Over the past month, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has received two starkly different messages about hacking into American computer networks from the current and future presidents of the United States: Don’t you dare, and don’t worry, we’re not even sure it was you. The White House confirmed in a statement on Wednesday that eight days before the presidential election, the United States “contacted the Russian government directly regarding malicious cyberactivity” that was “targeting U.S. state election-related systems.” It sent the message over a rarely used system: a hotline connecting the Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers in both countries, which they had agreed three years ago could also be employed to deal with major cyber incidents. The pre-election warning — only the latest after verbal cautions by President Obama, his defense secretary and the director of national intelligence — was reported by The Washington Post. The warnings to Russia against further hacking into polling or registration systems, or any further effort to affect the outcome of the election, are being hailed by the Obama administration as a success in deterrence. After all, they argue, a year and a half of Russian hacking activity seemed to slow, or halt, and there is no evidence that voting or counting of ballots was disrupted on Election Day.
But more than a few experts in deterring cyberattacks take a more skeptical view. They say the Russians had already achieved their main goal: to demonstrate how they could disrupt the American electoral process with the leak of hacked emails, including from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John D. Podesta.
Mr. Putin suffered nothing worse than a warning, they note — no sanctions, no counter cyberstrikes, no embarrassing revelations engineered by the United States. And he now has the satisfaction of dealing with President-elect Donald J. Trump, who during the campaign praised him, promised to build a more productive relationship with Russia and maintained there was no evidence that the Russians were behind the hacking.
… The Oct. 31 warning did not deal with the hacking of the Democratic National Committee or Mr. Podesta’s account, which James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, had previously said was conducted with the knowledge of the Russian leadership. Instead, it referred only to the concerns about hacking around the election process itself, and the fear it was originating from Russian territory, though it stopped short of saying it was a state-sponsored attack.