Why is Russia so interested in US politics?

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Story highlights

  • Edward Lucas: Russia has gone from being a regional nuisance to a US global adversary
  • Russia exploits Internet and globalized media to take fight to heart of the West, he says

Edward Lucas is a senior editor at The Economist, where he was the Moscow bureau chief from 1998 to 2002. He has covered Central and Eastern Europe for more than 20 years. The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author.

(CNN)Mitt Romney was right. In 2012, the then-Republican presidential contender attracted derision by dubbing Russia America's "No. 1 geopolitical foe." Russia has indeed gone from being a regional nuisance to a global adversary of the United States. And right now it looks as though it is winning.

True, the Putin regime has failed to modernize or diversify the economy. The political system is a farce piled on a tragedy -- as this weekend's sham parliamentary elections will demonstrate. Russia is a pipsqueak when it comes to gross domestic product, innovation or culture. (Donald Trump: Please call your fact checkers.) But no other country poses such a threat.
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    We used to think Russia was no military menace. Then came the war with Georgia in 2008. Then we said it could attack only small countries. It invaded Ukraine in 2014. Then we said it could not project military power beyond its borders. In 2015, it stormed back to the Middle East, checkmating the West in Syria by keeping the Assad regime in power and pulverizing the opposition.
    Worse, Russia has exploited the borderless Internet and globalized media to take the fight to the heart of the West. The most notable target is the American presidential contest. Only two years ago the suggestion that the FBI and CIA would be investigating Russian intelligence operations aimed at disrupting the world's most important election would have seemed like the delusions of a failed Hollywood scriptwriter.
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    Now, according to The Washington Post, such an investigation is indeed underway. Attributing cyberattacks is hard. But all the signs point to Russian state involvement in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee's computer network and of Colin Powell's emails.
    The release of such information plays into a big weakness in our media and politics: prurient excitement about other people's private communications. It should be no surprise that Democratic Party chiefs preferred Hillary Clinton to her left-field challenger, Bernie Sanders -- which the DNC hack "revealed." Powell thinks that Clinton is greedy. Wow. Most Americans think that, too.
    Yet revealing these "secrets" creates a frisson of excitement. It feeds into many Americans' feeling that the political elite is hypocritical. And it is excellent news for Donald Trump, the candidate who portrays himself as an outsider.
    These attacks cannot be traced definitely back to the Russian government, but similar games have been played elsewhere -- and to the Kremlin's advantage. The selective release of a bugged conversation between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the American ambassador during her visit to the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, in 2014 made the United States look meddling and arrogant.
    Emails from Gen. Philip Breedlove, then NATO's top military commander, showed he was "plotting" -- to use the term favored by the Intercept website -- to "escalate military tensions" in Europe. In fact he was doing what senior generals do: bouncing ideas off friends and allies, and working out how to make his case best to the White House.
    Another series of leaks later that year involved senior Polish officials, whose bugged restaurant conversations showed them to be blunt and foulmouthed in private, leading to resignations and ultimately the government's election defeat.
    But the combination of hacking and leaking has proved effective on other fronts, too. Russia was furious when the World Anti-Doping Agency exposed a huge state-sponsored effort to give Russian athletes an unfair advantage. Now the agency's computers have been breached, and private medical data about athletes have been published. The aim is to show that the agency was selective: Western athletes take banned substances, too, on flimsy-sounding medical grounds.
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    These charges may be quite baseless or exaggerated, but the damage is done. The aim of that operation was probably to bolster the Kremlin's standing at home, underlining the Putin regime's overall propaganda narrative: that the West is hypocritical and hostile.
    Russia, in short, is a formidable adversary. It can do what the West can't: accept economic pain (brushing off sanctions), use force (as in Syria) and ruthlessly exploit the weaknesses of a free society -- our careless ways with computers and our gullibility about the sources of information we read online.
    Few stop to ask who is behind DCLeaks, for example, the mysterious "whistleblowing" site that acts as such a convenient repository for stolen material? Questions also surround WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange. When did these campaigners for transparency ever publish material that embarrasses the Kremlin?
    The paradox here is that the West is falling victim to just the tactics that its critics mistakenly ascribe to it. Edward Snowden says that his leak of National Security Agency documents was motivated by the fear of an Orwellian nightmare in which the authorities would use digital means to control society and eliminate opposition
    As our democracy and our alliances crumble, that nightmare is indeed taking shape before our eyes.