It all started as a bit of Moscow hoodlum-politics, the settling of scores. No one at the court of Vladimir Putin imagined that Donald Trump would emerge as the Republican contender for the US presidency. Rather, the Kremlin assumed that the shadowy monied American elites would chew up Trump and spit him out, just as Putin himself had gobbled up for breakfast Boris Berezovsky, another politically ambitious businessman.
So Russian interference in the election was from the outset about muddying the democratic process and doing some eye-for-an-eye with Hillary Clinton. The writer Peter Pomerantsev compares Putin to Robert de Niro in Taxi Driver, shouting “You talkin’ to me?” at Clinton as she tries to ignore him and walk down the street. The email hacking and the disruption of the Democratic convention was personal: it was about getting even for her support of Russian demonstrators who protested against his rigged election in 2011.
Julian Assange, Putin and Trump; three bullies out to stir a bit of trouble and strip a Clinton victory of legitimacy. They are counting on the Russia Today TV channel and every Kremlin propaganda outlet braying about a stolen election. They will try to work up a case to demonstrate to a global audience (Venezuela, anyone?) that the US model has failed.
After the Republican convention in July, there was a pivot in the Kremlin; its involvement became more than just mischief-making. Putin was as surprised as anyone in his coterie. Trump had never been the Manchurian candidate; the whole point of a sleeper agent is that he blends quietly into the establishment rather than, say, hosts The Apprentice from the Trump Tower.
Russian intelligence services, however, suggested that Moscow could do business with him if he won. He was in favour of lifting sanctions against Russia but, perhaps even more importantly, he denounced President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. Renewed sanctions against Tehran would reduce the amount of oil it could release on world markets and therefore boost the oil price. A win for cash-strapped Russia.
Trump ticked the box in other areas affecting Russian interests. His scepticism about collective defence within Nato, for one. No doubt he intended it as a way of prodding European allies to pay a fair share of the alliance’s running costs but in doing so he placed a question mark over one of the cornerstones of postwar security. Chiefly, Putin liked Trump’s flattery — “a great leader” — and the tycoon’s indifference to Russian conduct in Ukraine or Syria.
The calculation in the Kremlin thus became: we can win this American election rather than just mess it up. One of the consequences of this decision may have been the resignation in August of Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, after claims that he received more than $12 million while working for a Russian ally, Ukraine’s disgraced president Viktor Yanukovych. That connection was too close for comfort. Other traces of Russian involvement such as cyberhacks were more easily deniable.
The key to winning on their terms was to paralyse Clinton in a way that simultaneously helped Trump in the polls. Clinton had been an early advocate, as secretary of state, for a no-fly zone over Syria and might try to revive this policy as president. She seemed more ready than Obama to deploy hard power in a standoff with Russia.
Putin therefore decided to dispatch a major force off the coast of Syria, including the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov. The aim was not to use the carrier as part of the Russian bombardment of eastern Aleppo but rather to deter a President Clinton from challenging for control of Syrian airspace.
Putin had skilfully raised the possible cost of a more aggressive military posture by the US. But he also intended to present Clinton as a “war” candidate and Trump as a champion of peace. In that vein, Moscow escalated the battle for Aleppo at the time of the second presidential debate on October 9 and briefly stopped its airstrikes in time for the third on October 20. This allowed Trump to claim in the debate that Obama and Clinton had been “outsmarted” by Russia. And to call for a rethink in dealing with the Kremlin.
A President Trump would not be problem-free for Putin. Putin has managed unpredictable leaders in the past from Hugo Chávez to Silvio Berlusconi but this particular maverick would have a gold-plated nuclear button at his bedside. Russia thus helped him along but spent a great deal of energy trying to discover more about Trump, a quest that turned into one of the biggest Russian intelligence analysis operations on US soil since the Cold War. Even Russia Today has got in on the act, announcing yesterday that Putin had been mentioned 36 times by Clinton during the campaign and 43 times by Trump. Imagine that: Russian informers in baseball hats spread across the country to namecheck their boss.
The betting must be that the new president will quickly be offered an olive branch by Putin. It would be reckless to take the bait. Putin has been in power for 16 years and looks as if he could still be there when the new US leader is heading into retirement. He survives by operating a system based on naked cynicism; for him naivety is weakness. Any commander-in-chief who fails to understand this will be 2016’s true loser.
Roger Boyes is a British journalist and autor.