MOSCOW — The news that U.S. President-elect Donald Trump called CIA claims about Russia’s involvement in the election process “ridiculous” was cause for celebration in Russia.
“Finally, the U.S. president does not trust CIA!” exclaimed one of Trump’s many Russian fans.
Authorities, who just a few weeks ago were busy training people to hide in bunkers in case the Americans dropped nuclear bombs, now applauded the U.S. president-elect and welcomed his incoming administration’s “dream team.”
To Moscow officials every step Trump takes, including his harsh criticism of the Central Intelligence Agency, sounds like a victory for President Vladimir Putin.
But wait, was Moscow in fact behind the hackers who attacked the Democratic National Committee and leaked their goodies to Wikileaks, among others? Did it also attack the Republican National Committee, but keep that stuff to itself?
In Russia, many people are blasé about such charges. This is a country where opposition politicians and journalists are gunned down in the streets. This is a government that has annexed Crimea, and backed rebels in the war in Ukraine. It is also the government that called the international investigation into the catastrophe of a civilian airliner, MH17, blown out of the sky: "biased." It’s the same government that insists it never had ++a state-sponsored doping system for its athletes. Plausible deniability — and even implausible deniability — is its standard operating procedure.
This is also a country with vast and deep criminal organizations well versed in cyber crimes.
So Russian hackers, as such, are not big news here, and in this case their actions are defended in language similar to that used when describing the “little green men” who seized parts of Ukraine.
“We cannot exclude the fact that some patriots in the government, or in the intelligence and in non-governmental circles, could help Wikileaks pin down the U.S. criminals [in the Obama administration] so Hillary [Clinton] gets defeated,” Sergey Markov, a member of the Public Chamber, said in a phone interview with The Daily Beast on Monday. Markov said that he wrote “recommendation notes” on this issue to President Putin, which he passed to the country’s leader via Kremlin channels.
And how about the CIA telling U.S. senators that those orchestrating the hacker attacks on the American political system were “one step” removed from the Russian government, as The Washington Post reported last week?
Markov, who was in Turkey observing street protests in the wake of the Istanbul bombing, bridled at the question. Even the sound of the letters “C-I-A” made him furious.
“Nobody, and first of all President Trump, should believe what the CIA tells him,” said Markov, reflecting an official line. “The CIA are a bunch of bandits supporting terrorists in Syria and Ukraine.”
More generally, Moscow has welcomed “the waves of changes” in the United Staes as the president-elect’s criticism of outgoing President Barack Obama’s policies fits Putin’s thinking as neatly as one Matryoshka doll nests into another.
On Monday, the headlines of major state newspapers sounded triumphant: “Donald Trump’s HQ Mocked Reports of Russia’s Interference in the U.S. Elections,” said one of Russia’s mainstream newspapers, Izvestia. And Komsomolskaya Pravda talked about the U.S. president-elect’s “brave conclusions” about Russia’s innocence and, just for added measure, Trump’s doubts about that pesky question of global warming.
The idea that Trump avoided the CIA’s briefings has been crowed about and rubbed into Russia’s public consciousness by, among others, the Sunday night TV show of Dmitry Kiselyov: “Trump prefers not to rely on the intelligence that he considers too politicized, but chooses to rely on the army,” the show’s presenter said.
U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin also spoke on the show about Barak Obama’s failures. “President Obama and his administration leave without managing to solve a single serious issue,” Churkin said, blaming Obama for making conflicts worse all over the Middle East.
Russia’s embattled independent media have not published investigative reports about the Kremlin’s involvement with the U.S. election race.
“To investigate we have to first hear the CIA report with hard evidence,” Irina Borogan, a journalist from Agentura.ru told The Daily Beast. Borogan and her partner Andrei Soldatov investigated Russian cyber crime staged by the Kremlin for more than six years. “I suppose that the attack on the Democratic Party was ordered by the Kremlin,” she told The Daily Beast, but nobody in the press here has the wherewithal to prove it.
Former Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov said it’s not surprising the groups of hackers who’ve been dubbed Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear are alleged to work in close connection with the Russian ministry of defense.
“Even 10 years ago the Kremlin had the so-called ‘Hundred Cyber Officrs’ trained for cyber war,” Ryzhkov told The Daily Beast. “I would not be surprised if they moved more than 100 officers to targeting the U.S.”
But, again, at the level of the public and the press, there is no proof. So Russia’s independent outlets cannot wait to hear the names of Russian officials or their cronies (or a guy “sitting in a bed” somewhere in Novosibirsk, if you will) who are helping Trump.
The editor in chief of The New Times magazine, Yevgenia Albats, explained to The Daily Beast why nobody in Russia could investigate the hacker attack on the American political contest: Russia does not have a single independent news agency with the capacity to investigate Russian officials on that kind of question. While Trump tweets against the press, his much admired counterpart, bit by bit, shuts it down.
As for president-elect Trump not trusting the CIA, Albats takes a long view and does not agree that that’s good for Russia—even Putin’s Russia.
“The Kremlin should realize that the fact that the president-elect is not listening to CIA briefings means instability,” said Albats. “I do not think they would be happy to see the U.S. president creating a lot of risk around the world.”