The 2016 American presidential election, which has just produced the greatest political upset in living memory, is hard to find precedents for in recent history, but that is not true of the intervention in the American political process by Russia. The decision taken at the highest levels of Moscow’s decision-making apparatus first to hack into the Democratic National Committee’s emails and then to make the spoils public via WikiLeaks, was a deliberate attempt to interfere in domestic American politics. It was one that, despite being the immediate beneficiary, President-Elect Donald Trump should not take lightly, however much he values his impending bromance with Vladimir Putin.
In Peter the Great’s time, Russian agents were sent to European capitals to spy on a number of Western governments and courts, and in later Tsarist times agents provocateurs were infiltrated into meetings of socialist and anarchist exiles in London, Paris, and Vienna. Yet what they discovered tended to be used domestically rather than publicized, a tradition generally stuck to by the Bolsheviks. Indeed, when in 1924 a letter purporting to be from the Soviet foreign minister Grigory Zinoviev was “discovered” by the British secret service organization MI6—it was a letter which encouraged British Communists to support the nascent Labour party in the coming elections—it turned out to have been forged by elements within MI6 to damage Labour electorally. The forgery was only discovered after the elections, which Labour lost. Seven years earlier, there had been a blatant attempt by the German Government of Kaiser Wilhelm II to intervene in the Russian Revolution when it provided a train for V.I. Lenin to cross Germany from Switzerland to the Finland station at Petrograd (subsequently Leningrad, formerly and subsequently St. Petersburg), a sorry and cynical episode that is presently the subject of an excellent book by Catherine Merridale, Lenin on the Train.
Russian hacking and cyber-rattling during Tuesday’s election are an extension of the dangerous new Internet phenomenon of anti-Western states—China, North Korea, and Iran are other examples—brazenly taking on the United States in the Era of Obama, secure in the knowledge that the United States will not respond vigorously. A senior British intelligence official has recently stated that any retaliation against Russia or China would “validate and escalate”—i.e. validate their attacks and escalate the situation. As an historian of the 1930s, I hear eerie echoes of such language from the period of Appeasement. The witness of History teaches us that if a country is verifiably attacking you, it is both self-defeating and cowardly not to respond aggressively, especially if, as is the case in today’s cyber warfare, you still have the technological edge.