The Key to Putin’s Cyber Power

December 31, 2016


The Russian president has both the capability and the intent to cause harm, says a former U.S. ambassador to Russia. And the threat won’t vanish once Donald Trump takes office.


Michael McFaul, Barack Obama’s ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, has a blunt assessment of the actions that his former boss took against the Russian government this week. The sanctions on Russian intelligence officers and organizations, along with the expulsion of Russian intelligence officials and closing of Russian compounds in the United States, is “not going to change” Russian President Vladimir Putin’s behavior, he told me shortly after the measures were announced. Obama’s retaliation—at least the retaliation that the U.S. government has made public—isn’t sufficient to deter the Kremlin from interfering in future U.S. elections, he said.


But in naming and punishing specific Russian agencies and individuals over the hack and leaks of Democratic emails, the president has, McFaul hopes, put to rest the “debate about whether the Russians were interfering in our presidential election.” Which is why he’s so frustrated by Donald Trump’s continued insistence that the country “move on” from the Russian cyber campaign. That campaign represents a threat to the sovereignty President Trump will be sworn to protect, he said. One message of Obama’s actions, McFaul added, is that this threat didn’t disappear on Election Day, and it won’t disappear on Inauguration Day. The standard way to understand a threat is to evaluate intent and capability to cause harm. And in the cyber domain, McFaul explained, Russia has both in spades. What distinguishes Putin from other world leaders is that he’s “not afraid to use this stuff.”


McFaul was America’s man in Moscow during a pivotal moment in the U.S.-Russia relationship: after disputed elections in Russia convinced Putin that the United States was trying to undermine him, but just before Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine. While McFaul defended Obama’s record on Russia, he admitted that the administration was initially slow to respond to Russian aggression. And he acknowledged that, in the waning days of Obama’s presidency, relations between the two countries are in a “precarious” state. “The Soviet Union did not annex territory,” he noted. “That’s something new. The Soviet Union did not meddle in [America’s] electoral affairs, at least to the extent and as successfully as they did this time. That’s something new.”


An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation follows.






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