It’s been partly obscured by a tsunami of Donald Trump-related coverage. But the Obama administration’s charge that Russia is trying to interfere in the US election is arguably as important a news story as any to yet emerge from the 2016 election.
That’s because the Vladimir Putin regime’s alleged dissemination of emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee and other American institutions would represent a leap to a new and more serious level of sabotage in the old game of geopolitical skirmishing between rivals.
Putin’s goal is likely more than irritation of the Obama administration or the tarnishing of Obama’s successor. Perhaps he’s pushing for the election of Mr. Trump, who’s said positive things about the Russian leader.
And even if Trump loses, the Putin regime’s arbitrary leaking of purloined communications could undermine trust between American political actors and perhaps even the public’s faith in the electoral system as a whole.
“Foreign hackers purloining emails and selectively leaking them to shape US political outcomes is, in my opinion, a fairly alarming trend,” tweeted Vox political writer Matthew Yglesias on Wednesday.
Putin himself continues to deny that Russia is behind the drip of Democratic Party emails – most recently from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta – which WikiLeaks is now revealing. Such hacking has “nothing to do with Russia’s interests” he said Wednesday at a business forum in Moscow.
But Putin skillfully used the issue to point out that during his years in power Russia has climbed back toward the status of an important nation. Ten years ago, such an incident as the hacking scandal would not have been important to the US, because Russia was seen as a “third-rate regional power and not interesting at all."
Now Russia is problem No. 1 in the US election campaign, said Putin – employing his own bit of Trump-style exaggeration.
“All they do is keep talking about us. Of course it’s pleasant for us, but only partly, because all participants are misusing anti-Russian rhetoric and poisoning our bilateral relations,” Putin said.
So is the hacking scandal a pure status play? Almost certainly not, according to foreign policy experts. There are a number of other reasons why Putin and other Russian leaders would see the chaos unleashed by the move as a likely strategic advantage.
One is revenge. Putin may be meddling in the US election because he believes the US has meddled in his own political affairs, pointed out Fiona Hill, a Brookings Institution senior fellow in foreign policy, in an August analysis of the situation.
When Putin decided to return to the Russian presidency for a third term, Russian demonstrators took to Moscow’s streets in 2011 and 2012 to protest the lack of alternative candidates and other perceived political violations. Putin has blamed then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for fomenting and even financing these outbursts.
A second reason might be Russia’s asymmetric information advantage. Former KGB operative Putin is a master at using leaked information, intimidation, and blackmail to directly target foreign leaders, according to Dr. Hill.
The Kremlin has its own state-sponsored media machine to function as a “kind of massive pro-Putin Super PAC,” in Hill’s words. Meanwhile, Russian officials are skilled in using the very openness of the US media, which eagerly disseminates the leaked email information, as a means for their own ends.
A third Putin goal might be a weaker US presidency. While leaks alone probably can’t swing the election to Trump, Russia could still sling mud at Mrs. Clinton, and some could stick.
In Moscow’s mind turmoil in Washington may be to Russia’s advantage.
It could make things more difficult for Clinton to forge a coherent and forceful response to Russia’s continued military actions in Syria, for instance. Russia has its own presidential election coming up in 2018, and Putin doesn’t want a repeat of the 2011 protests.
“A US president who is elected amid controversy and recrimination, reviled by a larger segment of the electorate, and mired in domestic crises will be hard-pressed to forge a coherent foreign policy and challenge Russia,” writes Brookings’ Hill.
Is Donald Trump a willing participant in this game? That’s what Mr. Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman, hinted on Wednesday. He said that Trump’s campaign might have had foreknowledge of the hack of his (Podesta’s) email account.
“I’ve been involved in politics for nearly five decades, and this definitely is the first campaign that I’ve been involved with in which I’ve had to tangle with Russian intelligence agencies, who seem to be doing everything they can on behalf of our opponent,” said Podesta on Tuesday.
Though some ex-Trump campaign officials, such as former campaign director Paul Manafort, have had direct financial ties to Russian interests, there’s no evidence Trump himself is a Russian plant. It’s more likely that Putin has moved to support a US politician who is apparently sympathetic to Russia for his own interests.
Trump has often tried to do business in Russia, and sought loans from Russian financial institutions. We don’t know the extent of this connection, in part because Trump won’t release his taxes.
He has criticized NATO as a bad deal for the US, and even raised questions about whether as president he would live up to its mutual defense treaty provisions. That latter point in particular has to be music to Moscow’s ears, as Russia has long bitterly resented NATO’s expansion into what it used to consider its own neighborhood of influence.
Former chess world champion Garry Kasparov, a Russian who is a fierce Putin critic and wary of Donald Trump, said Wednesday that Putin may see Trump as an ideal partner.
Moscow views Trump “as a perfect agent of chaos,” said Kasparov in an appearance on CNN. “That’s what dictators need.”