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For half a decade, the spectral presence of Russia has haunted U.S. politics. Moscow’s influence operations played a disputed role in President Trump’s surprise 2016 election victory. Once in power, Trump was plunged almost immediately into a series of legal battles over his campaign’s contacts with Kremlin operatives, charges that Trump constantly waved away as a “hoax,” but which saw a number of his former colleagues criminally indicted.

What Moscow has gained from its efforts to sow chaos in the American domestic scene is more an open question. Russia is in a weaker place in 2020 than it was in 2016, its economy hobbled by a crash in oil prices and its public growing markedly frustrated with long-ruling President Vladimir Putin. The apparent poisoning attempt on Russian dissident Alexei Navalny betrayed the vulnerability of the regime. Now, as former vice president Joe Biden’s chances of victory in the upcoming presidential election rise, according to polls, the Russian ruble is slumping over fears that a change in administration may lead to more sanctions and an even deeper freeze in U.S.-Russia relations.

Trump and Russia

The irony is that, over the past four years, the Trump administration has been in various ways tough on the Kremlin. It repeatedly passed sanctions against Russian officials and companies and has worked to both undermine the reach of Russian gas projects in Europe and bolster some of Russia’s European neighbors through arms sales. But Trump himself is a different matter.

In congressional testimony delivered last month, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray said he believed Russia was once again “very active” in its efforts to influence the U.S. election, specifically to “denigrate” Biden, Trump’s rival for the White House. That irked the president, but Wray is hardly the first administration official to link Putin’s agenda with Trump’s political success.

Former national security adviser John Bolton claimed he was afraid to leave Trump alone with Putin at a 2018 summit and alleged that Trump was loath to bring up election interference in his private conversations with the Russian leader. Bolton’s predecessor, H.R. McMaster, said last week that Trump was “aiding and abetting Putin’s efforts” by stoking uncertainty about mail-in voting and the credibility of the U.S. election.

“You know, Putin gets away with, I mean, literally murder or attempted murder . . . because people don’t call him out on it,” McMaster said on MSNBC. “And so they are able to continue with this kind of fire hose of falsehood, to sow these conspiracy theories. And we just can’t be our own worst enemies.”

No matter the Trump administration’s anti-Moscow moves, “you have a White House that has not been communicating a strong stance against Russia,” Alina Polyakova, the president and CEO of the European Center for Policy Analysis, told Today’s WorldView. The Russians “have been able to carry out all kinds of mischief,” she said, from Afghanistan, Syria and Libya to the Baltic Sea, exploiting the Trump administration’s dissonant, “incomprehensible foreign policy agenda” and Trump’s own seeming unwillingness to confront Putin.

Biden and Russia

Yet Biden also belonged to an administration that is perceived to have been weak on Russia and whose “reset” of relations with Moscow couldn’t check the Kremlin’s opportunism. “You have the [Russian] interventions in Syria, Ukraine and the U.S. elections under Obama,” Polyakova said. “Like it or not, Biden was part of that administration and did very little to impose real consequences.”

As president, most experts expect that he would ratchet up pressure on Moscow and work in greater concert with European partners who are also taking a tougher line. “If Biden is elected, we will confront a consolidation of the West on an anti-Russian platform,” said Andrey Kortunov, head of the Kremlin-founded Russian International Affairs Council, to Bloomberg News.

Biden branded Trump “Putin’s puppy” in their first debate, while shrugging off a largely unproven Republican allegation that his son received an illicit $3.5 million payment from the wife of Moscow’s ex-mayor. In a CNN town hall last month, Biden labeled Russia an “opponent.” His 2011 visit to the Russian capital as vice president is still remembered for his perceived affront of telling opposition leaders that Putin should not run for president again (he’s now extended his rule until 2036). A future President Biden would have to reckon with the likely expiry of the New START accord, which limited the number of strategic nuclear warheads deployed by the United States and Russia. The Trump administration’s attempts to negotiate a new treaty have so far not yielded much fruit.

“A Biden administration will confront Russian aggression from a position of strength, even as we work to maintain strategic stability,” campaign spokesman T.J. Ducklo told Axios last month. “Unlike this administration which has never taken the Russian threat seriously, Joe Biden will rally our allies to deter Russian aggression as a united front, and protect the interests of Western democracies.”

Other experts predict a gloomy future for Russia no matter who wins the November election. “Both outcomes would be bad for Russia,” said Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center in a recent webinar. “I would expect further deterioration of the relationship. If Trump wins, the victory will be responded to by the U.S. Congress, and Russia will be punished for that victory severely — more so than in 2016. If Biden wins, he will show to the world that he’s no Putin puppet and that he will take Putin very seriously.”

That’s why an altogether different result may be most appealing for the Russians. “From a Russian perspective, the best outcome is a chaotic, contested election,” Polyakova said. That’s quite possible, given the real possibility that Trump may not accept defeat and may choose, instead, to litigate the election through the courts.

A crisis for American democracy — and the global despair over America that in some corners has already set in — may be a victory in and of itself for the Russian leadership. “There’s been a misconception of Russian strategy in general,” Polyakova said. “It’s about ensuring that the U.S. looks chaotic, badly managed and full of strife and unable to deal with problems abroad and at home.”

To that end, the Kremlin has hardly needed to lift a finger.

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