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As the U.S. presidential election on November 3 approaches, many Americans have braced for interference from Moscow. The only question, seemingly, is what form the meddling will take: Should Americans expect cyberattacks and leaks by sinister groups with ties to Russian intelligence? Divisive social media campaigns by trolls funded by associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin? Russian activists attempting to infiltrate U.S. lobbying groups?
All of the above marked the run-up to the 2016 presidential election—and all of it may happen again this year, according to a cottage industry of U.S.-based Russia watchers and pundits. The mainstream view in the U.S. media and government holds that the Kremlin is waging a long-haul campaign to undermine and destabilize American democracy. Putin wants to see the United States burn, and contentious elections offer a ready-made opportunity to fan the flames.
But ascribing motive and intent is a tricky business, because perceived impact is often mistaken for true intent. Researchers and investigators have revealed in great detail the activities of Russian actors with ties to the Kremlin during the 2016 election. They have comparatively little information about the real impact of these measures on the election’s outcome—and still less about Moscow’s precise objectives. Where is the evidence that Russia actually wants to bring down the liberal world order and watch the United States burn?
One certainly won’t find it in the writings and statements of Russia’s chief political and military strategists. By definition, covert interference abroad is not something officials and policymakers will discuss, even off the record. But Russian officials say and write a great deal about the United States and their own security objectives and neuralgias—enough to give a clear sense of their worldview and potential motivations for meddling in the U.S. political process.
What emerges is not a cunning, systematic scheme to corrode American democracy from within. Rather, it is a series of uncoordinated and often opportunistic responses to a paranoid belief that Russia is under attack from the United States and must do everything it can to defend itself. Every single thing that Russia stands accused of doing in the United States from 2016 onward it has previously accused the United States of doing. Moscow is showing its capacity to act, in other words, just as it believes the United States is acting everywhere else.
If 2020 turns out to be a repeat of 2016, it will be so not because Putin has devised a grandiose plot to bring down the United States or undermine democracy writ large but rather because Moscow is using whatever limited means are at its disposal to bare its teeth at what it sees as a far more powerful bully. And it doesn’t care a great deal about the specific consequences, so long as the result is to make itself look stronger than it really is.
In Russia today, major foreign policy decisions are often made not in the Foreign Ministry but by the hawks inside the Kremlin, especially on the Security Council of the Russian Federation (Moscow’s rough equivalent of the U.S. national security council). In the bleak and often cynical worldview of these officials, the United States is constantly meddling in Russia’s internal affairs because it considers the country a threat to global U.S. hegemony. For this reason, Russia must focus above all else on defending its sovereignty against such encroachments.
In a long article published last November in the state-run newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Security Council and a chief architect of the Kremlin’s foreign policy, laid out the hawks’ view. Back in the 1990s, Patrushev wrote, the Americans had “written off” Russia as a significant world player. But when Russia regained its footing, Washington responded with a campaign to contain, undermine, and perhaps even destroy it.
Russian officials see their country as under constant and covert attack by a powerful foe.
The notion that the United States is bent on weakening Russia is not new. In 2015, Patrushev claimed that the United States “doesn’t want Russia to exist as a nation.” He is no longer alone in his extreme views: the more Russia’s aggressive behavior over the years has run into American condemnation and resistance—notably in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine in 2014—the more otherwise pragmatic members of the Moscow elite have bought into this paranoid narrative.
In a recent interview with the BBC, Sergei Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, spoke of the United States’ “disastrous” attempts to “rule the world from Washington.” The same fixation has cropped up in my private conversations with Russian officials. “Do you know how many ‘specialists’ the United States has operating in Moscow alone?” a prominent Russian legislator told me in 2019, using a euphemistic term for American spies. According to my interlocutor, the answer was 400. Two insiders, a Russian diplomat and another former official turned think tanker, claimed that the CIA had a department embedded within Ukraine’s main security agency to vet decisions relating to the peace process in eastern Ukraine. Every time a Russian breakthrough with Kyiv was stymied, they believed, it was because Washington had blocked it.
Russian officials see their country as under constant and covert attack by a powerful foe. Therefore, Moscow must mobilize all of its resources to defend against the “hybrid methods deployed against our country,” as Patrushev wrote in the Rossiyskaya Gazeta. Russian meddling in the United States is likely a part of that defense: Moscow is testing its capabilities and learning to do what it thinks the United States is doing but won’t admit to doing—because, let’s face it, superpowers lie, too.
It is no accident that Moscow’s preoccupation with real or perceived U.S. interference abroad predates its meddling in the 2016 election by several years. As early as 2011, Putin claimed that then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was directing the anti-Kremlin protest movement that had erupted in Moscow that year. Two years later, Valery Gerasimov, one of Russia’s highest-ranking military officials, penned an article about new forms of hybrid warfare that blended conventional military force with other methods, such as disinformation, to bring down enemy states. Gerasimov was laying out what he perceived to be the strategy of Western states in Arab countries at the time—not, as many commentators wrongly assumed, his own Russian military “doctrine.” His point was that Russia needed to learn how to predict and respond to this new threat.
The United States, it appeared to Moscow, was deploying tactics that Russia needed to emulate if it wanted to stay in the great-power game and be able to defend itself. Cyberattacks and hackings? U.S. cyberattacks against Russia have increased 11-fold in three years, the Security Council has claimed. Trolling armies? The United States paid and encouraged Russian protesters ahead of the 2012 election, at least according to Putin, and now Russia can do it, too, on the cheap and using the United States’ own social media platforms.
If the Kremlin truly intends to undermine American democracy, it has hardly concentrated its efforts to that end. In fact, Russian policymakers commonly criticize their own government for its slapdash foreign influence efforts. Moscow is “ticking boxes” to create an “illusion of influence,” as one former minister told me.
Challenging a hegemon such as the United States requires not just a well-planned, proactive foreign policy but also military capabilities that Russia simply does not possess. According to Patrushev, the United States spends 15 times more on its military than Russia does, and although one can quibble with the numbers, it is clear Moscow cannot compete on the same terms. Nor does it have a clear ideological alternative to liberal democracy or the kind of blind optimism that may have once driven Soviet commissars to believe they could turn Washington red. And so, for all its offensive posturing, the Kremlin has essentially adopted a defensive posture, resigning itself to disparate attacks whose message is primarily symbolic: “If you mess with us, we will do the same to you.”
For the most part, Putin conducts this scaled-down campaign through freelancers—businesspeople, activists, lobbyists, and other fellow travelers. In this system, which some have called “adhocracy,” the Kremlin sets very broad objectives and encourages others to work within that remit. If they succeed, they are rewarded, and if they fail, they are disowned. “It’s an approach that favors Putin’s friends,” said a source close to Russia’s defense sector. “[Their] people get involved [abroad] and then [Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov can say that they are not representing Russian interests, which isn’t that far from the truth.”
If the Kremlin truly intends to undermine American democracy, it has hardly concentrated its efforts to that end.
As a result, however, many of Russia’s so-called active measures against the West are driven not by the Kremlin but by what third-party actors think the Kremlin wants—and their guesses do not amount to a choate policy. “People have convinced themselves that Putin is Darth Vader, and that if he wants a red flag on Capitol Hill, it’s just a matter of time before he gets it,” said one analyst with ties to the Russian defense sector. “No one wants to believe that there is no grand strategy.”
Russia’s online disinformation campaign during the 2016 election was a case in point. The group behind the stunt was the Internet Research Agency, an outfit allegedly controlled by Putin-linked businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin. Whether Prigozhin was tasked by the Kremlin to try to manipulate American voters or whether he came up with the idea himself and pitched it to Putin remains unknown. But the Internet Research Agency was originally created in 2013 to mess not with American voters but with Russia’s domestic opposition, among other subjects, by increasing Internet traffic to certain regime-friendly websites. Its modus operandi on the domestic side, with poorly paid “Internet operators” working under loose directives and leaving comments on various websites, suggests that the specific slogans and memes the IRA’s trolls later pushed into the American information space were generated by the group itself and not explicitly by the Kremlin. Some of the meddling that took place in 2016—notably the hack and leak of emails from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton’s presidential campaign—was evidently the work of state actors. But much of Russia’s perceived “interference” campaign during the election was the work of various small-scale private adventurers, such as Maria Butina, the gun rights advocate, and Natalia Veselnitskaya, the lawyer who bluffed her way into a meeting with Trump campaign officials.
“There was no massive campaign,” one Russian official told me, speaking off the record. “Disparate activities of this or that activist, or special forces group, or businessmen and entrepreneurs—these people are always active in fields like this. It’s what they do. It doesn’t mean that they are part of some grandiose plan to instigate regime change in the United States. . . . We have a lot of strange people, in Moscow and abroad, who call themselves agents of the Kremlin. They are trying to earn money or political capital that way.” In part, this is plausible deniability. But the explanation also offers a rare admission of the varying motivations behind the behavior of individual Russians abroad.
The ultimate irony is that whatever Russia’s goals—to give the United States a taste of its own medicine or to engage in the kind of wholesale destabilization campaign often ascribed to it—its interference has neither furthered nor defended its interests. Although it may seem to Americans that the United States could be a lot tougher on Russia, from Moscow’s perspective U.S. policy is now far more aggressive than the Russians could have expected in 2016, and many in the government lament the deterioration in relations. Sanctions have mounted in direct response to Russian interference, and Moscow is expecting more punitive measures to come. His fawning overtures to Putin notwithstanding, U.S. President Donald Trump has pulled out of the Open Skies Treaty and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, shutting down important avenues of cooperation with and influence for Moscow. The last treaty limiting Russian and U.S. strategic weapons, New START, may be next. More to the point, an unstable United States is an unpredictable adversary and thus harder for Russia to compete with and defend against.
It is hard to say which candidate—Trump or his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden—Moscow would pick if it had the prerogative. “At least with Biden,” one Russian official told me, “there will be a semblance of normalcy and predictability.” But for Moscow, interference is not about backing a specific candidate, even if it happened to appear that way in 2016. If there is another Russian operation, expect contrarian messages targeting both candidates’ campaigns and highlighting generally divisive issues such as the United States’ response to the coronavirus pandemic. The messaging will not be coherent, and it will have no further purpose than to provoke arguments. Russia does not ultimately care whether the United States is a democracy. It does not have an ideology to export or a vision for a future U.S. political system. The United States has often projected its own fears and vulnerabilities onto Russia. Moscow is doing the same, just in the opposite direction.
CORRECTION APPENDED (August 7, 2020)
An earlier version of this article misstated the date of the 2020 U.S. presidential election. The election will take place on November 3, not November 4. We regret the error.