Back in 2010, a series of sex tapes started hitting the internet in Russia. Several members of Russia’s anti-Putin intelligentsia were caught in various states of undress with a woman named Katya, and sometimes with each other, and sometimes with cocaine, and sometimes without. The show was repeated again this spring: When a former prime minister who is now a prominent figure in Russia’s embattled opposition was caught in bed with another activist, the whole thing leaked for the world to see.
The tapes landed with a thud — sexual lasciviousness isn’t exactly a shocker in Russia — but left the subjects pretty embarrassed. “Imagine knowing that all those people, everyone you know, have seen this tape,” one of the men, prominent writer Victor Shenderovich, told journalist Julia Ioffe at the time.
This is what the Kremlin excels at — call it kompromat, or black PR, or information warfare. (The terms in Russian are many! It’s kind of like the “Inuit have dozens of words for snow” thing, but with the added bonus of being true.)
The DNC hack appears to be just the latest example — but the boldest Russia has tried in some time, if not ever.
The sex tape campaign hit pretty low — Putin has worked hard to marginalize any opposition to him and the people it targeted were largely unknown to those outside of the urban web-savvy elite. Two years ago, the Kremlin aimed higher — leaking a phone call that featured Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland saying “Fuck the EU” in the midst of hand-wringing over the future of Ukraine. Did the leak turn the tides of the war there and forever damage the transatlantic relationship? No. Did it work to further chip away at goodwill in Europe towards the Obama administration? Without a doubt.
Now comes the hack of the DNC. I could spend the next few paragraphs detailing all the evidence pointing to Russia’s involvement — the investigation by security firm Crowdstrike, first revealed by the Washington Post; the Russian trails found in the hacker who claimed, the day following the story, to have actually carried out the attack; the fact that the personal email of a DNC staffer investigating Trump’s pro-Kremlin aide Paul Manafort was targeted; and even the fact that the emails were leaked via Wikileaks, whose founder had a TV show on Russian state television, criticized the Panama Papers for including Putin in their investigation, and took credit for delivering Ed Snowden to the Kremlin’s doorstep. But that’s all been done a million times over. The Russian thing to do would be to ask, Komu eto vygodno?, which means, "Who does this benefit?" and the answer would probably be the same.
Yes, Putin wants Trump in power — wouldn’t you? An anti-internationalist who questions the use of NATO and wants to withdraw from the WTO while pushing for “deals” without thinking about pesky things like “rights” and “freedom.”
But why this hack, and why now?
Because there’s nothing Moscow plays better in than shame — degrading the worth of things by chipping away at them in ways that make the world an uglier place.
In fact, the hack, published on Wikileaks — coincidentally, of course! — on the eve of the launch of the convention in Philadelphia probably achieved more than Russia could have ever dreamed — the resignation of chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, full domination of the news cycle, an FBI investigation. The Russians, in fact, seemed stunned. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, is known among reporters to always provide a quick turn of phrase even when he has nothing to say. This morning, he refused to comment on allegations of Russian involvement in the hack. State TV is hardly covering it at all.
Maybe the Russians got in over their heads with this one.
The content of the hacked emails — namely, party favoritism of Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders — is real and indeed embarrassing, but has been overtaken by what appears to be Russia’s attempted meddling in the US election. Now Russia is the story, and that may not have been part of the plan. But that’s what happens when you jump into an environment you don’t entirely control, with a media you don’t entirely control, which is why Russia wants Trump, who wants to control the media. You see where this is going?
One line keeps running through my head throughout this whole mess — and it applies to Bernie supporters as much as it applies to those who have been warning for years of Russia’s destructive policies both at home and abroad: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.
Miriam Elder is the world editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Her secure PGP fingerprint is 5B5F EC17 C20B C11F 226D 3EBE 6205 F92F AC14 DCB1
Contact Miriam Elder at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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