By now, the basic facts of the case appear largely settled: hackers working in coördination with—or on direct orders from—Vladimir Putin’s government broke into the e-mail accounts of the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, passing the contents to WikiLeaks, which published them in slow drips over the summer and fall. Clinton, of course, lost last month’s Presidential election; Democrats quickly seized on the hacks, and the media coverage of them, to help explain the outcome. Anonymous sources at the C.I.A.—and, later, the F.B.I. and other intelligence agencies—told the Washington Post that aiding Trump’s candidacy was exactly the point of the Russian operation. Yet many important questions remain unanswered. What was the ultimate effect of the Russian hacks? Why did the Russians do it, and how, in his final days in office, should Barack Obama respond? The first question may ultimately be unknowable. Clinton, who won the popular vote by 2.86 million votes, lost the Electoral College thanks to margins of less than a per cent in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. During a recent appearance on “Meet the Press,” Podesta avoided the question of whether he thought the election had been “free and fair,” saying only that it had been “distorted by the Russian intervention.” But was that distortion in fact decisive? To isolate the WikiLeaks e-mails to explain Clinton’s narrow loss is to elevate their importance above a host of other factors, including the Clinton campaign’s weaknesses, Trump’s genuine appeal as a candidate, as well as the diminishing power of political parties and the national press that covers them. (Not to mention the last-minute, whiplash letters from James Comey, the director of the F.B.I.)
As seen from Moscow, placing an outsized importance on Russian interference flatters Putin more than does him harm. After all, if the country he rules is essentially weak, as has often been suggested by Obama-era Democrats over the years, and was reiterated by Obama at his press conference on Friday, what imbues Putin with a legend of mystical powers more than having thrown a U.S. Presidential election?
Not long ago, I spoke with Valery Garbuzov, the director of the Institute for the U.S.A. and Canada, a research center in Moscow that advises various branches of the Russian government. He has been studying American politics for more than thirty years. When I raised the notion of Russian interference in the election, he demurred, but then gave as honest an answer as you can hear in Moscow these days. “In principle, of course it’s possible,” he said, speaking of a Kremlin role in the hacking of Democratic targets. “But this is a topic in which reality proves to be particularly ephemeral.”