With his interference in the 2016 election, Russian President Vladimir Putin hoped he could tilt Washington onto a more pro-Moscow course. But after President Trump signed legislation tightening sanctions on Russia on Wednesday, it should be clear that Putin’s strategy backfired in a big way.
First, Russia’s meddling has not helped it achieve its policy objectives. Russia wanted sanctions lifted; instead, they have been strengthened. Russia hoped that Trump would splinter the NATO alliance with his threats not to defend members who were not meeting their financial commitments. Instead, allies are increasing their defense spending by $12 billion, the Trump administration continued the deployment of NATO forces to the Baltics and sent an additional 900 troops to Poland’s border with Russia, and the president has now reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to Article V of the NATO charter. None of these outcomes please Moscow.
The Trump administration is considering plans to provide Ukraine with advanced anti-tank weapons, including Javelin missiles, and possibly anti-aircraft weapons — a move that is sure to anger Putin. In Warsaw, Trump delivered one of the most anti-Russian speeches any American president has given in a generation, and proposed a natural gas deal with Poland to decrease its energy dependence on Moscow. Administration officials have also accused Moscow of violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty and arming the Taliban in Afghanistan. The one bright spot for Putin is Syria, where Trump worked with Russia to establish a cease-fire area and canceled a CIA program to train and equip anti-Assad rebels — a move sought by Moscow. But Trump also bombed Putin’s ally Bashar al-Assad and his administration blamed Moscow for Assad’s use of chemical weapons on innocent civilians. Relations between the United States and Russia are so bad that Putin is now expelling hundreds of American diplomats, the largest such expulsion since the Communist revolution. We are in a new Cold War.
Second, Russia’s election meddling has boxed Trump in to this aggressive stance for the foreseeable future. Trump’s best defense against charges of collusion with Russia is: Look at my policies. There has been no president this tough on Moscow since Ronald Reagan. Even if Trump wanted to pursue détente with Russia, he cannot do so, because any concessions he makes to Putin will be seen through the prism of the Russia investigation. Every step taken that benefits Moscow will cost him politically at home, while tough stances will insulate him from accusations that he is Putin’s puppet.
Third, Russia’s election meddling has achieved something no Russian leader has previously been able to do: It has turned Democrats into modern-day Cold Warriors. In 2012, after Mitt Romney called Russia our No. 1 geopolitical foe, Democrats cheered Barack Obama for mocking him by saying, “The 1980s are calling to ask for their foreign policy back.” Today, five years later, Democrats are suddenly channeling their inner Reagan.
It’s ironic. During the Cold War, when the Kremlin was throwing people into the gulag and threatening the United States with nuclear annihilation, many Democrats were all for accommodating Moscow. They opposed the Reagan defense buildup, the Strategic Defense Initiative and aid to anti-Soviet freedom fighters and chafed when Reagan declared the Soviet Union an “Evil Empire.” But the Kremlin finally crossed a line when it messed with Hillary Clinton’s campaign. None of this is what Putin was hoping for when he decided to interfere in the 2016 election.
There is still no evidence that Moscow’s interference had any impact on the results of the election. Long before the first WikiLeaks emails came out, polls showed that 65 percent of Americans had already decided that Clinton was dishonest and 56 percent said she should have been prosecuted. Moreover, the stories that cemented these perceptions in Americans’ minds had nothing to do with Russia or WikiLeaks — and most came out many months before the first WikiLeaks emails were published. It was the New York Times that broke the story that Clinton used a private email server while secretary of state. It was The Post that revealed the Clinton Foundation accepted millions of dollars in donations from foreign governments during the same period. It was ABC News that revealed that the Clinton State Department gave special treatment to “FOBs” (friends of Bill Clinton) after the Haiti earthquake. None of that had anything to do with Russia.
So while Russia’s interference did not change the outcome of the 2016 election, it certainly has changed U.S. policy since. Relations with Moscow are at an all-time low, and there has not been such bipartisan unity in opposing Russia in decades. That’s actually a pretty good outcome for the United States and her allies — but not exactly what Putin had in mind when he decided to meddle in American democracy.