Okay, so that you’re the President of Ruritania. You hate your next door neighbor, the country of Djibabwee.
You send troops into Djibabwee, kill a bunch of people, and install your brother as the new leader.
It’s fair to call that an act of war, yes?
Is it an act of war because:
a) Ruritania killed a bunch of Djibabweeans?
b) It was a military operation against Djibabwee to change the government to one that did not conflict with the aims of Ruritania?
Does ‘a’ need to be true for it to still be an act of war? If we say that it is, then what prevents Ruritania from simply using non-lethal means to achieve the same objective? Why shouldn’t Pakighan and Bulgania get in on the action? They can all just use non-lethal means to destabilize the government of Djibabwee, promote candidates who are loyal to foreign states or incompetent, etc.
The instant that everyone realizes that they can do this, and that there are no repercussions, then game is on, my friend. Game is on. It’s Christmas every single day for everyone except the people of Djibabwee.
Second example, say that you’re a wannabe mass murderer. You’re a stupid one, though, and you’ve decided that taurine is a poison. You go on the internet, buy a whole load of taurine, and start investigating how to break into the local water treatment plant, to dump it all in and poison the whole town to death. (Muahahah!)
When you were ordering the taurine, you made a bunch of creepy and scary comments that had lead the manufacturer to report you to the FBI. When you leave your house with a gun, some wire cutters, and other paraphernalia they sit you down and ask you a bunch of questions, discovering that you intended to kill everyone in town by poisoning them with taurine.
You haven’t killed anyone, you haven’t even broken nor entered into the water treatment plant, and yet you’ll be arrested and you’ll spend time in jail for conspiracy to commit murder. Success in your aims is not necessary in order to commit a crime. You simply need to have demonstrated an intent and to have taken concrete actions to see the plan forward.
By the same token, let’s say that during the second World War the Japanese had purchased a large number of armaments from a new Ruritanian maker. Unknown to the Japanese, the maker is just a fraudster and all of the bullets have rubber heads and and all of the bombs are filled with sawdust. The Japanese show up in Pearl Harbor and 30 seconds in to trying to slaughter everyone they figure out that something is wrong, and turn around to try and fly away before the Americans can get their guns working.
Would you say that we should ignore this attempt to ambush and mass murder thousands of Americans in Pearl Harbor just because their weapons were all duds? Surely, they won’t try again?
As said, succeeding is not a component of the matter. If you make a real attempt to do grave harm, whether your plan was any good or whether your execution was successful is irrelevant. You’re still a bad actor who could come back the next day, and you now know more about what does and doesn’t work.
I assume that you don’t care if the Russians made a concerted, military attack to change the political regime in America, either because you like that regime or because you think they failed to have any effect. But neither of those is an argument that the Russians didn’t attack us, they’re just arguments that you don’t care about others or the country, so long as it all works to your benefit. “Because I’m an asshole, it’s alright.” Is not a reasonable argument.
And like I said, the instant that it’s out there that everyone’s free to muck around in American politics with impunity, your ability to continue to expect things to turn out your way are going to be severely reduced. You may like Russia’s view of the world. But are you also going to like China’s and Iran’s, and everyone else who has a benefit to seeing America fall and burn?