By Jacob L. Shapiro
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden went on NBC’s “Meet the Press” yesterday and said the U.S. was sending a message to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Biden’s words come a little over a week after the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Election Security released a joint statement that said the United States was “confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations.” The statement also said that the hacks must have been ordered from Russia’s “senior-most” officials and were “intended to interfere with the US election process.”
The NBC interviewer likened it to the U.S. throwing a “high hard one.” It’s October in the United States, and for our non-American readers or those who are not sports enthusiasts, that means it’s the season for baseball metaphors. When a batter is standing too close to home plate, the pitcher might throw the ball – a “high hard one” – toward their chin to make them back off. If he’s doing it right, the pitcher won’t actually hit the opponent with the ball. Then one of three things can happen. The batter can back off the plate and the game continues. The batter can resume exactly what he was doing before and the game continues. Or the batter can resume exactly what he was doing before and the pitcher can follow up the warning shot by actually hitting the batter, resulting in a brawl on the field.
The second scenario is what we’re dealing with here. The first thing to note in Biden’s comment is that it isn’t even really a threat, though Biden certainly puffed himself up and made the comment seem bigger than it actually was. From his inability to control his grin before he even answered the question to his tough guy explanation that the message will be sent “at the time of our choosing and under circumstances that have the greatest impact,” Biden must have known he was going to elicit a panicked response from the media. But all Biden really did was send a message about a future message the U.S. is going to send to Putin at an inopportune moment that no one but Putin will ever know about. For all we know, it’ll be a really strongly worded email.
All of which begs the question – what can the U.S. do to Russia to send this message? The answer to that question is relatively little right now. President Barack Obama and Biden only have a few more months left in office, and they aren’t about to challenge Russia in a meaningful way on the eve of a U.S. election. Though the U.S. publicly touts its disgust of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, it isn’t about to challenge the Russians in Syria over Assad. Ukraine is at best (for the U.S.) a stalemate right now. It’s a far more important issue to Russia than it is to the United States, and while the U.S. isn’t about to back off, it’s also not about to up the ante. On Russia’s periphery, the two sides are dancing around each other, with various hyped up reports of drills and military readiness, but that’s more smoke and mirrors.
Even if there were some part of the world where the U.S. could somehow deliver a smarting blow to Russia, Putin still has every reason to call a U.S. bluff. This is the same administration that in the summer of 2013 famously made the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons a redline that would precipitate U.S. military action – and then promptly ignored its redline as soon as chemical weapons were used. One traditional American approach to intimidating a rival has been to speak softly and carry a big stick. The Obama administration’s take on this has often been to speak very loudly and to carry no stick. It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that that’s exactly what Biden was doing on NBC.
The U.S. assertion that the Russian government has been purposefully hacking the offices of the Democratic Party and even perhaps local voting systems with the intent of manipulating the U.S. election is striking, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone. Russia is certainly not the only country that tries to get information through various means to shape perceptions and reality. This has been going on for a very long time. The only real change is that the political world’s reliance on email means countries with skilled and determined hackers can get a lot more information than they could before and beam it out much more widely. The tactics have begun to catch up with the technology.
It is more interesting that the U.S. chose to call out the Russians for the hacks publicly and then follow up with Biden’s controversial interview. Maybe the U.S. hopes that by insisting the Russians are doing this, it could undermine Russia’s position in Europe by demonstrating its meddlesome nature. In most government responses to questions on this topic, U.S. representatives never fail to point out that Russia does this in Europe and Central Asia too. Also, such a public accusation could have a significant domestic political impact, especially since Donald Trump continues to be hurt by his previous comments about Putin. Whatever the case, the Russians are already turning this back around, with Putin claiming that Biden inadvertently admitted to the world that the U.S. engages in precisely the types of political cyberattacks it’s accusing Moscow of.
The practical consequences of this war of words will not amount to much. It’s hard to see much in the way of serious geopolitical consequences for the Russians, even if they are guilty of these hacks. It certainly doesn’t change the imperatives or conditions of the various areas in which the Russians and Americans don’t see eye to eye. This will all just become more grist for Russia’s public relations mill. The Russians use moments such as these to make the U.S. seem simultaneously paranoid and overbearing, which helps them justify some of their more aggressive moves. They also don’t fail to point out that Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton is at the center of it all – it’s very rich for the U.S. to accuse Russia of hacking when 33,000 of the Democratic frontrunner’s emails from her time as secretary of state are permanently unaccounted for.
Then you have Trump, whose campaign is on the ropes, and who has responded by touring the country and insisting to his passionate followers that the system is rigged. Here’s just one brief selection of some of Trump’s remarks from over the weekend: “Remember this, it’s a rigged election because you have phony people coming up with phony allegations with no witnesses whatsoever…The election is being rigged by corrupt media pushing completely false allegations and outright lies in an effort to elect her [Clinton] president.” The elites of the Republican Party have distanced themselves from this line, and so has Trump’s running mate. The interesting part there is that technically both the Democrats and Republicans are now trading conspiracies of attempted manipulation of election results. Trump thinks it’s the system. The Democrats think it’s the Russians. Both are trying to use it to their political benefit.
So the Obama administration is sending a very strong message to Russia through Biden that it is going to be sending a very strong message. Putin is sitting back and watching the show, chiding the U.S. for its “hysteria.” It makes you wonder who is sending what message to whom.