On Tuesday, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will be elected president. But no matter who prevails, Russian President Vladimir Putin can declare a victory of his own in the 2016 presidential race.
Russia’s hacking and leaking of private emails and documents from U.S. political organizations marked an unprecedented campaign to interfere with American elections. And while it’s not clear that Putin was specifically trying to get Trump elected, half a dozen U.S. intelligence officials and Russia experts told The Daily Beast that the hacking campaign succeeded in embarrassing American politicians, fomenting an already polarized electorate, and turning Putin himself into a major character in the election year narrative.
“I think he has certainly succeeded in introducing additional discord into our political system,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “And he’s endeavored to weaken Secretary Clinton so if she is successful in the election she is a less formidable foe.”
Schiff, who has been briefed on the hacks by U.S. intelligence officials, said the intelligence community views the Russian campaign “with great alarm.” In part that’s because interference with the presidential election is not a singular event. Rather, it fits in a pattern of increasingly bold moves by Russia to challenge U.S. influence and to enhance Putin’s standing with his own people.
“I think the shift began well before this [hacking] with Putin’s rising hostility, with the invasion of Ukraine, with their conduct in Syria,” Schiff said. “This is just the latest form of Russian aggression against the U.S. and our interests.” And, he added, there’s no reason to think it will cease after Election Day.
U.S. intelligence analysts have also closely watched Russia’s propaganda campaigns in Europe. Those efforts, which preceded the U.S. hacking operation and were also aimed at undermining elections, propagated false information about national leaders and eroded public support for the European Union. Last summer, a senior E.U. official said that Russian propaganda websites and social media trolling had been documented in every European country. Hundreds of “disinformation websites” had been spotted in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. The EU now has a task force dedicated to debunking conspiracy theories and fake news stories being churned out by Moscow.
“We’re seeing a troubling escalation of that kind of conduct here in the United States,” Schiff said.
Why Putin decided that last summer was the moment to extend so-called “active measures” into the United States is a matter of significant discussion inside the U.S. intelligence community. But his confidence in his own political longevity was badly shaken, observers say, by protests in Moscow in 2011 and later the overthrow of a pro-Russian government in Ukraine. Putin sees the United States as the secret architect of these movements, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper explained at a security conference in Aspen, Colorado, last summer.
“I think that their approach is they believe that we are trying to influence political developments in Russia, we are trying to effect change, and so their natural responses is to retaliate and do onto us as they think we’ve done onto them,” Clapper said.
Schiff said that the hacks, which the intelligence community officially pinned on the highest levels of the Russian government in October, can be seen as “payback” for Putin’s erroneous conclusions that the Obama administration is responsible for his political troubles. To strengthen the legitimacy of his own rule, Putin routinely seeks to expose corruption and unfairness in U.S. and European politics and to accuse his adversaries of behaving no differently than him. The leaked emails from the DNC and later inside Clinton’s own campaign gave him powerful ammunition—showing that the DNC and its leadership were working hard to undermine Clinton’s Democratic rivals, and passing supposedly confidential information to her campaign.
“There’s a domestic portion to Putin’s agenda here,” Peter Clement, a deputy assistant director at the CIA and the agency’s most senior Russia analyst, said in rare public remarks at a conference in Washington, DC, in September. “If you look at the leaks that came out most recently on the DNC, the Russian media were very, very quick to pick up the fact that, ‘See, the West is always lecturing us, and yet look at this primary system. Was it a truly level playing field?’ Which is something the Americans always criticize the Russians about.”
Clement said that Russian press also seized on documents hacked from the World Anti-Doping Agency that showed American athletes taking banned substances after Russian athletes were thrown out of competition for their own drug use. (Some well-known American athletes received permission from the agency to take drugs for common ailments.) The revelations were another opportunity for Putin to expose what he sees as the West’s hypocrisy and to try to normalize Russia’s behavior on the international stage.
“If you watch the Russian media closely, these themes come through loud and clear,” Clement said. “I think Putin sees this as a way of trying to legitimize to his own people, ‘You know, we’re not any different than anybody else. Everybody does the things that they accuse us of doing, and at least we have stability and order at home.’”
But in targeting the U.S. elections, Putin is also playing to American voters.
“I suspect Putin wanted the hacking and leaking to be just ambiguous enough to be deniable, but obvious enough to make a point: we can do this, we have done this, we don’t fear you,” Mark Galeotti, a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, told The Daily Beast.
“It’s classic Putin, jerk geopolitics, trying to win the initiative by some alpha-male stunt, the cyber equivalent of bringing his big dog into meetings with [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel, who is notoriously afraid of dogs.”
If Putin’s M.O. is to intimidate world leaders, in the U.S. campaign, he flipped that approach—talking up a candidate instead. “What facilitated this, I have to say, and made it more successful, is that one of the presidential candidates decided to be an enabler,” Schiff said.
Trump has publicly praised Putin as a wise and strong leader, encouraged Russian hackers to expose more of Clinton’s emails, and consistently denied that Russia is responsible for the hacking campaign, despite the consensus of all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies to the contrary.
“This was a tremendous boon to the Kremlin because they could publicize on RT [the English-language Russian TV network] and back home that one of the major candidates believes Russia had nothing to do with this,” Schiff said. “It gave credibility to their deniability.”
Writing in the Washington Post on Friday, former CIA Director Michael Hayden said that Trump was playing the old Soviet role of the “useful fool, some naif, manipulated by Moscow, secretly held in contempt, but whose blind support is happily accepted and exploited.”
Clinton has seized on this idea, too, and practically made Trump’s suspected links to Putin part of her stump speech. Her campaign has said that the hacks were designed specifically to boost Trump’s chances of winning—an assertion that not even the intelligence community has made. Her campaign publicized a widely criticized article that suggested Trump’s company had a secret line of communication to a Russian bank. And in the third presidential debate, Clinton called Trump a “puppet” of the Russian president.
While there is clearly a Clinton strategy to discredit Trump as a Kremlin stooge, that also may play into Putin’s hands.
“Calling Trump Putin’s puppet is a sign of the weakness of the American political system,” said Fiona Hill, who served as the national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council.
“It appears so weak and fragile that outsiders can actually meddle about in it. That’s a win because he wants to say U.S. politics is terrible. He’s always trying to take a stab against U.S. exceptionalism,” said Hill, who’s now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of the book Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin.
The very thing that Putin wants, to loom large in his adversaries’ imagination and their conversations, is what he got this election season. “I was cringing every time Putin was mentioned in debates,” Hill said.
The omnipresence of Putin in the campaign has also demonstrated, both to a Russian and American audience, that Russia cannot be dismissed after the votes for president are counted.
“How can it be a regional power if it was the central topic of the third debate?” Sergei Markov, who runs a pro-Kremlin think tank, told Foreign Policy columnist Julia Ioffe.
Not everyone is equally impressed with the success of Russia’s active measures campaign. In seeking to disrupt the American elections, Putin may not have thought ahead to what comes next.
“In the short term, Putin has certainly achieved what he set out to do, primarily in creating problems for Clinton,” Galeotti said. “But as ever I feel Putin misunderstands and under-estimates democratic systems, and did not think through the longer-term implications.”
“Assuming Clinton wins,” Galeotti continued, “she is likely to be a far more hostile president than before, closer to the Clinton Putin imagined. Even if Trump wins, the national security establishment in DC with which he will have to work is certainly now convinced that the Putin regime is a clear and present danger not just to the international order but America’s democratic system.”
There’s no sign that the Russians will end their active measures campaign with the election on Tuesday. Indeed, they have plenty of incentives to continue. A President Clinton would enter office politically weakened by the Russian leaks as well as ongoing disclosures about her use of a private email system. And a President Trump could easily find himself on the receiving end of a Russian propaganda campaign should he turn on Putin.
The White House has promised that the U.S. will respond to the Russian hacks, though it’s not year clear what form that retaliation might take. Sanctions? Leaks of Russian government communications? A cyber attack on Russian computer systems?
Officials have said that any U.S. response will likely wait until after the election. Presuming Clinton is the victor, it will fall to her to help craft and ultimately enforce a strategy to deter Russian aggression in the future.
“Unless they pay an increasingly high price for this, they’ll continue to meddle the way they are,” Schiff said.