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Save the fake outrage: Obama has known about Russian hacking for years

Aurel Braun is a professor of International Relations and Political Science at the University of Toronto, and an associate of the Davis Center at Harvard University.

Like Captain Renault in Casablanca, feigning shock that there was gambling at Rick's club and ordering it closed, President Barack Obama has expressed his outrage at Russian hacking and has now ordered a variety of retaliatory measures. Yet Washington has been long aware of Russian cyberwarfare and the need to counter it. So why now, and to what effect?

To be sure, Russia has employed cyberwarfare and information warfare extensively, not only against the United States but many other countries. Much of this is well-known. Part of Russian hybrid warfare, cyberwar in the past several years has become an increasingly crucial tool of foreign policy in the eyes of Russian leaders. Additionally, cyberwar and information warfare are key parts of the 2013 Gerasimov Doctrine (named after General Valery Gerasimov) that holds that "non-linear war" is the way of the future and that covert tactics are essential since there is no longer a clear line between peace and war.

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The open secret is that Russia has made extensive efforts to recruit all possible talent, including some with a shady past, to help its cyber efforts. The Ministry of Defence even advertised for coders on VKontakte, the most popular Russian social network.

Further, for years now, the Kremlin has sought to influence elections throughout Europe, so there should have been little surprise they did this in the United States. In fact, the FBI had informed the Democratic National Committee of hacking back in the fall of 2015 and Mr. Obama certainly was apprised about Russian efforts in April, 2016, when Hillary Clinton's path to victory seemed assured. The Russian hacking consortium, named Fancy Bear, which also targeted the DNC, was known in the U.S., and the group proudly and publicly adopted its moniker.

So why did Mr. Obama wait so long to act? While his administration knew that Moscow was trying to influence the election, it is also the case that Russian cyber and informational warfare would be part of hundreds of variables (including the President's all-out public support for Ms. Clinton) that determine a presidential election.

It would have been another matter if the U.S. had discovered that Russian hackers had taken hold of electronic voting machines and had altered election results. Mr. Obama has made no suggestion whatsoever that such invalidation of the election had occurred.

Consequently, Washington's concerns would not be different from those expressed by Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, some months ago regarding Russian interference in Germany, and would hardly explain Mr. Obama's actions so very late in his presidency.

Conceivably, Mr. Obama may be driven by a desperate quest for legacy, seeks payback or is trying to box his successor into an anti-Russian foreign policy. Yet his decision to declare 35 intelligence operatives working under diplomatic cover persona non grata, and sanctioning officials from the military intelligence service GRU and the security agency FSB, as well as some civilian organizations and individuals, is heavy in symbolism but seems light on substance, particularly if America's allies do not follow suit.

Though Mr. Obama is threatening additional measures, his officials have little expectation that Russia will change policy. And as Ms. Merkel noted in November, "Such cyber attacks, or hybrid conflicts as they are known in Russian doctrine, are now part of daily life and we must learn to cope with them."

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To be effective, the U.S. would need to mobilize its enormous resources and do three things: greatly boost cyber defences; sharply enhance its cyber retaliatory capacity for better deterrence; and formulate clear foreign-policy markers and signals rather than draw imaginary "red lines" to ensure that Russia realizes that punitive measures from Washington would far outweigh any cyber and information-warfare benefits.

Mr. Obama's feckless foreign policy, which included the Faustian bargain with Russia on Syria's chemical weapons and his limited cyberwarfare counter, however, seem far short of the three above goals. His actions therefore may complicate rather than resolve, and like much of his foreign policy appear long on rhetoric and short on substance.

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