Russia, bounties, and the U.S. elections

Amid allegations of Russian bounties on U.S. soldiers and of hackers trying to steal vaccine research, Penn Today spoke to two experts to get their take on the situation and how the developments play into the U.S. presidential election cycle.

The Russian flag cracked diagonally overlaps with the US flag behind it
Russia has been making headlines in the U.S. this election cycle, but it's not the meddling narrative of 2016.

American intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia meddled in the 2016 U.S. elections, and Russia is coming up again in this election cycle but in very different context. Allegations of bounties on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and accusations that Russian hackers tried to steal coronavirus vaccine research from the U.S., the U.K. and Canada have overtaken any meddling narrative. Penn Today spoke with two experts on Russia, Penn’s Rudra Sil, professor of political science and School of Arts & Sciences director of the Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business, and Mitchell Orenstein, professor and chair of Russian and Eastern European Studies, to get their take on what Russia is up to.

Has there been evidence of Russian interference in the current election cycle?

Orenstein: I think that one of the major differences now is that in the 2016 cycle there was a lot of disinformation coming out of Russia. But now there's a lot of disinformation coming out of the White House, sort of replacing Russian disinformation. Why would Russia even need to bother? But it could be that they're just more clever now about how they disguise themselves and aren’t as obvious as they once were. 

People focus on the social media bit from 2016 because that was largely what the Mueller Report was about, but the span of things that Russians were involved with was much bigger. Russia hacked into state electoral servers, and we don't know to this day what they did on those servers, and we don't know what the likelihood is for it to happen again. Russia tried to influence the NRA by giving a lot of money. Are there other organizations that might get Russian money this time? Could they be, for instance, sponsoring PACs?

My sense is that there doesn’t seem like there's as much obvious Russian activity in this election, as there was at this point in 2016. 

One important point is that Trump is losing in the polls right now. He’s extremely far behind, and it's not clear what kind of tricks could happen that could get him up to par. The context to remember is that 2016 was a very, very close election, and this is shaping up not to be.

I'm sure the Russians are way more interested in having Trump be president than Biden, but if their own intelligence assessments suggest that Trump is not going to win that's going to influence how they behave. They don't necessarily want to want to get off to a bad start with Biden.

Sil: You're going to find Russians trolling on threads on Facebook and other social media sites and forming contacts. Some may be responding to directions from officials linked to the Russian government, but others may be hopping on to threads of their own accord. That latter process is very hard to control, but it’s also a ubiquitous aspect of politics in the 21st century. The Chinese, Indians, Iranians, Israelis, and all kinds of actors in Europe and the Middle East are engaged in this kind of activity on a regular basis. It’s more a question of identifying nationalities of actors and determining the scale, coordination, and motivation of their activities.

In terms of a preference for a certain outcome in 2020, I don’t think Russia knows which candidate would be in their best interest right now. While we like to imagine Russians wanting to ‘sow discord’ in the West, the reality is that a stable, predictable United States government has always been easier to negotiate with. The Trump administration has not been such a government.  

Many folks who thought a Trump-Russia collusion story would lead to an impeachment might be surprised to learn that Trump has personally sought to thwart Russia in at least two areas that matter a great deal to the Kremlin: the completion of the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline and the reaffirmation of nuclear arms, particularly the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. There’s little reason to think that Russia has a clear-cut preference for Trump in 2020. 

In 2016, Russians were also reacting to the fact that there was a sense of American meddling in their elections, dating back to 1996, when the U.S. officially sent advisors can help Boris Yeltsin get reelected. That was totally public, so public there were Time magazine articles about it and there was even a movie made about it starring Jeff Goldblum.

More problematic were the 2011 parliamentary and 2012 presidential elections in Russia when the outcome was pretty much clear and unsurprising, and yet there was a lot of effort from the U.S. to elevate opposition claims that there was fraud. And who was secretary of state during that time? It was Hillary Clinton, and it was her ambassador who showed up in Moscow and immediately sat down to meet with the opposition. 

These things were really slaps in the face, and Russia saw them as indications of a wider effort to delegitimize their government and perhaps sow the seeds for regime change. Thus, in 2016 it made sense to bet that any improvement in U.S.-Russia relations would face a more serious roadblock under a Hillary administration.

Why do you think the allegation of Moscow offering bounties to the Taliban for killing Americans is coming up at this time? 

Orenstein: I think it's coming up because people in the military and intelligence community were upset about it and were probably trying to put pressure on Trump to do something about it.

Of course, I don’t have access to intelligence briefings and can just read the news and academic papers, but I haven't read anything that’s told me one way or the other if this is true or not. However, there's a lot of people in the intelligence community who think it's true and clearly the Defense Department and other intelligence agencies took it seriously enough that they debated about it to change policy.

I’m not sure how much Russia really would need to pay the Taliban to kill U.S. soldiers; presumably that’s what they're doing anyway. In general, Russia doesn’t want the U.S. to succeed in Afghanistan. The country neighbors Russia, and they see that as a potential security threat from their defensive strategy point of view. 

You can think of a million reasons why Russia wants to make things difficult for us in Afghanistan. That's pretty much the core of their foreign policy towards us, to make everything as difficult as possible.

Sil:  I’ve been studying the Soviet Union or Russia for over three decades, so I try not get too trapped in the day-to-day developments and all the scary stories that come and go as part of a geopolitical game. You have to look at that game within the context of evolving global and historical forces in order to understand what’s happening today. It’s too easy to demonize Russia or the ‘KGB thug’ Putin and say ‘they're going after our troops. Why isn't our president protecting our boys?’ But that type of narrative typically says more about our own politics than about the dynamics of U.S.-Russian relations.

In fact, the Taliban bounty story already seems to be fading after the initial furor sparked by The New York Times article. But, if this was a truly serious story that we could be confident about, there would be high-level meetings behind closed doors to get confirmation of what happened and immediately plan a response, not an inflammatory article with claims that high-level officials in the CIA and NSA indicated that they decided not to take it seriously.

I'm no fan of Trump and am entirely open to the possibility that there may be Russians involved in some transaction with some units within the Taliban, and some of those Russians may have been attached to army intelligence. But there are so many possibilities for why Russian actors, with or without the blessing of the Kremlin, may want to have communications and transactions with elements within the Taliban. 

In terms of what happened, I can see Russians striking deals with particular groups that have been heavily involved in opium production and distribution, which has had a tremendously negative impact on Russia. One can also imagine rogue elements within Russian army cutting deals as part of the drug trade. These are far more plausible than a concerted effort by the Kremlin to extend the chaos in Afghanistan, especially given the possibility that this chaos could spill into Central Asian states bordering Russia and perhaps create tensions among Islamic communities within Russia itself. I think a stable Afghanistan benefits Russia more than a chaotic Afghanistan. 

As for the Taliban, which has been fighting U.S.-led foreign troops in Afghanistan for nearly two decades, there is hardly any need to be paid off to target American soldiers.

To me, this story seems to have had more to do with Trump than Russia. Its aim appears to be less to affirm problematic Russian actions than to create a new storyline that Trump likes to put Putin before American soldiers. Such a narrative plays well at a time when the elections are around the corner.

What do you make of the recent allegations that Russian state-sponsored hackers tried to steal U.S., the U.K., and Canadian coronavirus vaccine research?

Sil:  When it comes to Russia and China, I have learned to be patient and wait for the whole story to unfold before rushing to judgment on the basis of headlines and first impressions. 

Incidentally, there is already a new story circulating about a Chinese hacking effort aimed at U.S. vaccine researchers, as well as another story about Russia having already secretly produced a vaccine that has been administered to elites.  

So, one can shine the spotlight on ‘Russia’ for political mileage, but the reality is that cyber-espionage and hacking have become commonplace worldwide, with plenty of cases involving plenty of state and non-state actors based in Russia, China, India, Israel, Turkey, and, believe it or not, in the West as well.   

We also see that ‘cozy bear’ has resurfaced in this story; this is a hacking group thought to be linked to Russian Army intelligence. This unit was previously referred to in the context of reports on 2016 election meddling. Are we to believe that in this fast-moving world of cyber-warfare, a high-level unit in military intelligence did not change its electronic footprint and relied on spearfishing, a common and ordinary hacker's tool?

Everything is possible, but so far we have seen zero evidence of sabotage or other definitively malicious activities. 

As for ‘stealing’ the vaccine formula or data on clinical trials, the Russian body coordinating its own vaccine is already set for trials in August and has recently helped set up deals with pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca to mass produce the vaccine being tested at Oxford University. 

From a more philosophical perspective, it is not clear to me why there are any secrets in the first place regarding research on a COVID-19 vaccine amid a global pandemic that has already killed over 600,000 people.

Orenstein: It should not be surprising that Russian hackers have tried to steal U.S., U.K., and Canadian coronavirus vaccine research. Russia’s entire nuclear program was built on spying. The reason it is a major nuclear power today is that it stole and copied U.S. plans. A lot of Russia’s major successes have been achieved through spying and under a KGB president Russia has let the intelligence services run the country, appointing many of them to top positions. They continue to use the same methods, which work for them.