Should Russia be Sanctioned for Alleged Hacking to Influence the U.S. Election?

Russian President Vladimir Putin listens as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during their bilateral meeting focused on Syria and Ukraine at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, on March 24, 2016. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

Russian President Vladimir Putin listens as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during their bilateral meeting focused on Syria and Ukraine at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, on March 24, 2016. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

For several weeks now, President Obama, numerous leading politicians from both major U.S. political parties, and U.S. intelligence services have been alleging that the Russian government hacked a computer server belonging to the Democrat Party and an email account belonging to John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s former campaign manager, and forwarded the contents of those hacks to Wikileaks, a whistleblowing website. Julian Assange, Wikileaks’ founder, has repeatedly denied that the Russian government was the party that gave it the emails.

The politicians arguing for Russia to be punished are doing so from a criminal law position: Russia has committed an illegal act (hacking Democrat Party interests to influence an election) and should be punished for it.

The Democrats argue that the damming revelations revealed from the Democrat Party’s servers and in John Podesta’s emails indirectly helped Donald Trump win the presidency by dooming Hillary Clinton’s candidacy due to scandal after scandal found in the emails and revealed to the world almost daily in the closing months of the election through Wikileaks’ almost daily email dumps on the Internet.

So the question is: “Should Russia be punished (through sanctions) due to its alleged hacking activities, presumably, to sway the U.S. election in favor of Donald Trump, whom the Russian government clearly favored in the race?”

For the moment, rather than arguing whether or not the Russian government hacked the above sites, let us assume the worst –that Russia did in fact hack them. If Russia did the hacking and it gets punished for it, then let the U.S. also punish the Chinese government and the U.S. government itself for doing similar activities.

Over the last eight years, it has been widely reported that China has hacked U.S. banks, utility companies, various other American companies including major technology companies, and even defense contractors and the Pentagon. From the latter, China acquired the blueprints for American’s aircraft carriers and stealth fighters, and presumably many other, or every other, American weapon systems.

For America’s part, it has a well-documented and lengthy history of interfering in the elections of other countries, at least 81 times according to recent research. Most recently, the Obama administration itself was suspected of funding efforts to unseat Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The funding reportedly came from the State Department and went to OneVoice, an anti-Netanyahu political activist organization.

Conclusion: Is it a bad thing, or an illegal act, that Russia may have hacked servers linked to the Democrat Party in order to influence an election? Yes, but given that the U.S. routinely tries to sway international elections for its own interests and that the U.S. has never taken punitive actions against the much greater hacking done by China, punishing Russia is unjustified.

Further conclusions: We may also conclude that since the politicians arguing for Russia to be punished must be familiar with the facts above, they are arguing for sanctions against Russia for purely political reasons.

For the broader crash of U.S.-Russia relations, we should remember that not too long ago –in 2008- then Senator Obama criticized President George Bush for failing U.S.-Russia relations. Back then it was viewed as a good thing to have positive U.S.-Russia relations. Secretary Hillary Clinton even talked about a “reset” in U.S.-Russia relations. In March 2009, Secretary Clinton and her Russian counterpart pressed a red button prop before the media to illustrate the resetting of relations.

What changed since then? The Ukraine. The U.S. supported a February 2014 coup against the democratically elected and pro-Russian Ukrainian president, by officially recognizing the new and pro-Western Ukrainian government that immediately replaced him. Russia responded to the coup by using its military to annex pro-Russian sections of Ukraine. The rest is history.

For the immediate political motive of calling for sanctions against Russia, there are two primary reasons. For Democrats, they want to de-legitimize Donald Trump’s election victory in order to weaken his presidency, particularly in its opening days. Democrats fear that Trump will overturn a number of President Obama’s policies viewed favorably by Democrats. If the public perceives Trump as an illegitimate president, then it may not support his policies on immigration, healthcare, judicial nominations, energy independence, the environment, and more.

For Republicans, the immediate political motive in pushing for sanctions against Russia has to do with the Ukraine problem. So long as Russia refuses to let go of the Ukraine, Western business interests –the single fundamental interest of the McCain/Ryan wing of the Republican Party- in that country are hampered. So every chance for McCain/Ryan Republicans to punish Russia will be seized upon.