What Russia did during the US election of 2016 is actually normal behavior for countries, but Russia was sloppy, undisciplined, and way over the top.
All countries have meddled in other government’s affairs since before 1776. Just look how France meddled with Britain and sponsored the US revolution, supplied the colonies money, troops, advisors, and weapons. This has always happened and always will.
The secret is to meddle and not get caught. All countries will always meddle, it’s just that Russia got caught meddling in a big way with the US election of 2016, with the French election, with Ukraine, with Georgia, with Estonia, and the list goes on. They were sloppy, they are loud, and they will be arrogant and claim no responsibility.
In the end, when the Russiagate investigation is over, a lot of conclusions will be made, a lot of reports will be written, and just perhaps the truth will be told. But I doubt the whole truth will be told. That would entail revealing what is acceptable behavior by countries against other countries. That would entail saying there are limits and these are the limits. That could mean saying we don’t mind if a country spends $1 million dollars lobbying for or against a law, but $2 million is too much. That could mean saying we don’t mind your having 500 spies in our country, but 501 is too many. That could mean us declaring that you can print stories from your perspective in your news outlets in our countries, but when you do not allow us to do the same, that is not acceptable. You can spend $5 million on support to opposition parties in our country but $6 million is too much, that would be interfering in our election. You can finance fake protests in our country to the tune of $1 million per year, but $2 million is too much. All such operations are acceptable six months prior to an election but must stop after an election.
Right now these are unwritten rules by which countries have conducted international intrigue for centuries. Countries have murdered each other’s soldiers, diplomats, journalists, and innocents for centuries and gotten away with “bloody murder”.
But, like Jack Nicholson’s character in “A Few Good Men” says, can you handle the truth? Can you, Joe or Jane Citizen, be comfortable knowing you and your family might be acceptable collateral damage? Can you handle knowing you are an acceptable loss? That you are an innocent bystander? That your injuries, your reputation, your death are just unfortunate? It’s such a shame, it’s tragic, it’s sad, it is horrible, all descriptions of what a public affairs officer, a spokesman, a press secretary must be trained to say.
But in the bigger picture, countries work against other countries routinely. The unwritten rule is all countries accept a certain amount of meddling in their internal processes by other countries, as long as it does not attract undue attention.
Russia, however, is breaking all those unwritten rules. They discovered the threshold under which a country may notice but will not react. A few years ago, in a RAND paper, I proposed a new term: Threshold Warfare. I did not have sufficient justification to establish the term but I am convinced it is mastered by the Russians. Unfortunately, they misjudged how their meddling in the United States and now France was perceived by the targeted countries. We thought of it as over the top and it exceeded the unwritten thresholds by which we judge other countries interfering in our internal affairs. Russia got comfortable because the US did not announce that it was too much, we didn’t even communicate through back channels that we did not like their meddling. So it was deemed a good thing by Russia and they put more emphasis into what was really a bad thing. It was attracting too much attention but nobody in the US government sent up a signal saying it was too much – until it was too late. Russia has only itself to blame for what is a common term in the US – piling on.
Now we find ourselves passing laws punishing Russia for interfering in our internal process in 2016. Russia lacked the discipline to pull back and throttle its operations in the United States, meddling in our election. It got caught. Russia exceeded acceptable unwritten thresholds and will now pay the price.