Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to see Donald Trump become the next president of the United States. To that end, Putin and his government have taken unprecedented steps to influence our electoral process to help the Republican Party's nominee. Whether Russia's interventions will succeed is not obvious. But it's clear that Putin's government has the motives — and the means — to try.
Putin has rational motives for wanting Trump to win: Trump champions many foreign policies that Putin supports. Trump's most shocking, pro-Kremlin proposal is to "look into" recognition of Crimea as a part of Russia. President Obama and nearly every member of Congress — Republican and Democrat — have rejected that idea vigorously. Only Afghanistan, Cuba, Nicaragua, North Korea, Syria and Venezuela have recognized Russia's annexation of Crimea. Naturally, Putin would love to see the United States join that list.
Trump also has made clear his disdain for the United States' alliances around the world. Demonstrating his misunderstanding of how NATO works, Trump has demanded that other NATO members essentially pay us for protection, making many of our allies, especially in the eastern part of Europe, nervous about his commitment to defend them. Trump has also disparaged our allies in Asia, creating new opportunities for Russian influence. On trade, Trump's promises to disrupt our agreements also play right into Putin's agenda. From Putin's perspective, what could be a better way to start the New Year than a trade war between the United States and China or Mexico? Trump's threats to stop paying our debts also would radically undermine our credibility as a lender, another desirable outcome for Putin.
On the whole, Trump advocates isolationist policies and an abdication of U.S. leadership in the world. He cares little about promoting democracy and human rights. A U.S. retreat from global affairs fits precisely with Putin's international interests. And if Mr. Trump becomes president, experts on U.S. politics predict a tumultuous period domestically. If a President Trump tried to implement his radical ideas regarding immigration or walling off our southern border, a serious push-back effort would ensue, both in Congress and in the country as a whole. A United States convulsed by infighting over Trump's deeply divisive policy proposals gives Putin more freedom to act around the world.
If a Trump victory would serve Putin's interests, a President Hillary Clinton would not. Clinton will never recognize Crimea as part of Russia, seeks to strengthen relations with our allies and speaks out about human rights.
Putin and his government already know Clinton from her four years as secretary of state. They remember the tough line she took in seeking to negotiate a political transition in Syria; her efforts — though failed — to get Russia to support even modest U.N. Security Council resolutions regarding this humanitarian tragedy; and her early advocacy for arming Syria opponents of Bashar al-Assad, Moscow's ally. They remember her public criticism of irregularities in Russia's December 2011 parliamentary election, which Putin lambasted as a "signal" to Russian protesters to take to the streets against him. And they remember her portrayal of Putin's prized foreign policy project — the creation of the Eurasia Economic Union — as a "a move to re-Sovietize the region." No one should be surprised that Putin and his government would rather see Trump in the White House.
Putin not only has strong motives for wanting to Trump to win over Clinton, but also has some means to try to influence our presidential vote.
Kremlin-controlled media outlets have stated publicly their preference for Trump. RT, Russia's state-controlled television station broadcasting in the United States, has a clear preference for Trump. In one of many pro-Trump reports, the Russian state-controlled news service, Sputnik, said it confirmed Trump's claim about Obama being the "founder" of the Islamic State and tweeted the hashtag: #CrookedHillary. With vigor and volume, pro-Kremlin bloggers echoed these same messages on Twitter and Facebook. Putin himself has weighed in, praising Trump as a "colorful" ("yarkii") and talented politician (though not as a genius, as Trump has claimed), who seems more amenable to work with Russia than other candidates.
More audaciously, Russians apparently stole emails from the Democratic National Committee, after which Trump then encouraged Russian spies to steal again and publish more of Clinton's emails. No one should be surprised that the Russian government uses its incredible cyber capabilities to collect intelligence on important U.S. politicians. That is what spies are supposed to do. What they have never done in the past, however, is publish stolen information to influence a U.S. presidential election.
What Donald Trump is doing on the campaign trail
To be precise, WikiLeaks — not the Kremlin — dumped this data into the public domain on the eve of the Democratic National Convention with the clear and successful intent of damaging the Democratic Party and their candidate for president. To remind, WikiLeaks is a foreign agent now meddling directly in our electoral process. We are unlikely to ever know for sure if Russian spies gave this data to WikiLeaks, as WikiLeaks refuses to say and probably would not even know. The Russians are sophisticated enough to use intermediaries to make sure the recipients of the stolen information would not know the original source. WikiLeaks is promising to release more emails, fueling expectations about a possible "October surprise."
U.S. electoral experts, not me, must judge whether Russian efforts will sway the elections this fall. From my amateur armchair, the tactics seem crude and counterproductive. Does Sputnik tweeting #CrookedHillary really win over any undecided voters? I hope not, but I don’t know. What I do know is that Secretary Clinton could well become President Clinton on Jan. 20, 2017. Russian officials — from Putin to the person running the Sputnik Twitter account — might want to start thinking about what they plan to do then, and stop playing around with our electoral process now.
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