My first “rule of thumb” for recognizing when an article or policy analysis on Russian actions is likely incorrect is that “if the speaker/author bases their analysis on the assumption that Moscow’s actions are exclusively directed toward the USA, chances are that their analysis will be wrong. Russian policies are, not surprisingly, often directed toward Russian audiences.” Putin’s meddling in the US Presidential election offers a clear example. The obvious (to many Americans) explanation is that the reason Putin is taking the unprecedented step of directly meddling in US elections is that he wants Trump to win. Obvious, but wrong.
The primary reason Putin is meddling in the US election process is that he wants to discredit the democratic process, in general, and American democracy, in particular. His primary target is not the USA but pro-democracy groups inside Russia as well as in various former Soviet Republics that maintain their client relationship with Moscow. (To Putin, both Russian democracy activists and those in the Russia’s “near abroad” are “domestic” since he views and treats those former Republics as de facto satellites.) Putin may be a brutal dictator bent on reestablishing the Russian Empire of Alexander III, but he is also geopolitically smart and understands that the spread of democracy is antithetical to his goal. By undermining the still widely-held conception among residents of the FSU that democracy is good and American-style democracy is great, Putin is working to consolidate his power by dashing people’s dreams.
Personally, I am not convinced that Putin even wants Trump to win. I am not even certain if Trump really cares who wins. I agree that Trump is very useful to Putin. Trump is the classic “useful idiot” that the Soviet Union’s propaganda and espionage organs valued so highly – the type of foreigner who promotes Moscow’s propaganda line without even being paid or blackmailed. Putin, however, is smart enough to recognize the difference between an idiot and a world leader with whom he would have to deal. Putin must realize that a Trump presidency would bring unprecedented uncertainty – uncertainty that could lead to war or even nuclear war. So, while Putin knows that Hillary Clinton would be a formidable and implacable foe to his plans for a renewed Russian empire, given the choice he could well choose the enemy he knows over an uncertain and unreliable ‘friend.’ It could also be, of course, that Putin really does not care who wins and that his only goal is to tarnish the image of democracy. Putin is confident (or arogant) enough to believe that whoever wins the election, he’ll deal with him/her.
Looking at the election today, Putin must feel a bit like Bin Laden after the World Trade Towers collapsed – his plan is working even better than he could have hoped. Not only have the e-mail ‘scandals’ he rigged by funneling data to WikiLeaks led to Trump and his supporters feverishly supporting Moscow’s age-old narrative that American elections are really no different than corrupt and rigged Russian elections, now the Trump camp is threatening some type of (possibly armed) insurrection if Trump loses, which he almost certainly will. Trump is being joined in his calls for revolt by people who should know better, such as Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, who is urging Americans to take up “pitchforks and torches.”
The increasingly unhinged and violent rhetoric coming from the Trump camp must sound to Putin as the most beautiful music he has ever heard. Even if only a tiny percentage of Trump’s supporters carry through on their threats, or even if they only continue broadcasting the message that American democracy is a sham, not only will the image of American democracy be debased for decades to come, but Putin will be facing a US that is greatly weakened by internal divisions and thus less able to counteract Putin’s global agenda. Whatever the outcome of America’s internal debate, a paralyzed and divided America would be a true “win-win” for Putin.
Note: This piece is heavily draw from a speech I gave at the Mar’s Woods Lifelong Learning Group in Lake Oswego, Oregon on September 6, 2016. I edited greatly to turn a 45-minute speech into a short article and updated slightly to reflect more recent events.