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Every four years, whenever there is a U.S. presidential election, a melancholy settles over Russia. When global fascination mounts over the selection of the free world’s next leader, Russians feel ignored. They have tended to shrug it off during previous election cycles, saying they don’t care who wins despite typically favoring Republicans, whose harder lines fit more familiar stereotypes. This year is different, however.
Donald Trump has presented Russian President Vladimir Putin with an opening he could hardly pass up: a mutual admirer apparently also bent on undermining the U.S. political establishment. Deploying cyberattacks during a U.S. election—for the first time since Russia began using them as a political weapon at least a decade ago—in the republican presidential nominee’s favor has given the Kremlin a level of traction within the United States it could only have dreamed of less than a year ago.
The leaking of Democratic National Committee e-mails in July has already prompted the resignation of chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, while the attempted hacking of voter registration systems in Arizona and Illinois last month raised fears that Moscow would try to influence the vote’s outcome. Casting doubt on the democratic process enables Putin to dismiss U.S. criticism of authoritarianism at home, showing Russians that the U.S. system is possibly no less corrupt than their own. That reinforces years of Kremlin propaganda about the United States, which Putin has long accused of trying to topple Russia’s government and steal its vast supplies of oil and gas. It is also providing Americans with their first real lesson in the challenge Moscow has posed to European countries, from Ukraine to the United Kingdom, for years.
How seriously should Americans take such interference?
On top of its usual peddling of influence, disinformation campaigns, and, in some cases, war, Moscow tried discreetly hacking Ukraine’s elections in 2014. Ukrainian experts found malware on servers used to tally the vote count, but it was discovered in time to stop it from disrupting the elections. That degree of secrecy is less useful for meddling in the U.S. election. More than any specific tactical benefits that the Kremlin may believe could be gained from its attempts to disrupt the vote, the overriding aim guiding Putin’s shenanigans has more to do with simply being seen as challenging the United States. There are few surer ways of boosting the popularity crucial to maintaining his personalized system of rule, and it’s helping to maintain his approval ratings of more than 80 percent. In other words, like so many aspects of Russian governance, the Kremlin’s actions are mainly for show.
Russian meddling in the internal politics of Western countries is hardly new. Moscow has shown itself adept at exploiting specific characteristics of European democracies to undermine their institutions and increase its own influence. The Kremlin has spent at least a decade secretly financing Czech political parties, including those of current President Milos Zeman and his rival predecessor, Vaclav Klaus. Both are grateful, regular guests in Moscow. Russia has hired former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to serve as a board chairman for a Russian gas line project to Germany, as well as other ex-politicians for similar posts, who have become prominent mouthpieces for the Kremlin’s energy policy in Europe. And the Kremlin finances right-wing anti–European Union nationalists whose growing power is doing even more to chip away at European unity.
Now Moscow is seeking an advantage by testing the structural weaknesses of the U.S. electoral system, prompting some prominent officials and journalists to delete their e-mail accounts and raising new questions about the security of voting machines and software in a country where voters have rarely questioned the integrity of the process. It may be easy enough to dismiss Trump’s praising of Putin as part of the cynical populism of a megalomaniacal huckster with nothing to lose. But his open mocking of our democratic institutions is creating lasting damage. If Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton fails to defeat Trump in what most people would perceive to be a landslide, the accusations he is already issuing about the rigging of the election—reinforced by Russian hacking—may grow louder among a bloc of the electorate that already feels disenfranchised.
Although it’s highly unlikely Trump will win the election, his campaign’s erosion of the already low standards of U.S. political debate perfectly suits Putin’s purposes. The New York billionaire fits the mold of right-wing leaders the Russian president has already backed in Europe, including France’s Marine Le Pen, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, and Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi. More than their affinity for the kind of autocratic policies Putin enacts at home, it is their nationalism and opposition to the international institutions supporting the Western order that make them especially useful to the Kremlin. Russian meddling in the U.S. election should focus American minds on Putin’s aims in Ukraine, central Europe, Syria, and everywhere else he is seeking to confront Western interests and values.
Although far from flawless as a presidential candidate, Clinton is as well positioned as any politician in recent memory to deal with the threat. As a former secretary of state who did not shy away from confronting Putin after President Barack Obama’s Russia reset policy failed to improve relations following Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, she has been personally attacked by him—accused of stoking protests in Russia that seek to overthrow the government—and knows how he operates. If elected, she must finally enact a long overdue follow-up to the reset policy that would end current practices of negotiation with Moscow. For one, Washington should terminate the negotiations over Syria with the Kremlin, which has propped up President Bashar al-Assad and added to the death toll and suffering of hundreds of thousands, single-handedly prolonging a conflict that undermines the underpinnings of European unity.
Putin’s support for Trump makes it clearer than ever that a Clinton administration should enact policies that would work effectively against a former KGB officer seeking to gain advantage through subterfuge. Putin’s attacks against Western democracies are only weakening and isolating Russia in the long term—but that’s not his concern. He just wants Americans to talk about him this election season. As long as that lifts moods in Moscow this fall, Putin will continue challenging our democratic traditions.