Why Putin keeps interfering in U.S. elections

Putin’s interest isn’t necessarily in any particularly candidate, but rather sowing division within the U.S. and among the U.S. and its allies abroad.

Suzanne Spaulding, a respected national security attorney who, among other positions, was undersecretary for cybersecurity and infrastructure at the Department of Homeland Security, has the right idea in calling for taking Russian election interference seriously without “finger-pointing” about Vladimir Putin’s preferences among American political candidates.

“It’s clear,” she says, that “the Russian government continues to wage an assault on our electoral process.” That assault can do major damage to U.S. representative democracy, which is supposed to select leaders according to the preferences and interests of Americans, not those of a foreign regime.

Caution is in order in ascribing specific objectives to the Russian interference, given that those objectives probably have been multiple and shifting. The Russians likely began their interference in the 2016 U.S. election as an attempt to discredit an expected election victory by Hillary Clinton and only later recognized the political viability of Donald Trump as a vehicle for advancing their interests.

Favoritism toward specific candidates is inherently related to Putin’s general goal, which is, in Spaulding’s words, “to weaken us by exploiting and exacerbating division and distrust.” Spaulding herself does not point fingers or name names, but the implications for Russia’s choice of candidates are clear. Trump fits the Russian bill by having built his political career on appealing to a narrow base, exploiting division between that base and the rest of the American electorate, and exacerbating distrust of any part of the American polity outside that base.

The link between overall Russian objectives and preference for an individual candidate gets even more specific than that. Spaulding writes, “By undermining trust in institutions such as the media and the courts — institutions we look to as arbiters of truth — Putin hopes to get us to give up on the idea of truth.” Sound familiar? One of the most salient characteristics of Trump’s presidency has been his disregard for truth and his habitual dismissal of any inconvenient truths that the media report as “fake news.”

Spaulding’s only reference to candidate selection — again, without naming names — is to how “Russia will likely try to exacerbate divisions by amplifying the least-centrist candidates.” In this regard, the ideal general election contest for Russia would pit the self-declared socialist on the left, Bernie Sanders, against the faux-populist on the right, Donald Trump, while leaving the political center rudderless.

Reports of Russian attempts to help Sanders thus are unsurprising. If Sanders as the Democratic nominee would increase the chance of Trump winning the general election in November — as many Democrats who rushed to support Joe Biden in recent days evidently calculate — that would be, for Moscow, a bonus effect of assisting Sanders during the primary season. Sanders — to his credit, and quite unlike Trump — has acknowledged and denounced the Russian interference, rather than trying to dismiss reports of it as some kind of hoax. But the advantages in Russian eyes of stoking as much division as possible between the major American political parties is still for Moscow the dominant factor.

The Russian objective of stoking divisions applies to America’s relations with the rest of the world as well as to divisions within the United States. Those who have cast doubt on Putin’s desire to help Trump’s election or re-election by citing Trump’s support for beefing up the U.S. military are missing the most relevant points. What another possible U.S. president would do regarding military posture is not necessarily more desirable from Moscow’s point of view than anything Trump has done. In the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton was widely perceived as the more hawkish of the two candidates, while Trump was talking about retrenchment and getting out of overseas wars. Putin hardly seems fazed by any prospect of a Trump-led arms race; the Russian president recently related to an interviewer that Trump had told him that U.S. defense spending is too high and that disarmament is a more worthy objective.

More fundamentally, the relative influence of the United States and Russia throughout the world will depend less on any major power military balance (at least in the absence of a U.S.-Russian war) than on the trust, credibility, and respect attributed to each of those countries and to the soft power of which those qualities are a part. The leading guru of soft power, Harvard’s Joseph Nye, observes that U.S. soft power has taken a big hit under Trump. “The president’s looseness with the truth,” says Nye, “has debased the currency of trust that is needed in a crisis, and his continual disdain for our allies means we have fewer friends.”

Some of the best indicators of what has happened in this regard are the Pew surveys of global opinion, which for many years have regularly asked respondents in multiple foreign countries whether they trust the U.S. president to do the right thing in world affairs. That trust has plummeted under Trump, compared to responses during Barack Obama’s presidency. Other international surveys have produced similar results.  Anecdotal evidence includes Trump becoming a laughingstock before the world community when uttering one of his unbelievable assertions. The much-sharpened division and distrust between the United States and its Western allies was in full display at last month’s Munich Security Conference.

Vladimir Putin undoubtedly sees his Russia as a competitor of the United States for global influence, and as such sees domestic and inter-allied divisions in the U.S.-led West and distrust of the United States as working to Russia’s advantage. He thus has good reason to favor the re-election of Donald Trump.

It serves no worthwhile U.S. purpose to deny that he does, but it also is important to recognize, along with Spaulding, the more general dangers of foreign interference in U.S. elections and the problems that the interference exploits. Note how much the Russian activity can be described as “exacerbating” pre-existing pathologies in American politics, especially hyper-partisanship in which political opponents are seen as enemies and not just rivals. In this regard Trump is as much a symptom as a cause of political disease afflicting the United States.


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