MOSCOW ― To close out 2016, U.S. President Barack Obama authorized several actions in response to the Russian government’s aggressive harassment of U.S. officials and cyber operations aimed at the recent American presidential election, including expelling Russian diplomats and closing Russian government–owned compounds. These steps, described by some analysts as the biggest retaliation since the Cold War, drew a variety of reactions in Russia. While a number of Russian commentators on social networks habitually blamed Obama’s administration for weakness of response and animosity against Russia, the Kremlin chose a different approach. In an unusual act of moderation, Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to postpone retaliation in the hope that U.S.-Russia relations will improve under the new Trump administration.
Normally more combative, pro-Kremlin media adjusted the denial approach they previously adopted in response to hacking accusations to still follow their traditional propaganda pattern: first, deny the accusations; second, distort the reality by multiplying alternative theories. While continuing to refute any possibility of Russian engagement in the hacking attacks, Russian officials and pro-Kremlin media have responded to allegations by proliferating alternative possibilities of the hackers’ origin, indirectly accusing the White House and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, among others, of tampering with the process.
As Russia rang in the new year, most commentators here reacted to U.S. accusations and sanctions with what has already become a traditional response to similar developments ― derision and mockery of the Obama administration’s actions. Most bloggers and pundits ridiculed the alleged “weakness” of the U.S. response, suggesting that the expulsion of the Russian diplomats and the closing of their dachas (a term to describe Russia’s summer residential cottage) had little to do with preventing future cyberattacks, and looked like a “hysterical” and a “very pitiful step” by the outgoing American president.
The pro-Kremlin nationalist publicist Egor Kholmogorov, for example, suggested that, “as a revenge for everything, Obama took our ambassador’s cottage...” Pro-Kremlin analyst Sergey Markov described the sanctions as, “an indecent decision” and “just a purposeful dirty trick for diplomats, whose families will no longer enjoy a summer residence and are expelled from the country when all the tickets are sold out straight. One can only guess, if as his next step Obama will order his secret services to shit in front of the Russian Embassy and Consulate General. Or dump garbage in front of them.” Other Kremlin-aligned experts also hinted at the possibility of escalation in Ukraine prior to Obama leaving office. Yet the majority of them believe that Obama hardly has any effective means left to seriously hurt Russia, and if any of those are to be administered, they will likely be cancelled by Trump.
“Most commentators here reacted to U.S. accusations and sanctions with what has already become a traditional response to similar developments ― derision and mockery of the Obama administration’s actions.”
Only a few Russian liberal analysts suggested that the sanctions may be a wise step to counter the country’s spying activity in the United States. Since both the pro-West and pro-Kremlin Russian audiences tend to doubt that the Russian hack attacks took place at all, Obama’s acts of retaliation were perceived as ungrounded and hostile. Even liberal pro-Western analysts viewed the new sanctions as a spiteful reaction to the electoral defeat of the Democrats. Some went as far as to suggest that we saw, “a different Obama ― a petty, ugly Obama as president of a great country, behaving like some kind of mix between Maduro and some Mongol potentates, trying to settle personal scores.” Similar aggressive and denigrating reactions filled social networks (see this link to a news post about Obama sanctions at one of the pro-Kremlin websites that accumulates a number of similar hostile and aggressive anti-U.S. comments from the Russian audience), where many commentators said that the new sanctions, “were only degrading to Obama and his own American people.” Others posted on social media that it was unwise for Obama to rock the situation, yet said they hope that the odds of the lifting of sanctions under the new Trump presidency are still high.
In an unusual contrast to the reaction of Russian society, the response from Russia’s bureaucrats and Kremlin-controlled media was more moderated. While continuously denying any Russian engagement in the cyberattacks, the Kremlin decided to keep prospects of improving relations with the upcoming Trump’s administration. On past occasions such as these, the Kremlin retaliated against Western actions (aka the ban on the adoption of the Russian orphans as a response to Magnitsky Act, or the introduction of a food ban in response to the European sanctions). And initially Russia’s reaction followed that forceful pattern. After Obama announced sanctions, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a relatively harsh statement threatening to retaliate against the United States by expelling the employees of the U.S. embassy and consulate general. The MFA spokesman Maria Zakharova called the Obama administration, “a group of foreign policy losers, embittered and short-sighted” who “don’t lose hope to do something bad for relations with Russia they previously destroyed.” Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, described the U.S. actions as “clumsy steps” and, “elephant behavior in a China shop.” Konstantin Kosachev, the head of Russia’s Federation Council Committee on Foreign Affairs, labeled the move as “abrupt and destructive steps” and, “not even the agony of the lame ducks, but of political cadavres.”
Yet shortly thereafter Putin miraculously chose to withhold, announcing that no retaliatory expulsions of diplomats or closing of Russia-based compounds would take place for now. As it was allegedly reported, in an unusual act of kindness, Putin even went as far as to invite the children of American diplomats to the Christmas tree in the Kremlin. Such a peaceful step by the Russian president was glorified by many (both pro-Kremlin and liberal) observers in Russia, who emphasized the role reversal due to “absolutely inadequate behavior of Obama and the brilliant, adequate Putin’s behavior,” as well as President-elect Donald Trump himself.
In reality, however, the lack of response stressed Moscow’s high expectations and confidence in the U.S.-Russia relations “reset” under the upcoming Trump’s presidency. The majority of pro-Kremlin commentators in Russia currently believe that the new U.S. administration will be able to “correct Obama’s dirty tricks” and improve the relations with Russia. Hence, a wiser response from the Kremlin perspective is to not retaliate against Obama’s sanctions and allow Moscow more flexibility in communicating with Trump’s new administration.
“A wiser response from the Kremlin perspective is to not retaliate against Obama’s sanctions and allow Moscow more flexibility in communicating with Trump’s new administration.”
So what should observers make of these various reactions from Russia? Using the available research on the country’s disinformation campaign, it is possible to highlight common techniques Moscow uses in response to international finger-pointing. In my research I particularly stress a two-step Kremlin approach in communicating the uncomfortable reality to the domestic audience (be it a downing of MH17 by the Russian-controlled separatists or accusations of Russia’s cyberattacks). The first step (dismiss) is silence and denial. Following the crash of MH17, most media worldwide covered the issue nonstop, but not so much in Russia where MH17 was a backstory. Similarly, the McLaren report on Russia’s Olympic fraud was presented by the Russian media as baseless and empty. Likewise, in the case of the DNC leaks and Russian cyberattacks accusations, the issues were covered by the Russian state-controlled media only somewhat intermittently and irregularly, while the very possibility of Russia’s engagement in the cyberattacks has been denied and consistently ridiculed.
The second step (distort and distract) consists in media and politicians offering to the domestic audience alternative theories of the plane crash or origins of the hackers, no matter how absurd. The expectation is that the public faced with diversity of explanations will eventually get tired of figuring out the truth and give up on it altogether. In the case of MH17, the Russian media implied that Ukrainian army missiles or a Ukrainian fighter jet might have downed the plane, and that the Ukrainian army might have mistaken it for Putin’s presidential jet. It is precisely the same plot that the Russian media is now following with regards to the cyberattacks coverage. Several news broadcasts and state commentators now provide alternative theories of possible actors behind the cyberattacks.
MFA spokesman Maria Zakharova, for example, recently suggested that the “lies about Russian hackers” were “launched by [the] Obama administration six months ago, in an attempt to assist the right candidate.” Another popular theory involves references to Craig Murray, former British ambassador to Uzbekistan and a close associate of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The pro-Kremlin outlets reference Murray’s statement that he received the leaks directly from a clandestine sources in America and not from the Russian hacks. Yet perhaps the most original theory is even more conspiratorial and based upon the Georgia secretary of state’s claim that a U.S. Department of Homeland Security associated IP address attempted unsuccessfully to breach the firewall of Georgia’s computer systems. Although this information was later covered as likely false in the United States, the Russian pro-Kremlin media still hint that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security might have been behind the cyberattacks and placing the blame on Russia to cover its tracks. Taking the unverified reports that favor the Russian viewpoint, even conspiratorial ones, and presenting them as truth has become a common Russian propaganda approach. For example, in 2016 both Russian media and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov continued to chastise Germany over an alleged rape of a 13-year-old girl by migrants, even after the German officials proved the claim false.
The practice of denial and distortion of reality in the case of the Russian cyberattacks is then nothing new and constitutes the usual Kremlin propaganda toolkit for the covering of unpleasant news. If anything, this common self-defense technique should make observers more skeptical about the Kremlin side of the story, because it follows a pre-planned narrative. It would also be interesting to see whether similar arguments against the possibility of the Russian hacks will be used as well by the U.S. president-elect. Donald Trump has so far denied the possibility of Russia’s engagement in the cyberattacks against the United States and largely sided with Russia’s explanations, even seemingly choosing Julian Assange’s view over U.S. intel.
“MFA spokesman Maria Zakharova suggested that the 'lies about Russian hackers' were 'launched by [the] Obama administration six months ago, in an attempt to assist the right candidate.'”
Moreover, as pointed out by a Russian expert and journalist Jill Dougherty, Trump’s own approach to the cyberattacks issue is quite similar to Russia’s:
“If you are beginning to see a pattern in Trump’s approach to intelligence, you probably are right. Confusion can be very useful. Just overwhelm people with random thoughts, theories, rants, etc and they soon tire of trying to figure it all out. They come to the conclusion that something is amiss. Sowing seeds of doubt can be an aim in and of itself.”
Both Trump and Russia seem to agree on this. Whether Trump will continue following this line by adopting Russia’s narrative and blaming U.S. organizations or become a “big fan” of the U.S. intelligence theory, may shed some light on his relationship to the Kremlin.