How Russia's election meddling could backfire on Putin

Fresh allegations of Russian meddling in the upcoming US Presidential election shine a harsh spotlight on the dangerous deadlock between the nuclear-tipped powers. In a reprise of 2016, Moscow is apparently pushing hard for Donald Trump to win the White House. But is a Trump second term really in the Kremlin's best interest? Or would a Joe Biden win actually be the more pragmatic outcome for Russia?

On the surface, a stable Biden presidency, including a strong, no-nonsense Vice President Kamala Harris, would seem unpalatable to Moscow. Biden is well-acquainted with Russian President Vladimir Putin from before and during his tenure as vice president in the Obama administration. Revelations that Russia interfered in the contentious 2016 US election won't be dismissed by a Biden administration. Nor is Biden likely to ignore Russia's ongoing adversarial behavior toward vital US interests, including valued allies and partners worldwide.

From Moscow's perspective, supporting the chaotic Trump presidency might be a more attractive strategy; a continuation of the status quo, stoking internal American disruption and division. But is this scenario really in Russia's best long-term interest? The Trump presidency is already broken where Russia is concerned. As shown in repeated instances throughout his term, Trump has little credibility when addressing Russian issues.

Russia has already benefitted from the Trump presidency. It's worth acknowledging that Trump has given Moscow an easy pass on a wide range of issues, from the illegal annexation of Crimea to the recent poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny. Most shocking, however, was Trump publicly denying US intelligence findings of Russian interference in the 2016 election as he stood next to Putin at the Helsinki Summit in 2018.

Why would Russia continue to play a losing hand with little more to gain? The question is whether there could be another road to take, and whether Russia would benefit more in the long run from immediately putting a stop to election meddling, and simply letting the US election process play out without interference.

The integrity of the national election process is a sore subject for Americans all across the political spectrum. If Trump's campaign continues on its current trajectory, he will lose in November. And if Russia's reported interference continues through Election Day, Moscow will further cement its pariah status with a new Biden administration, lawmakers and the core of US voters.

Even if Trump wins and (as in 2016) Russian interference is confirmed, Democrats are favored to take back control of Congress, which will put any positive outcome beyond reach for Moscow. Russia will see a heightening of the tough US policy and actions that it earned, and chafed under, during both the Obama and Trump administrations.

Could a Biden win, untainted by any further Russian interference, actually present a small but real opening for improving US-Russian relations? While no appetite exists in Washington for another full-blown "reset", there would surely be a top-down reappraisal by a new, experienced foreign policy team. If Moscow was to credibly meet Washington half-way, might there be an opportunity for a modest, frank "eyes-wide-open" rapprochement?

Longstanding differences aside, both Russia and the US -- the two nations that on a bad day could blow each other and our civilization off the face of our planet -- face mutual challenges that call for intensified dialogue and diplomacy. These include fading arms control agreements, especially the expiring strategic nuclear New START treaty, dangerous new technologies and weapons that also involve a rising China, nuclear proliferation, counter-terror, the Middle East, Ukraine, Belarus, Afghanistan and much more. More positively, such efforts could also focus on pandemic cooperation, climate change (including the melting Arctic), coaxing a return to bipartisan congressional and cultural exchanges, reenergizing US-Russian space collaboration, and more.

A seasoned leader like Biden might have the right gravitas at this crucial time to tackle these crippled relations. A proven tough policymaker regarding Russia, he's known for possessing a "strategic empathy" and open, flexible mind that allows him to understand different worldviews, particularly important when working with a rigidly proud Moscow.

Right now, nothing in Putin's demeanor hints at a shift in his regime's outlook. He views the US and NATO as foes. Corrosive global Russian influence operations, including aggressive military posturing continue, while stark anti-opposition suppression goes on unabated. Nonetheless, there could be a glimmer of realpolitik opportunity. Putin may remain in power through 2036, but tenuously so. Might he begin to see advantages to improving its relationship with the West? Could Russia's increasingly restive and demographically challenged population, shaky economy and vast, hard-to-defend borders motivate the Kremlin to opt for better relations and a less stressful dynamic both internationally and domestically?

It's hard to know whether the Kremlin wants to pick up on a potentially fleeting opportunity for improving US-Russia relations. Or how much numbed Americans care anymore.

What I do believe, based on more than 30 years of professional and personal experiences within Russia is that, while wary, the bulk of its increasingly connected population would welcome better relations with the US. Like Americans, their citizens don't like living under a brooding nuclear shadow. A dear old Russian friend, an artist, asked me not long ago: "Pyotr, will there be a war?" For all our sakes, I hope the answer will prove to be a resounding "nyet."

Brigadier General (retired) Peter B. Zwack was the US Defense Attaché to Russia from 2012-2014 and currently is a Wilson Center Global Fellow within the Kennan Institute. He studied Russian during Glasnost in the Soviet Union in 1989 and served as a senior army intelligence officer in Afghanistan, Kosovo, South Korea, and US Army Europe. The opinions expressed here are his own.

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