.

I must say that some pundits have suggested that Trump is an agent of Putin or vice versa, and that may be going too far. It’s true that Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort was a political advisor to Viktor Yanukovych, the ousted pro-Kremlin Ukrainian president, and Manafort has done many business dealings in Russia, but to say that’s some sort of causal link to collusion by the Trump and Putin camps is a suggestion too far.

Do you think we will see more instances of cybergovernmental sabotage like we did with the DNC email hack?

Hackers will hack vulnerable networks that contain information that provide competitive advantage. Russia has an impressive population of tech-savvy people both in and out of the government. I wouldn’t call the DNC hacks sabotage; the DNC is as much to blame for having insecure networks. It is no secret that many networks in the United States do not have the proper defense nor cyberhygiene practices. The hope is that we keep learning and become more resilient with our digitally connected society. I think it is imperative that Obama sends a stern message to Putin’s government to not continue to interfere in the 2016 election process, as well as give federal, state, and local election commissions the tools they need to protect digital voting machines and networks that count and store the American people’s votes on Nov. 8.