In the risk-vs.-gain calculation intelligence officers use, the veteran KGB officer would probably have decided that the opportunity to influence the election was too good to pass up. The question of whether his preferred candidate, Donald Trump, would win was moot. At best, Trump would prevail, but there would be an outcry about Russia siding with him; at worst, Hillary Clinton’s administration, which would likely take an even harder line toward Moscow than Barack Obama’s did, would be weakened by domestic politics. Either way, Putin was giving up on any chance to restore good relations with the United States.
The first accusations by the Obama administration in fall 2016 that Russia was attempting to interfere in the election did not deter Putin. Even with Trump in the White House, Russia does not appear to have ceased its attempts to penetrate the U.S. political and national security establishment, based on public warnings and statements by the director of national intelligence, FBI director and deputy attorney general over the past few days. There remain questions about the extent to which the Russians meddled in the British referendum to exit the European Union, or elections in France and Germany. Compromise and exposure of espionage activity has clearly failed to halt aggressive Russian operations.
After Trump and Putin’s baffling news conference in Helsinki this past week, it’s clear why: Russia is not actually seeking a return to “normal” relations with the West. Putin moved on a long time ago from that goal in favor of creating advantages that advance his nation’s interests. A weaker United States from the top down serves that objective. In Helsinki, facing a U.S. president whose public stance is the friendliest of his long rule, Putin mocked American intelligence agencies, belittled the idea that Trump would have been worth his attention before entering politics, and made demands to interrogate U.S. citizens and former ambassadors. We should expect more of the same hostility in the future.
Clearly, the Russian risk calculation is the same now as in 2016: Putin believes Russian interests are better served by confrontation than cooperation with the United States and its NATO allies. Blanket Russian government denials of accusations are not intended to be reassuring or persuasive to Americans or Europeans; they ring hollow because Russia is sending a signal of resolve.
If Moscow truly hoped that Trump would make good on promises his administration would improve U.S.-Russian relations, it would have been quickly disappointed: Early champions of improving bilateral ties, such as national security adviser Michael Flynn and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, were replaced by hard-liners. Congress piled new sanctions onto old ones. Robert Mueller’s “witch hunt,” as Trump called it, was in full swing. The American public was starting to see Russia very unfavorably.
Russia continues to aggressively confront the United States on almost every front. Despite limited cooperation in counterterrorism, the war in the shadows between the nations’ spies appears to be at levels not seen since the Cold War, based on the tit-for-tat expulsions, espionage-related incidents and arrests.
Yet in Helsinki, fresh off his tongue-lashing of the closest U.S. allies in Europe, Trump didn’t call Russia out publicly on any issue, including election meddling, even though the Justice Department had laid out a detailed indictment of 12 GRU officers days before.
Even so, Putin flashed open hostility at the alleged hypocrisy and hubris of American democracy. He scoffed at the idea that Trump would have been of interest to the Russians as a businessman, which flies in the face of everything the United States knows about the targeting and surveillance of prominent Americans who travel to Russia. Putin made a patently absurd offer to invite Mueller’s investigators to come to Moscow to interview witnesses. His proposal that, in exchange, the United States should make former ambassador Michael McFaul available for questioning was an obvious insult to the entire U.S. political establishment. These were not serious proposals. They were intended to provoke, not inspire dialogue.
Why might Putin have abandoned his icy, controlled demeanor in Helsinki? Given U.S. political trends, does he believe Trump has the ability to deliver better relations, now or in the future? If Putin thinks Trump lacks the power to change policy on Russia, then he is expendable. Which means supporting Trump is less important than sowing discord in the United States. This is especially true if the Kremlin sees its campaign against Western democracy as of greater value than investing more political capital in a mortally wounded president.
That’s not to say Helsinki was an unmitigated success for Russia. As with all major geopolitical decisions, there are pros and cons to the
track that Washington and Moscow are on. Waking up a sleeping giant is risky business. Sparking divisions among NATO allies seems like a good idea — unless it provokes them not to take relationships for granted. Any offensive creates the possibility of a counteroffensive.
On a tactical level, Putin is surely asking his special services: What are the costs of continuing Russian intelligence operations to meddle in American internal affairs? What is the U.S. intelligence response? How will they retaliate?
What success has he had in sowing discord here, and how does he measure that? How has the campaign affected perceptions of Western democracy in the United States and around the world? How popular among Russians is his zero-sum game of confronting the United States? How has Russia’s standing in the world been enhanced by confronting the United States and its allies? Can Russia still salvage sufficient channels of communication with the United States to reduce miscalculations and misunderstandings that could spiral out of control and serve the interests of neither side?
It is not at all clear whether the Kremlin has fact-based answers to such profound questions or whether it is even interested in the facts. The Russians may well have thrown their lot on their current trajectory, flush with the perception that silencing the media, eliminating political opponents, invading sovereign countries and aggressively undercutting democratic institutions in other nations is wise policy.
Putin appears to be placing all his bets on the conviction that Russia will prevail in the long term, because Western democracy is in irrevocable decline. In his public statements and speeches, he consistently rejects the idea that democracy is in any way superior to his model — the authoritarian model — when it comes to providing order, stability and security for citizens. He is counting on us as Americans to prove his point with the growing divisiveness and dysfunctionality that our system has produced, in response both to Russian attacks and to other problems for which we have no one to blame but ourselves.
If we are to prove him wrong, we must remember — and remind him — that American success does not flow from our military or economic might, but from the core values that have ennobled and sustained our system since the American Revolution. The same core values that Putin disparages as evidence of a corrupt and broken governance model can save us, but only if we hold fast to them.