Russia is giving the West plenty to worry about

August is an anxious month for Russia watchers. Whether it was the 1991 coup against Soviet leader Mikhail G...

Posted: Aug 21, 2018 1:11 PM
Updated: Aug 21, 2018 1:12 PM

August is an anxious month for Russia watchers. Whether it was the 1991 coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the 1998 financial crisis or the 2008 war with Georgia, August often seems to bring some unexpected confrontation or near-catastrophe.

So how will Russia surprise us this August?

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Certainly, the cycle of its confrontation with the West seems to be accelerating again. Alarm bells rang in Washington on Tuesday, when Microsoft announced that a hacking operation linked to Russian military intelligence and targeting the US Senate and conservative think tanks had been foiled.

Microsoft said it had executed a court order, giving it control of six websites created by a group known as Fancy Bear -- the same group cybersecurity firms say was behind the hack of the Democratic National Committee that disrupted the 2016 US presidential elections.

The Kremlin on Tuesday denied any knowledge of attempts to interfere in US elections, after Microsoft announced the hacking attempt. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in a conference call that allegations of hacking were not grounded in fact, and that the Russian government had no knowledge of the attempted interference.

"We don't know which hackers they are talking about; we don't know what is meant about the impact on elections," he said.

News of the attempted hacking comes amid fresh saber rattling by the Russian armed forces. On Monday, Russia's Defense Ministry announced it would stage its largest war games since the fall of the Soviet Union next month.

The exercises, dubbed Vostok 2018, will involve thousands of troops in a major test of military readiness.

Troops from China and Mongolia will also take part. Gen. Sergei Shoigu, the Russian defense minister, said the military maneuvers would be on an "unprecedented scale," rivaling the Soviet-era Zapad-81 maneuvers that involved as many as 150,000 troops, according to CIA documents.

The time certainly is ripe for further confrontation between Moscow and the West. On Tuesday, UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt is expected to deliver a speech in Washington that will call on the European Union to keep a united front on sanctions against Russia.

According to excerpts of the speech obtained by CNN, Hunt will argue that Russian President Vladimir Putin's foreign policy "has made the world a more dangerous place."

Hunt's speech comes as the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations prepares to hold a hearing on US-Russia ties.

Russia remains under US sanctions, with little prospect of them softening.

And fraught US-Russian relations will be the focus later this week when White House National Security Adviser John Bolton meets his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev, to follow up on the recent Helsinki summit between Putin and President Donald Trump. In an interview with ABC before his trip overseas, Bolton said the US would discuss Russian meddling and concerns about efforts to interfere in the 2018 midterm elections.

So are we entering a dangerous new phase of confrontation? Not exactly.

One wonders, for instance, if there isn't a bit of hyperbole in the way the Russians have billed the upcoming military exercises.

Last year's Zapad 2017 war games, which took place on Russia's western frontier with the NATO alliance, prompted intense speculation that they might in fact be a prelude to war, or that the deployments would be a smokescreen for some permanent Russian military presence in neighboring Belarus.

Those fears didn't materialize, though anxieties still run high over Russia's military posture in the Baltic region. And Russia continues to back separatists in eastern Ukraine, where a military conflict continues to simmer following Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014.

And the upcoming Vostok war games, it seems, are not just meant as a show of force to the US and other potential adversaries. According to Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, the maneuvers signal a profound shift in Russia-China relations.

"[The] Vostok drills are aimed at countering foreign invasions and addressing military threats for Siberia and the Far East," he wrote in a commentary on Twitter. "China was among potential adversaries for many years. Now Moscow's message is that it doesn't view Beijing as an adversary anymore."

That's not to say the war games aren't significant: As Gabuev noted, the games underscore the export of sophisticated Russian military hardware, such as the S-400 air defense system and the Su-35 fighter that will boost China's military power in regional hotspots.

That doesn't diminish concerns in Washington, however, about Russia's intent to interfere with US elections. The kind of hack seen in the attempt flagged by Microsoft -- a tactic known as spear phishing -- was successfully used to target Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman John Podesta in 2016.

In a blog post, Microsoft President Brad Smith expressed concern that democratic governance systems remain under threat.

"Despite last week's steps, we are concerned by the continued activity targeting these and other sites and directed toward elected officials, politicians, political groups and think tanks across the political spectrum in the United States," he wrote.

"Taken together, this pattern mirrors the type of activity we saw prior to the 2016 election in the United States and the 2017 election in France."

And that means the pattern of accusations against Russia — and the pattern of Russian denial — is set to continue.

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