Playing his part.

Photographer: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

Why This U.S. Election Needs Even More Putin

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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It's suddenly important for top Democrats -- including U.S. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden -- to stress that their candidate, Hillary Clinton, is running against a potential ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Donald Trump, for his part, is inviting Putin to interfere with the U.S. election. Perhaps Obama, Biden and Trump are right and this U.S. election does need Putin in it.

QuickTake Vladimir Putin

When the hullabaloo about Russian interference began after Wikileaks published the hacked emails of Democratic Party functionaries, I struggled to understand what got Americans so riled up. The hacker groups that apparently penetrated the Democratic National Committee -- known to the cybersecurity industry as Advanced Persistent Threats 28 and 29 -- have been getting into U.S., European and post-Soviet computer systems for years, just plodding away at their job, keeping regular hours and observing Russian holidays, and the U.S. media and politicians were largely indifferent, if perhaps mildly dismayed. Then this week, all hell broke loose: Apparently, stealing and publishing material related to the U.S. election is a greater outrage than hacking the German parliament, as APT 28 did last year, or even the White House's unclassified network, which APT 29 also breached

Trump is finding that a foreign power messing with elections is to Americans what an impromptu punk rock concert in Moscow's main church was to Putin -- a sacrilege. (Not that Americans haven't themselves messed with elections in a few countries).

Putin's prosecution of Pussy Riot, the blasphemous punk group, backfired, exposing the obstinate backwardness of a repressive Russian regime. Now Putin is being treated as the blasphemer -- but, just as Pussy Riot at least got a lot of attention out of their tribulations, he is now part of the U.S. electoral process. He would be even if Trump hadn't invited Russia to find and publish the emails Clinton failed to disclose to the State Department during the probe into her use of a private email server. At the Democratic convention, Obama accused Trump of "cozying up to Putin" and Biden said the Republican nominee was "embracing dictators like Vladimir Putin." Anti-Trump columnists are so fired up about the connection that some informed readers wonder if Trump might be carrying Putin's baby

Putin has been set up as the archetypal villain against whom Trump's villainy is measured. Putin hasn't even had to earn his keep in this role: So far, he hasn't had to lift a finger to find himself at the center of the Clinton-Trump battle -- the hackers were just doing their government jobs, and I doubt the DNC leak even required Kremlin authorization.

As Mark Galeotti pointed out in a recent Foreign Policy column, Putin usually interferes in hostile or semi-hostile countries' domestic affairs to foster chaos, instability, uncertainty. By their nature, these aren't reliable allies -- neither Putin nor anyone else knows what may come out of them. All that Putin gets out of backing both the far right and the far left in Europe is the satisfaction of fomenting a general sense of unease and alarm, which undermines unity and policy cohesion. 

In the U.S., the goal is probably similar and Putin mainly likes Trump for his destabilizing power. It wouldn't be smart for someone as experienced as Putin to trust Trump's public statements about not protecting NATO allies or, most recently, considering whether to lift sanctions and recognize Crimea as Russian territory. Putin's advisers must have told him that, while Trump's people may have kept out of the Republican platform any mention of supplying offensive weapons to Ukraine, the document still includes this sentence: "We support maintaining and, if warranted, increasing sanctions, together with our allies, against Russia unless and until Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity are fully restored." (The Democratic platform doesn't mention increasing sanctions -- or weapons, either).

To properly act out the diabolus ex machina part in which he has been cast, Putin ought to intervene on both sides and ask the hackers -- and the rest of Russia's intelligence apparatus, which presumably isn't limited to APT 28 and APT 29 -- to look for some missing documents.

Trump is right to call attention to Clinton's missing emails. Clearly, she didn't just withhold personal, irrelevant ones -- investigators had to obtain some from other sources. Then there are Clinton's speeches to Wall Street banks, at $225,000 a pop, which Bernie Sanders has demanded that she release. And I'm pretty sure digging around in the computer network of the Clinton Foundation would produce some fascinating material about the family's ties with corrupt regimes.

On the other hand, Trump's tax returns would also be an intriguing find. I doubt they would reveal anything interesting about Trump's links to Russian oligarchs, as George Will has suggested -- it's hard to imagine how such ties could be reflected on a form like the one Mitt Romney published before the 2012 election -- but it would probably show a certain stinginess, perhaps a pattern of errors and inconsistencies, and perhaps a tendency to exaggerate his wealth.

It might also be interesting to look at Republican National Committee emails -- just as the Democrats appeared to be biased in Clinton's favor, the Republicans likely scrambled to find an alternative to Trump.

By rights, the candidates should voluntarily reveal at least the speeches, the emails and the tax returns to dispel doubts about their integrity. It is in the public interest to open up these documents so voters can make more informed decisions about the two most distrusted candidates in decades of election history. 

The U.S. press knew that it may have been Russia that hacked the DNC -- and yet they analyzed the contents of the leak and published the story of Democratic collusion against Sanders. That disclosure served the public interest, regardless of the leak's source -- as long as the material was genuine. Whether its Russian hackers or Woodward and Bernstein who reveal a secret, the public needs to know. The motives behind the disclosure are important, of course: They force those who peruse a leak to be doubly careful when establishing its authenticity. Yet these motives take a back seat to the actual content that is unearthed.

The problem with this election is that both candidates obviously have things to hide, and so far, there has been no legitimate way for truth to out. It is perhaps fitting, then, that a foreign villain is invited into the game: All else has failed. Maybe in future, democracies whose candidates insist on hiding information ought to be subject to an external referee, who can call upon a hostile power's hackers to reveal all. 

So far, Russian hackers' contribution to the U.S. political process has been only mildly interesting. That's disappointing in light of all the indignation heaped on their Kremlin master as a consequence. President Putin, you can do better than this.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net