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Opinion | Alan Berger

Russia’s next election hack

Photo illustration by Lesley Becker/Globe Staff; Adobe; Globe file photo

It is hardly surprising that coverage of the Mueller report centers on the domestic political effects of the special counsel’s findings. But we Americans would be making a serious mistake if we overlook the international repercussions of a Kremlin influence operation that historians may recognize as Vladimir Putin’s American putsch.

It may be that Putin’s troll farms did not need the polling data that Trump backers provided. The hackers employed by Russia’s military intelligence service might have had their own means of determining how to target Bernie Sanders supporters who could be persuaded to stay home or vote for Jill Stein; black voters who could be reminded about Hillary Clinton’s allusions to “super predators”;’ or industrial workers in Michigan, Wisconsin, and western Pennsylvania who voted twice for Barack Obama but were persuaded to vote for Donald Trump to protect their jobs from an imaginary tidal wave of immigrants.


However much these operational details might bedevil investigators and the American public, the crucial lesson for autocrats and spy chiefs around the world is that a cheap hacking operation by Putin’s hired temps could shape the political destiny of the most powerful country in the world. And if Trump could be elevated to the White House by Putin’s spooks, maybe he could be replaced by a candidate who would be even more convenient — for Russia and for select friends of the Kremlin.

Consider one logical possibility for the 2020 presidential election. The Revolutionary Guard commanders and clerics who rule Iran have made an obvious decision to continue fulfilling the terms of the nuclear deal negotiated with the Obama administration. Their gamble is that a Democrat will succeed Trump in 2020 and rejoin France, Germany, Britain, China, and Russia in fulfilling the terms of the nuclear agreement blessed by the UN Security Council.


That deal was never designed to affect either Iran’s missile program or its regional depredations in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, or Yemen. The wager former president Barack Obama and John Kerry, his secretary of state, made was that, if the nuclear agreement could be maintained for 10 or 20 years, its sunset clauses might eventually be renegotiated. With the good will engendered by cooperation in upholding the nuclear accord, Iran might be coaxed into relenting on its pursuit of strategic depth across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon — or what Tehran’s rulers call forward defense.

Today, with Democrats saying they will rejoin the nuclear accord if they regain the White House and Iran engaged in a complex contest with Russia over future influence in Syria, the masters of Tehran would be uncharacteristically dense if they ignored their chance to strike a strategic bargain with the Kremlin. The Iranians would ask Putin to have a Democratic president installed in Washington, and they would reimburse him for his efforts by agreeing to limit their looming domination of postwar Syria.

The imposition of Iranian influence in Syria has been broad and deep. Passage of a law that gives Syrians who fled their homes 1o days to reclaim their property has enabled Iran to buy up Sunni properties and install Shiites — including foreigners — in those properties. Iran is conducting a subtle form of sectarian cleansing in Syria, converting Sunni mosques into Shiite mosques and meeting halls, creating a Shiite corridor between Damascus and Lebanon, and seeking to install in Syria the sort of political, social, and military influence that Iran has exerted in Lebanon through its Hezbollah allies.


For Putin, whose air power and air-defense systems render him the ultimate military authority in Syria, the Iranian power grab in Syria represents a significant threat. He has to worry not only about preventing armed conflict between Iranian and Israeli forces; he must also balance the ambitions of Turkey, the Gulf Arab states, the Americans, and the Europeans against the designs of Tehran. So it would not be illogical for Putin to work his electoral magic in America in exchange for an Iranian commitment to accept a limit on its postwar implantation in Syria.

Of course, Putin would only buy such a rug from Tehran if it suited his interests — and the interests of the Kremlin’s other made men. Those oligarchs would have to be assured that the Democrat they installed after Trump would alleviate the sanctions on them.

The bosses in Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, and other capitals understand something they did not need the Mueller report to grasp: that the Internet and social media may be exploited as a Trojan horse inside the phantom walls of the American Republic.

Alan Berger is a retired Globe editorial writer.