In less than a week, we’ll have a newly elected president, if there isn’t a disputed outcome. But here’s the surprise: Whether it’s Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, either way, Vladimir Putin wins.
Here’s why. Russia’s multifaceted meddling in the 2016 election has been unprecedented, well-documented, and jaw-dropping. The goal seems to have been twofold: first, damage the establishment candidate, Clinton, whom Putin blamed for protests against disputed Russian elections when she was secretary of state, and discredit, destabilize, and sow doubts about our democratic system. For Putin, it’s mission accomplished.
At the State Department this week, I talked with journalists visiting from central Europe and Baltic states who said the United States is getting a taste of what they’ve experienced since the days of the Iron Curtain. “Russia interferes in elections all the time. They don’t need to control the situation, but they want to destabilize it. That’s what’s happening here,” Catalin Hopulele of Romania told me. “Putin has no respect for Trump — he’s using Trump.”
A former KGB operative who rose to lead the agency that replaced the Soviet spy apparatus, Putin has plenty of experience ferreting out secrets and leveraging information. From his perspective, State Department programs promoting free elections, transparency, and civil rights worldwide are a fig leaf for regime change. In December 2011, Putin accused Clinton of giving “the signal” to Russian opposition parties to protest what they considered a fraudulent vote favoring Putin’s party. In his mind, the United States has also fomented uprisings against pro-Kremlin autocrats in former Soviet republics. For Putin, 2016 is payback time.
First came separate e-mail hacks of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, which US national security agencies concluded were directed by the Russian government. Revelations of Democratic Party officials favoring Clinton over her Socialist-turned-Democrat rival Bernie Sanders forced resignations of party officials, while her aides’ concerns about paid speeches and donations to the Clinton Foundation embarrassed her campaign, bolstering Trump’s narrative that she’s corrupt.
Then came cyber intrusions probing voting systems in more than 20 US states, mostly originating from servers operated by a Russian company, according to the US government. Attempts to breach our electoral system amplified Trump’s rhetorical drumbeat about a “rigged election.” Trump supporters buy into unsubstantiated conspiracies of fraud, the international community raises a collective eyebrow, and our democracy looks tarnished.
Key Trump advisers have had lucrative business dealings with Russian oligarchs and pro-Kremlin politicians; Trump’s own ties include substantial funding from Russian investors after major US banks largely ceased lending to him following his bankruptcies — “a lot of money pouring in from Russia,” in the words of his son, Donald J. Trump Jr. Has that influenced the candidate’s worldview? We know the Trump camp insisted the Republican Party soften its platform on Russia, and Trump himself has questioned the NATO alliance and praised Putin as a better leader than Barack Obama.
New stories emerged this week. Mother Jones cited a former intelligence officer who claims to have provided the FBI with evidence of Russian efforts to co-opt Trump. In an angry letter, Senate minority leader Harry Reid asserted FBI Director James Comey and other officials are sitting on “explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisers, and the Russian government.”
Czech journalist Filip Horky told me what Putin really wants — here and everywhere — is “a weak opponent.” And he’ll get it either way. Clinton has derided Trump as a “puppet” of Russia. But if Clinton wins, she might find herself so bogged down by domestic opposition that her ability to project US power and carry out a foreign policy at odds with Russia in the UN Security Council, Europe, and the Middle East may be severely hobbled.
For Putin, that’s mission accomplished.
Indira A.R. Lakshmanan is a Washington columnist. Follow her on Twitter @Indira_L.