Many analysts have seen China’s rapidly growing naval power as a sign that Australia needs to rethink its defence strategy in the Asia-Pacific region. Indeed, China has made remarkable strides in building up its defence capability. But it is worth noting that another military power is increasingly making its presence felt in our region – Russia.
The Coalition government does not give Russia much consideration at all in its current strategic planning. None of the recent Australian defence white papers, including the 2016 paper, considered Russia a significant military power. This perception stems from post-Cold War assumptions that Moscow has little political influence due to its reduced military power and limited economic engagement with our region.
Perhaps these assumptions were true in the 1990s or even ten years ago. However, current strategic realities are very different.
In the 2000s, Russia’s military began to gradually rebuild its combat potential. Under President Vladimir Putin’s leadership, the once cash-strapped military force received a massive financial boost and, more importantly, full political support.
After years of decline and neglect, Russian military power in the Asia-Pacific region is making a major leap forward. According to my research, Russian air force units deployed to East Asia received some 300 new upgraded aircraft from 2013-18. This is about equal to the total strength of the current Royal Australian Air Force.
By 2019, the Russian Eastern Military District (the military arm responsible for operations across the Pacific) is expected to receive more than 6,240 pieces of new and upgraded military equipment. This will include battle tanks, missiles and heavy artillery, aircraft, electronic warfare systems and more.
The Russian Pacific Fleet, the main means for Russia to exert power in the region, is expected to receive some 70 new warships by 2026. This will include 11 nuclear-powered and diesel-electric submarines, and 19 new surface warships – nearly the same number Australia is planning to add over the coming decade.
Russia is also increasingly showcasing this new-found military power in the region.
From late August to mid-September, the Russian military carried out the largest single show of its military power in 37 years, the Vostok 2018 war games. According to the Russian Ministry of Defence, the war games involved 297,000 personnel, more than 1,000 aircraft and 80 warships. A sequence of large-scale exercises was held across eastern Siberia, the Russian Far East and parts of the Arctic. The maritime component was staged in the Okhotsk and Bering seas on Russia’s Pacific coast.
Condemned by NATO as a rehearsal for “large scale conflict”, the war games signalled that Russia’s military is prepared for possible confrontation in the Asia-Pacific region. This reinforces what many analysts believe is Putin’s intention – to reassert Russia’s status as a global power.
Russia also continues to be a key provider of advanced military technology in the Asia-Pacific region. Last year, Russia supplied 52 countries globally with US$45 billion worth of arms – making it the world’s second-biggest arms supplier, behind the US. Over 60% of Russian arms exports go to Asian countries, with Southeast Asia accounting for most of that total.
Through these arms sales and joint activities, Russia is increasingly bringing Asian countries into its orbit and altering the balance of power in the region by increasing their military capabilities.
In addition to existing security and defence relationships with China, India and more recently Pakistan, Russia has been actively seeking to build ties with other countries on Australia’s doorstep – Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand and Fiji.
Australia should closely follow Moscow’s growing strategic intimacy with Beijing. In contrast with Western countries, Russia has been willing to share its military expertise with China. And China has taken up the offer. The PLA, for instance, took part in the Vostok 2018 war games under Russia’s command.
Finally, we should not be ignorant of Russia’s activities in Australia and near our shores, which have intensified in recent years.
In 2009, Australian intelligence reported a sharp increase in Russian intelligence-gathering activities in Australia. Russia continues to have an interest in Australia’s national intelligence, especially highly sensitive information shared by the US and its NATO allies.
In November 2014, a Russian naval task group staged operations near Australia’s north at the same time Putin attended the G-20 summmit in Brisbane. This triggered a brief media storm, and was seen by some as a projection of Russia’s naval power.
Last December, Russian strategic bombers conducted exercises out of an Indonesian airfield close to Australia, forcing Australian Defence personnel in Darwin into a state of “increased readiness”. There were concerns the exercises may have been aimed at information gathering.
Then in March, two “undeclared intelligence officers” were expelled from the Russian embassy in Canberra, raising more questions about Russian covert activities in Australia. Two months later, a Russian training warship visited Papua New Guinea – the first visit of its kind for the Russian navy.
Russia is making its presence felt in the region for the benefit of its regional allies and clients, and as a form of deterrent to its geopolitical rivals.
Australia’s strategic alliance with the US is clearly on Moscow’s radar. Russia has a keen interest in our joint defence facilities and intelligence sharing, as well as our latest defence technology and operations.
Australia’s hard stance on issues related to Russia, such as Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict and the attempted assassination of former double agent Sergei Skripal in the UK, further complicates our relations with Moscow.
In October, Canberra also joined London in condemning the Russian military for its ongoing cyber-operations against the West, including Australia.
Australia’s relations with Moscow are at their lowest point in decades. And while Australia is by no means a priority for Russia, the country is still being viewed as a geopolitical and security rival. The time has come for us to appreciate a power north of the Great Wall, as well.
At the now infamous Helsinki press conference held after the summit meeting between Presidents Trump and Putin, Trump indicated he was impressed with Putin’s denial of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
“I have great confidence in my intelligence people,” Trump said, “but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial.”
That answer must have pleased Vladimir Putin.
Strength and power have been key to Putin’s political brand ever since August 1999, when he was appointed as Russia’s prime minister by President Boris Yeltsin.
Putin led the country to victory in the second Chechen War, and as the virtual incumbent following Yeltsin’s resignation, he rode that wave of patriotism to victory in the presidential election of March 2000, with 53 percent of the national vote.
Putin makes strongman politics look effortless, and President Trump could not be clearer in his expressions of admiration and trust for his more experienced counterpart. From over two decades studying communist and post-communist politics, I believe there is value in looking past Putin’s confident self-projection and examining the machinery behind it.
As a former KGB officer and head of FSB, Russia’s national security agency, President Putin has professional roots in deception, disinformation and violence beyond the imagination and experience of most Americans outside the intelligence community. His 18-year record in public life provides high-profile cases where he has been equally “strong and powerful” in undermining truth – and targeting those who expose him.
Here is a short catalog of Putin’s most glaring lies, as well as his actions against those who challenged him.
1. In 1999, bombs exploded in a number of apartment buildings in Russia, killing 293 civilians.
The bombings were attributed to Chechen terrorism, driving up patriotic support for Russia’s military in invading Chechnya. When one bomb was detected and defused in the city of Ryazan before it went off, new Prime Minister Putin praised the people of Ryazan for their vigilance.
His subsequent strong leadership during the Chechen War was key to his election as president in March 2000.
Yet forensics, eyewitness accounts and whistleblower revelations all indicated that Russia’s security service, the FSB, planted the Ryazan bomb.
The commission established to investigate the FSB’s role in all the bombings discontinued its work in 2003 when two key members died violent deaths. Deputy Sergei Yushenkov was gunned down, and investigative journalist Yuri Shchekochikhin died in a hospital from an “unknown allergen” that shut down all his vital organs. FSB whistleblower Alexander Litvinenko, who directly accused Vladimir Putin of involvement in the apartment bombings, was poisoned in London in 2006.
2. In 2004, Chechen terrorists took hostage hundreds of schoolchildren and their teachers in a school in Beslan in North Ossetia.
Russian authorities refused to negotiate and instead deployed military forces to storm the school. More than 330 people died and another 550 were wounded. Among the dead were 184 children.
Putin was adamant that the use of force was justified and necessary in the face of terrorism, and used Beslan to increase centralized Kremlin power. He rejected a European Court of Human Rights judgment that Russian authorities used excessive force against their own citizens.
Journalist, human rights activist and Putin critic Ana Politkovskaya was poisoned when traveling to Beslan to cover the siege. She survived, and continued to research and publish on Putin’s assault on democracy until she was shot and killed outside her Moscow apartment in 2006.
3. In 2005, the American-born British CEO of Moscow-based investment fund Hermitage Capital, Bill Browder, was denied re-entry to Russia, and declared a threat to national security.
Browder’s tax attorney Sergei Magnitsky then uncovered a US$230 million tax fraud scheme against Hermitage Capital. Magnitsky’s work revealed high-level government collusion in the criminal looting of public assets.
After taking the allegations public, Magnitsky was arrested in Moscow on fabricated charges and detained for 11 months prior to trial. He was repeatedly abused in jail, including denial of treatment for chronic health conditions. Eventually he was beaten to death.
The Russian state’s punishment did not stop then. Magnitsky was posthumously tried and convicted for tax evasion.
Browder has subsequently pursued justice for Magnitsky, advocating for the worldwide adoption of the Magnitsky Act. The act was passed by the U.S. Congress in 2012 to sanction individual Russians involved in human rights abuses.
Putin held a December 2012 press conference
following the Magnitsky act’s passage and the Russian Duma’s subsequent retaliatory ban on American adoptions of Russian orphans. Putin said, “Magnitksy … was not tortured — he died of a heart attack.”
4. On July 17, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine, killing all 298 people aboard.
In direct contradiction of the forensic evidence, Putin flatly denied any Russian involvement in shooting down MH17.
That denial comports with Putin’s long-time denial that Russian forces invaded Ukraine in 2014 – one of 10 false Russian claims about Ukraine identified and debunked by the U.S. State Department. That report is no longer available on the U.S. government website.
5. In February 2015, Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was assassinated in Moscow. Just before his death, Nemtsov had taped a television interview in which he discussed his investigations into Russian war crimes in Ukraine, and called President Putin “our expert in lying. He is a pathological liar.”
After Nemtsov’s death, President Putin assured Nemtsov’s mother, “We will do everything to ensure that the perpetrators of this vile and cynical crime and those who stand behind them are properly punished.”
Nemtsov’s relatives and allies insist on Putin’s complicity and have called the investigation and prosecution of five killers a cover-up. Video evidence and the journalistic investigation into the details of Nemtsov’s murder, likewise, see the highly organized hit involving multiple gunmen and vehicles as the work of a professional intelligence organization like the FSB.
The risks for individual Russians challenging Putin’s lies are clear. One journalist has listed 34 suspicious deaths since 2014.
Those killed have nonetheless left an evidentiary trail for a host of contemporary writers like Masha Gessen, David Satter and Peter Pomerantsev. Those writers, and others, detail how Putin has built enormous wealth and power by deploying violence and deception to control the political narrative and disable or eliminate meaningful opposition.
He might conclude that all of these independently produced, empirically-grounded investigations are somehow part of a grand deep-state conspiracy to defame or discredit a man of integrity who can and should be taken at his word.
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That conclusion, though, would dishonor the ordinary and extraordinary Russians who have stood up to the deception and violence of President Putin’s regime, risking or losing their lives as a result. It’s the responsibility of the American president to acknowledge this. By virtue of the office he holds, President Trump has the ability to stop being played by Putin, and speak truth to power.
In a now famous Fox News interview with Donald Trump in February 2017, Bill O’Reilly asked the new US president if he respected his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. The following discussion ensued:
Trump: Well, I respect a lot of people but that doesn’t mean I’m going to get along with him.
O’Reilly: But he’s a killer though, Putin’s a killer.
Trump: There are a lot of killers, we’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think — our country’s so innocent?
Not a few viewers in countries on the wrong end of US foreign policy may have had to stop and catch their breath at Trump’s final sentence. A common thread of so many of their experiences of US foreign policy is not only the bombing from above. Many share a deep repugnance toward what they see as a well-manicured facade of American moral superiority, which helps to frame, water down or justify the violence and humiliations to which they are regularly subjected.
Just for that breathless moment, it seemed this sentence of moral relativism tore a hole in this façade and threatened the moral protection it provides to members of the American establishment.
It is these elected politicians from both major parties, military, state department and security officials, spies, advisers and lobbyists who have reacted most vociferously to Trump’s moral relativism in international affairs. This was perhaps most evident in his accommodating attitude to Putin in general, and especially in Helsinki last month.
In the blanket and largely uncritical Western news coverage of the establishment’s expressions of outrage, commentaries and interviews in response to the July meeting, Trump was depicted as a traitor to the US, Putin’s puppet and now even a greater threat to US national and, indeed, international security.
They may or may not be correct on some or all counts. But it is worth examining exactly what or whom Trump was betraying in Helsinki. So what did Trump do? He accepted uncritically (then later awkwardly back-tracked) Putin’s denial of election meddling and adopted much of his critique of US foreign policy over the last couple of decades.
As far as we know, Trump did not even interrogate Putin over his deadly meddling in Ukraine. He may not be particularly interested. In the lead-up to Helsinki, Trump trash-talked old US allies (including NATO).
Taken together, this conduct exacerbated the establishment fear that Trump was threatening to dismantle well-established Western political structures geared toward containing Russian influence carried over from the Cold War. These structures have been essential to cementing a broader post-Cold War US unipolarity. This has given the US political establishment a free hand to pursue its foreign policies without much restraint but with terrible consequences for those affected in, for example, the Middle East.
I doubt Trump is pursuing a grand strategy to unravel these structures, especially when his rhetoric displays a penchant, even a fetish, for the US unipolarity these strategies help foster.
Furthermore, his rhetoric has not really translated into significant foreign policy changes so far. Much of it is meaningless. But there is whole body of scholarship and commentary that would encourage Trump in any dismantling efforts, as it argues that the carrying over of Cold War structures of Soviet (Russian) containment such as NATO after 1991 have stood in the way of the development of more peaceable relations between Russia and the West. Indeed, structures like NATO fuel Russian anxieties and aggression, which NATO was founded to combat.
More traditional scholarship disputes these “revisionist” ideas, citing Russia’s aggression as evidence of the indispensability of containment to international security.
Scholars on both sides can find evidence to support their arguments in Russia’s annexation of Crimea and military intervention in Ukraine. But these revisionist ideas, or even the debate with more traditional ones, were hardly mentioned in the blanket media outrage over Helsinki. Critically, then, an examination of the object of Trump’s supposed “treachery” was also lacking when it was most needed.
The focus on outrage may just be the reality of covering an outrageous president in politically sensitive times. In any case, an issue remains for us in Australia to re-examine our own approach to Russia.
This could mean advocating a “new” revisionist or “new” traditional approach toward Russia in response to its conduct, especially in Ukraine. But it would also mean at least trying to untangle the latter from the broader implications of supporting American unipolarity and, hopefully, avoiding its consequences.
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This larger project beyond Russia is worth pursuing, if not for the sake of those who suffer its consequences around the globe, then at least for our own. Mass population dislocations, food shortages, terrorism and economic disruption threaten more than ever to reverberate all the way from those far-flung borders straight to our doorstep.
US President Donald Trump’s eyebrow-raising visit to Europe has confirmed Europeans’ worst fears: if another “Crimea-like” take-over by Russia occurs somewhere on the continent, they will likely be on their own.
Trump had made it abundantly clear that European leaders can no longer rely on the US for its protection. He was not only harshly criticised by his own party for being too conciliatory with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their Helsinki summit, he also lashed out at US allies once more, going so far as to call the European Union a “foe”.
The US may have more than 60,000 troops stationed in Europe, but a recent report stating the Pentagon is assessing the impact of a possible reduction of troop numbers, coupled with Trump’s unpredictability, has made America’s traditional allies nervous.
Indeed, by initiating trade wars and continuously attacking his closest allies, Trump has weakened the entire West.
Despite his reassurances last week that the US still values NATO, Trump’s divisive visit to Europe may embolden Putin in his assessment that occupying more European land may not be met with much military resistance.
Poland is so concerned, it has recently offered to pay the US up to US$2bn to permanently deploy an armoured division on its soil.
The on-going conflict in Ukraine, coupled with Putin’s increased emphasis in recent years on Russia’s “right” and “obligation” to “protect” ethnic Russians and Russian speakers beyond its borders, contribute further to the unease between Moscow in the West. This is particularly being felt in the Baltic states, two of which (Estonia and Latvia) have sizeable Russian minorities.
It certainly doesn’t help when Russia conducts military drills or dispatches warplanes on the borders with the Baltics, giving a real sense that military escalation in this part of Europe is entirely plausible.
The focus of any possible Russian military incursion could be a thin stretch of land between Poland and Lithuania known as the Suwalki Gap (named after the nearby Polish town of Suwałki), which would allow Russia to reinforce its only access to the Baltic Sea through its Kaliningrad exclave and cut the Baltics off from the rest of Europe.
The Suwalki Gap also links Kaliningrad with Belarus, a staunch Russian ally. Moscow regularly organises joint strategic military exercises with Minsk, the most recent being the Zapad (meaning “West” in Russian) war games last September.
Reflecting their concerns about a possible invasion, NATO members held military exercises last June that focused for the first time on defending this 104km strip of land from a possible Russian attack. Then, last month, NATO held the Trojan Footprint 18 joint military exercise in Poland and the Baltics, which was one of its biggest-ever war games in the region.
These military build-ups on NATO’s eastern flank are reminiscent of the Cold War and feed both Russia’s “deep-seated sense of vulnerability vis-à-vis the West” and Europe’s own feelings of insecurity.
But should Russia decide to invade the Suwalki Gap, would Europe go to war over it?
It may not be able to. European military options remain limited as NATO does not have the military means to go to war against Russia without the US. Acutely aware of this, European leaders launched a new regional defence fund last year to develop the continent’s military capabilities outside of NATO.
While a direct Russian invasion of a NATO member would be the worst-case scenario, it’s more likely that Putin would seek to further destabilise the bloc’s eastern flank through a hybrid war involving cyber-attacks, divisive propaganda campaigns and the use of armed proxies like the “little green men” that appeared during the Ukraine conflict.
Even here, though, it’s clear that Europe cannot provide a unified front to counter potential Russian actions. Some countries like Hungary and Italy seek a closer relationship with Russia, while others like the UK are already embroiled in diplomatic conflicts with it.
France and Germany have already announced plans to increase defence spending not because of commitments made to Trump during the latest NATO summit, but out of real concerns that another confrontation with Russia is becoming a real threat.
Trump has weakened the Western alliance at a time when Europe is not ready to step up and ensure its own security. He may have united Europeans around shared fears and their collective response, but he’s also made them more vulnerable.
In contrast, he displays indifference – if not hostility – towards the liberal rules-based order that has served US interests since World War II. Issues like human rights, trade, climate change, and even America’s democratic allies have all been criticised or undermined by the president during his time in office.
But is the explanation that simple or is there something else at work? Is there a strategy that, President Trump and his allies believe, serves America’s geopolitical interests? If there is, it’s about China.
Consider that there are a number of states throughout the Asia-Pacific and across Eurasia that may soon be “up for grabs” as US-China tensions escalate and states hedge their position. Clearly, Washington wants as many states as possible to maintain their strategic distance from Beijing and lean towards the US. This is a task that will become more difficult as China’s power continues to rise and America finds it harder to reassure its allies that it can maintain its dominance in the region.
A number of these states have authoritarian governance systems, forms of illiberal democracy or may be trending in this direction. They do not share America’s governing liberal ideology. This ideological difference could complicate America’s efforts to keep these states out of China’s orbit, which claims to have no interest in the domestic affairs of other states.
US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War cannot have reassured authoritarian and illiberal states that Washington’s ideological values play only a minor role in it. US foreign policy, at times, has looked like that of a revolutionary power intent on transforming the international system in its own image. After all, the Bush administration appeared to believe that the only way for the world to be safe was for liberalism and democracy to triumph everywhere, which could usher in a global democratic peace. This is an assumption with some empirical support.
Furthermore, the immense power of the US may have made it difficult for non-liberal states to feel assured that even if they complied with US demands to give up their weapons of mass destruction (which they perceive as a critical deterrent to US intervention), they might still face further requests and threats. As Libya’s dictator Muammar Gaddafi found out in 2011, even a regime change can be a consequence.
So how does all this tie back to America’s competition with China for the allegiance of states across the world? What could encourage authoritarian and illiberal states, in particular, to lean towards China in the years to come and accelerate the emergence of a bipolar US-China system?
Firstly, America’s power provides it with immense discretion to act and the capacity to undermine and enact regime change against illiberal states. Since 2003, we’ve seen this in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. Secondly, it is US ideology, and their fears that US power will be used for ideological ends – that is, to militarily intervene against illiberal states to try replace their regimes with liberal ones. The first point can generate concern all on its own but it’s further magnified by the second point.
To illiberal states, US liberalism has compelled Washington in the past to go abroad “in search of monsters to destroy” – and they are the ideological “monsters”.
Therefore, a case can be made that if the US credibly communicates that it is not motivated by liberal impulses, it will reduce these ideational concerns. It will increase (by how much is debateable) incentives for states to lean towards the US. Thus, American liberalism, rather than being seen as a source of strength, could leave the US disadvantaged as China’s power rises.
Trump’s recent behaviour towards the G7 is consistent with this. It further communicates the point to authoritarian and illiberal states that this administration does not care about a state’s ideological stripes. This approach even gives President Trump more room to manoeuvre to attempt his own “Nixon to China” initiatives towards Moscow (if he can overcome domestic opposition) and Pyongyang.
Rapprochement with North Korea could reunify the Korean peninsula in a way that benefits the US at China’s expense (as well as eliminating a nuclear threat). With respect to Russia, it could stop Moscow’s drift towards China, and eliminate the prospects of Eurasia coming under the effective domination of a China-Russia led de facto alliance. Removing liberal ideology from the picture removes one roadblock towards these geopolitical initiatives.
The Trump administration appears to believe there is little material costs to adopting this approach. America’s traditional liberal allies lack the will to pay for their own defence and thus cannot constitute a true challenge to US global power. They can issue rhetoric and voice their opposition to US foreign policy but President Trump, rightly or wrongly, does not view these as meaningful forms of influence.
Ultimately, to the US president, liberalism is an ideology with no clear foreign policy benefit. To him it is one that could, at worst, act to drive states towards China, accelerating the emergence of a bipolar world order. This is one consistent element of the president’s strategy. The faster we reconcile ourselves to this, the quicker we will be able to grapple with the implications his foreign policy has for the existent liberal international order.
Last week, the Democratic Party in the United States brought an unprecedented lawsuit against a foreign country, Russia, and persons connected to the Kremlin. Predictably, this has received condemnation from Republicans and the Trump campaign.
The Russian government – the primary target of the case – has not responded publicly.
The recent filings provide important insights for Australian politicians.
The case has several defendants. These include Russia, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (GRU), the Trump campaign, senior Trump advisor (and First Son-in-law) Jared Kushner, former campaign advisor Paul Manafort, Donald Trump Jr., Wikileaks, and several Russian individuals.
The case will be heard in the US District Court for the Southern District of NY. The legal action is brought under provisions of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), the Stored Communications Act, and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
Essentially, Russia is alleged to have hacked into the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) computers. The government and related entities are accused of accessing the party’s telecommunications and obtaining tens of thousands of documents and emails.
This “stolen information” was allegedly used to advance Russia’s own interests, destabilise the US political environment and denigrate Hillary Clinton. Russia is also accused of supporting Trump’s campaign because his “policies would benefit the Kremlin”.
The Trump campaign is also alleged to have engaged in a conspiracy with the Russians to ensure the election of Trump.
Shortly after Trump announced his candidacy for president in June 2015, European intelligence agencies intercepted communications between his campaign and Russian operatives.
By July 27 2015, Russia had conducted cyber attacks on Democratic National Convention (DNC) systems, which contained “some of the DNC’s most sensitive strategic and operational data”.
This deal was brokered by real estate developer Felix Sater, who claimed in a November 3 email:
I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected.
The DNC complaint alleges that in 2016, Kremlin operatives:
notified the Trump campaign that Russia intended to interfere and expressed their government’s backing of Trump via meetings, emails, and other communications.
This included a willingness on Russia’s part “to use stolen emails and other information to damage” Hillary Clinton.
The Russians hacked into the DNC’s servers for the second time in April 2016. GRU agents hacked the DNC’s research, IT, and other departments, and document repositories.
On April 26, then foreign policy adviser to Trump’s campaign, George Papadopoulos, met with a Russian agent who told him that the Russians had dirt on Clinton in “thousands of emails”. Papadopoulos only reported this to his employers and not law enforcement.
He also confided in an Australian diplomat, who reported this to US officials, prompting an FBI inquiry into connections between Russia and the Trump campaign.
But for this crucial error by Papadopoulos, Trump may not have been in his current predicament.
Russia continued its presence on DNC servers. By May, it had hacked data including donor information, opposition research and plans for political activities, as well as thousands of confidential emails.
Donald Trump Jr. was contacted on June 3 with an offer of damaging information about Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump”. Soon after, Trump Jr., Manafort, and Kushner had the now infamous meeting with Russians in Trump Tower.
A GRU operative publicly disseminated illegally obtained documents on June 15.
On July 22, prior to the DNC Convention, Wikileaks publicly disseminated DNC emails and other documents.
The complaint documents contact between Rick Gates (Trump Campaign Deputy Chair), Assange, and a GRU Operative.
After learning of the hacking, the DNC commissioned a forensic analysis by IT firm Crowdstrike, which confirmed hacking by two Russian state-sponsored entities.
The analysis found that user credentials were used to access information that was then posted online by the GRU operative. Hackers also accessed phone calls and voicemail.
The DNC claims the motivations for the conspiracy were twofold. First, Putin’s intense dislike of Clinton, stemming from his belief that she was behind massive protests in Russia in December 2011. Putin is quoted in the complaint, accusing Clinton of setting “the tone for some of our actors in the country”.
Second, Trump’s admiration of Putin made him valuable to Russia.
This case provides the most detailed view of Russia’s tactics in election manipulation – providing a roadmap for other countries where it might try similar methods.
Australia may be vulnerable because of tensions with Russia and North Korea in recent times. With a federal election on the horizon, it would be sensible for Australian political parties to upgrade their cyber security and protect IT equipment in close consultation with intelligence agencies.
Parties should be wary of approaches by unknown entities with promises of assistance and carefully vet any foreign commercial contacts or deals. They should also assume that sensitive information is likely to be leaked and dirty tricks against the opposition could backfire. Individual politicians should be careful not to become pawns of foreign governments.
Finally, Australian political operatives should carefully scrutinise social media information trends for manipulation and invest in human monitors, and of course, report anything suspicious immediately to law enforcement.