We may never know as to when did the cycle of escalation — which led to the eventual hack of the DNC — begin. It possibly had its origins in the Colour Revolutions, the tenure of the then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or maybe even the release of the Panama Papers. The chain of causation certainly diverges from the narrative advertised by the mainstream media.
Putin’s sense of urgency, his tolerance for risk did increase dramatically during that period — triggered by the unknowables.
Yet, one thing is clear: post-facto, the operation could be interpreted as a classic case of cyber deterrence manifesting over a countervalue target.
In military doctrine, countervalue is the targeting of an opponent’s assets which are of value but not actually a military threat, such as cities and civilian populations. Counterforce is the targeting of an opponent’s military forces and facilities— Wikipedia
In November 2018, while defending itself in a civil lawsuit filed by the DNC in a New York court, the Russian government labelled its hack as a “quintessential sovereign act.” As I noted in my recent essay, the Russian government has all the right to keep the qualitative reasons behind that “sovereign act” to itself.
Russia even invoked the provisions of the US Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act to make its case. She was guarding against or deterring something which clearly seemed to have threatened her own sovereignty.
Not only that, the July 2018 DoJ indictment against GRU operatives who led the DNC operation lays bare a significant detail: expectedly so, the US or its allies had pre-positioned cyber implants in and around Russian military networks long before the actual act. Not that it matters, those networks would be deemed as valid counterforce targets.
While we may never know how or why it all began, we do know how it ended: by the US actually getting cyber deterred:
As more information spills out about the Obama administration’s reaction to Russian cyber-based interference in the 2016 U.S. elections, a picture has emerged that cyber deterrence is not just theoretical and the United States was the one deterred. As Bruce Schneier has blogged, “the [United States] was successfully deterred from attacking Russia in cyberspace because of fears of Russian capabilities against [it].” Scholars and national security analysts must adapt their theories and policies to this new reality.— Not The Cyber Deterrence the United States Wants
In the framework of classical deterrence, the DNC (and the US electoral infrastructure) does appear to be a countervalue target.
PS: US policymakers are now thinking of adding an exception for cyberattacks in the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which, with the Defend Forward strategy of the US Cyber Command, has to be considered both ways.