Barack Obama has vowed to take retaliatory action against Russia for using cyber attacks to interfere with the US election process — with just five weeks left before Donald Trump, arguably the most openly pro-Russia incoming president in recent memory, takes office.
"I think there is no doubt that when any foreign government tries to impact the integrity of our elections … we need to take action,” Obama said in an interview that aired on NPR’s Morning Edition on Friday. “And we will — at a time and place of our own choosing. Some of it may be explicit and publicized; some of it may not be."
At the moment, the US intelligence community is divided over exactly what Russian cyber attackers’ intentions were when they hacked into American computers during the presidential campaign season. The CIA believes their intention was to tip the election in favor of Donald Trump, while the FBI says they can’t conclude yet that the goal was to boost one candidate, and instead holds the position that the hackers sought to sow general chaos and undermine faith in the electoral system.
Obama stopped short of endorsing the CIA’s position, indicating he was waiting for the results of a final report he’s asked for from the US intelligence community, but he stated plainly that the effect of the hacks came at the greater expense of one candidate.
“What the Russian hack had done was create more problems for the Clinton campaign than it had for the Trump campaign,” Obama said.
"There's no doubt that it contributed to an atmosphere in which the only focus for weeks at a time, months at a time were Hillary's emails, the Clinton Foundation, political gossip surrounding the DNC," he added.
Obama, who met Russian President Vladimir Putin for a stern conversation on the sidelines of the G20 summit in China in September, said that he’s spoken directly to Putin about the prospect of a retaliation.
“Mr. Putin is well aware of my feelings about this, because I spoke to him directly about it,” he said.
Russia appears unfazed by Obama’s fighting words. “It is necessary to either stop talking about it, or finally produce some evidence,” the Kremlin’s spokesperson, Dmitri Peskov, told the Interfax news agency, according to the New York Times. “Otherwise, it all begins to look quite unseemly.”
The timing of Obama’s more overtly confrontational posture toward Russia blunts the edge of his tough rhetoric; Obama has just a little over a month before he leaves the White House, and it seems like the scope of actions he can take is limited. He could launch a retaliatory cyberstrike, something that Joe Biden has hinted at before, or he could impose additional sanctions on Russia. But Trump could reverse military directives or sanctions upon entering office, which is not out of the realm of possibility given his consistent advocacy for warming US-Russian relations and his dismissal of claims that Russia interfered with the election process.
Obama is now in the peculiar position of looking like a Russia hawk compared to the Republican Party. Trump has expressed great affection for Putin, and just nominated a man for secretary of state whose selection mainly makes sense in the context of a diplomatic pivot in favor of Moscow. While a handful of GOP senators like Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham have pushed back against the prospect, most Republicans are remaining quiet for now.
That development is remarkable given the fierce criticism Obama faced from Republicans for not being tough enough on Putin during his time in office. After Russia’s incursion into Ukraine in 2014, Obama came under fire from the GOP for using targeted sanctions that didn’t go after Putin himself and refraining from providing Ukraine with weapons. He was also criticized for failing to intervene more forcefully in the Syrian conflict to limit Russian influence there.
“A big chunk of the Republican Party, which prided itself during the Reagan era and for decades that followed as being the bulwark against Russian influence, now suddenly is embracing [Putin]," Obama said.