One striking feature of this year’s United States presidential election campaign has been the invisible but remarkably persistent background presence of Russia and its leader, President Vladimir Putin. Putin can perhaps be proud of this achievement: no other world leader (except for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad) was mentioned by name during the third and last presidential debate (October 19) between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump (RBC, October 18; Moskovsky Komsomolets, October 20). The Kremlin has refrained from any official statements on this matter. But it is clear that the Putin regime has secured this extraordinary impact factor on the US elections thanks to the careful timing of its calculated strikes.
The synchronization of Russian cyberattacks with the pre-scheduled key turns in the US presidential campaign is particularly apparent. It started with the attempted sabotage of the Democratic National Convention in late July; but Democratic runner-up candidate Bernie Sanders refused to exploit the exposed bias against him in the party headquarters (New Times, July 27). Then, each round of the presidential debates was accompanied by a fresh release of personal e-mail correspondence linked to Clinton and her campaign, which was published by Wikileaks with the explicit aim of inflicting damage on the Democratic presidential candidate (Grani.ru, October 17). In the third debate, however, this game backfired: Clinton turned the question on a fresh batch of compromising e-mails into a line of attack on Russian interference on the side of her opponent (Novaya Gazeta, October 20). The evidence of direct involvement of Russian special services has indeed become irrefutable, and Putin’s attempts to claim innocence during his recent visit to India were too awkward to be convincing (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 18). US President Barack Obama is still measuring the options for responding to the Russian cyber-aggression, and Putin will be hard pressed to find countermeasures to the inevitable US retribution (Ezhednevny zhurnal, October 17).
Another avenue of Russian influence on US politics is being paved by Russia’s military intervention in Syria. And here again, timing has been of crucial importance. Moscow escalated the battle for Aleppo in sync with the second presidential debate (October 9) and paused its airstrikes just in time for the third one, making it possible for Trump to claim that Obama and Clinton were “outsmarted” (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, October 20). This game, however, was also pushed too far by Moscow, resulting in France canceling Putin’s long-planned visit to Paris (Politcom.ru, October 17). Russia now stands accused of committing war crimes in Syria. And the European Union as well as the United States have had to at least contemplate passing new sanctions against Russia in response (Kommersant, October 21). Moscow’s maneuvers with opening “humanitarian corridors” out of Aleppo have yielded little fruit. And Russia’s claims that Belgian F-16 fighters have hit civilian targets do not help Russian international standing at all (Slon.ru, October 21). Presently, Russia is deploying its only aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, accompanied by most of the surface combatants of the Northern and Baltic fleets to the Eastern Mediterranean. The key question now is whether this deployment is aimed at generating a wave of massive airstrikes to allow al-Assad’s forces to capture eastern Aleppo just ahead of the US presidential elections (Gazeta.ru, October 20).
One major Russia-orchestrated conflict remarkably absent from its attempts to influence the US elections has been Ukraine. The situation in the Donbas war zone is far from stable. And the bomb explosion in an elevator, which claimed the life of Russian warlord Arsen Pavlov (a.k.a. Motorola) last week, once more highlighted the rampant chaos in the Russian-controlled Donetsk-Luhansk enclave (see EDM, October 21; Moscow Echo, October 17; RBC, October 18). Putin clearly prefers to engage in tenuous talks on this “hybrid hostility” with Germany and France rather than the US. His apparent calculation is that the outrage in Europe caused by Russia’s barbaric behavior in Syria can be neutralized by the perceived imperative to manage the risks in Ukraine with Russian help (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 21). Last week (October 19), German Chancellor Angela Merkel hosted an impromptu summit in Berlin, which was attended by Putin (accompanied by his aide Vladislav Surkov), French President François Hollande and Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko. The high-level “Normandy format” meeting confirmed yet again that the Minsk peace process for Ukraine was deadlocked—and had no alternative (Kommersant, October 20).
The instrument that Moscow seeks to apply for maximum impact on the US elections is nuclear brinksmanship. Putin’s announcement of Russia’s withdrawal from the 2000 Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (see EDM, October 21) was timed for the second Clinton-Trump debate, but failed to produce the desired effect (Newsru.com, October 19). A series of missile tests and the deployment of nuclear-capable Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad (see EDM, October 12) were supposed to reinforce the message—and Trump indeed accused Clinton of “playing chicken” with Russia, which has 1,800 nuclear warheads. But all this, nevertheless, ultimately failed to make an impression (RIA Novosti, October 12; Kommersant, October 20). Now the Russian State Duma (lower house of parliament), which duly voted Putin’s plutonium decree into a law, raises the issue of withdrawing from the 2011 New START treaty (Rosbalt, October 19). The US leadership faces a complex challenge of responding to this nuclear posturing, while asserting that nuclear arsenals have no place in conducting rational and reasonable international relations.
Putin may have succeeded in making himself into a big issue in US politics, but this is hardly going to improve Russia’s international position. Attempts to influence the course of the US presidential campaign have either failed to produce the desired effect or backfired, increasingly adding ammunition to Clinton’s attacks of Trump’s ambivalent intentions to make deals with Putin. The short-term indulgence in vanity may extract a heavy political toll in the medium term. The fact of the matter is that Russia cannot afford to be the United States’ main geopolitical challenger. Every ambitious Russian advance, like its military intervention in Syria, only exposes Moscow to new risks of failure and add to strategic overstretch. Russia is set to discover in the coming weeks that its bold experiment in hacking and trolling is also not cost-free: Russia’s vulnerabilities in cyberspace are greater than Putin, who still remains ignorant about the workings of the Internet, tends to believe. Insisting that Moscow must be taken seriously, the Kremlin is not ready for the consequences. And its assumption that an extra-high definition of acceptable risk constitutes a political advantage will likely end up being disproved in many painful ways.