WASHINGTON ― Russia bears no responsibility for email leaks affecting the U.S. presidential race, the Russian ambassador to the U.S. told an audience here Tuesday.
“We do not interfere into the internal affairs of the United States, neither by my statements nor by electronic or other means,” Ambassador Sergey Kislyak said at an event at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
The Obama administration officially accused Russia of orchestrating hacking efforts to interfere with the election process on Friday. President Barack Obama is weighing potential responses, said White House press secretary Josh Earnest on Tuesday.
That could mean fresh economic sanctions against Russia, which is already dealing with U.S. and European sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Three other governments that have waged cyber offensives against the U.S. ― Iran, North Korea and China ― are already subject to U.S. deterrents.
Russian government-linked hackers have been regularly targeting Democrats and Republicans alike for over a year, NBC News reported. But all the hacked materials made public so far through sites like Russia-friendly WikiLeaks and upstart DCLeaks.com have been embarrassing to the Democratic Party and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
Meanwhile, her GOP rival, Donald Trump, has publicly praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, misrepresented Putin’s aggressive actions in Syria and Ukraine, and surrounded his own campaign with advisers linked to Russia government-linked businesses. Clinton and her allies have accused Putin of trying to ensure that Trump will win.
Ambassador Kislyak declined on Tuesday to answer questions about what a Clinton or Trump victory would mean for Russia, saying only that he was unhappy with the way his country was being discussed in the context of the election.
But the perception of favor is widespread, as a Washington Post editorial calling Trump “Putin’s Puppet” showed on Monday. And the Republican nominee has done little to directly combat it. By arguing at Sunday night’s presidential debate that he doesn’t even know if hacking has occurred, despite the fact that he has been briefed on the matter, Trump has helped keep the story alive.
The Russians have played their part in advancing that perception, too ― by, for instance, asking a United Nations human rights official to apologize for his condemnations of hateful rhetoric by Trump and various far-right European politicians who are also friendly with Putin.
“Every day, Putin’s site gets attacked by tens of thousands of hackers. ... It’s not as though we accuse the White House or Langley of doing it each time it happens.”
Russia’s specific response to the hacking accusations has matched its general rhetorical stance: The U.S. is saber-rattling and inviting Russian aggression, while Russia only seeks peace.
“Every day, Putin’s site gets attacked by tens of thousands of hackers. Many of these attacks can be traced to U.S. territory. It’s not as though we accuse the White House or Langley of doing it each time it happens,” Putin’s spokesman said last week, using a nickname for CIA headquarters.
This telling of the story neatly excludes a couple of facts.
State-dominated media in Russia frequently do accuse the U.S. of involving itself in Russian affairs, and Putin’s allies in the Russian parliament have demonized foreign countries and nonprofit organizations linked to them through new legislation targeting “foreign agents” ― a label increasingly used against anyone criticizing the Russian government.
One of Russia’s top complaints, the expansion of NATO into former Soviet countries, occurred because Russia’s neighbors sought NATO support ― not because of a CIA plot. A critical element of Putin’s story about NATO is the claim that the West had promised not to expand the alliance ― an allegation that former Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev and various officials have said is untrue.
Support for Russia’s narrative relies heavily on global distrust of the U.S. and its motives. It’s this kind of suspicion that Putin played on when he went before the United Nations last year and told the West, “Do you realize now what you have done?”
Putin seeks to put the blame for fueling terror on the U.S. and to exploit broader Western regret over the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent growth of the Islamic State, as well as unhappiness with past U.S. policies like aiding militants in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Meanwhile, he ignores Russia’s own role in fomenting extremism by sending radicalized individuals to Syria, where they can aid the Islamic State and other groups, and helping to violently suppress Muslim-majority populations in Syria, Chechnya and elsewhere. Kislyak denied Tuesday that Russia has targeted hospitals in its campaign to support Syrian tyrant Bashar Assad, saying any medical facilities that were attacked must not have been marked as hospitals. Doctors Without Borders has strongly disputed that portrayal.
All of this hardly suggests that Russia wants to see good faith in U.S.-Russian relations.
Last week, the Russian embassy in Washington publicly claimed that the U.S. might provide air support to radical Islamists in Syria.
The ambassador didn’t mention the tweet on Tuesday.