'Reminiscent of a witch hunt': Russia slams U.S. intelligence report
Moscow-based author suggests Kremlin could be hiding behind semantic smokescreen
The Kremlin broke its silence over the U.S. intelligence report into hacking Monday, saying the allegations are "unfounded" and "reminiscent of a witch hunt."
Those comments from Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov were soon followed by disparaging remarks from a Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman on her Facebook page.
"It seems to me that 'Russian hackers' hacked only two things in the U.S. which are Obama's brains and the very report on the 'Russian hackers,'" said Maria Zakharova, known for her colourful take on threats against Russia.
Unclassified parts of the U.S. intelligence report accuse Russian hackers, including the GRU (military intelligence), of breaking into the personal email accounts of Democratic Party officials and other political figures as early as last March. The goal, the report says, was to undermine the presidential election and boost Donald Trump's chances of victory by damaging his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
As the dying days of the Obama administration are chewed over in Moscow, Russian author and journalist Andrei Soldatov says the hacking allegations are viewed by many Russians with suspicion and even as a point of pride.
"On the one hand, they don't believe what the Americans say. At the same time, they have pride because it makes Russia's hackers look great," said Soldatov, a Moscow-based expert on Russian surveillance whose latest book on the subject is called The Red Web.
The hackers, according to this view, "were capable enough to hack into the election of the most powerful country in the world," he said.
Kremlin spokesman Peskov stressed Monday that Moscow has ruled out any involvement of Russian "officials" in the hacks, but Soldatov says that could be nothing more than a semantic smokescreen.
The recent history of Russian cybercrime, he says, involves more informal operators not connected to Russia's military or its security agency, the FSB. He says the most sophisticated hackers aren't accountable to any such organization, so it's almost impossible to trace their actions back to the government.
"But these informal actors, usually they have direct access to the Kremlin," he said. "That makes them so adventurous and so effective because they do not need to get any approval from a middle level — they have approval from the very top."
These informal actors — usually they have direct access to the Kremlin; they do not work in ministries or security agencies. That makes them so adventurous and so effective.- Andrei Soldatov, author and journalist
Soldatov says the alleged Russian hacking would have been focused on discrediting Clinton because President Vladimir Putin blames her for fomenting opposition riots against his government in 2011.
The intent, he says, would have been more to damage her than to enhance Trump.
Russian officials have denied any attempt to meddle in the U.S. election, but Soldatov says there seems to be a quiet arrogance in some of their reactions.
"I think they were quite excited … they thought, 'We can do a small-level operation that can propel us to the world stage — that's great," he said.
"Given we are talking about the U.S. and how important that is to Putin personally, I think it would be absolutely impossible to start this kind of operation without his approval."
But he cautions that with so little hard data or named operatives, many Russians dismiss the intelligence report as yet another predictable political swipe at their country.
Peskov on Monday said Russians "are seriously tired" of these unfounded, "amateurish and emotional" allegations.