I spent my afternoon reading over the recent Intelligence Community Assessment on the Russian government’s recent efforts to influence the US presidential election. Most of the report isn’t entirely unexpected. The fact that the Kremlin has set up an extensive system to spread disinformation in order to advance its own agenda should come as a surprise to no one. There is a reason countries make significant investments in propaganda.
What I see as a more interesting question is what does the Russian propaganda tell us about our current situation? Why were the Russians attempting to influence the US election? What were they attempting to accomplish?
As the report states, Mr Putin clearly has a goal of destabilizing the United States. Mr. Putin has long wanted to reestablish Russia as a world superpower and part of that process obviously involves reducing the US role as the world’s economic and military leader. He is particularly interested in driving a wedge between the United States and Europe. As Fiona Hill stated in recent testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee:
The preferred scenario for Russia in Europe, as Putin has repeatedly made clear, would be one without NATO and without any other strategic alliances that are embedded in the European Union’s security concepts. Putin has repeatedly described NATO enlargement as driven by the United States and aimed at bring U.S. military bases and forces up to Russian borders to contain Russia. Although this narrative is flawed, much of the Russian elite accept it as ground truth—and many, including Putin, have done so since the NATO bombing of Belgrade in 1999, and especially since the expansion of NATO to Eastern Europe in 2004. Putin has thus consistently pushed for a renegotiation of European security structures to downgrade the conventional military and nuclear role of the United States and NATO, and give Russia military and security parity with European forces.
Although again none of this is particularly surprising. The main issue is how does his attempt to influence the election help him achieve these goals?
The ODNI report also states that Mr. Putin had a “clear preference for President-elect Trump”. Why? It doesn’t seem plausible that Mr. Putin would simply prefer a Republican President over a Democratic one. For example would he have also had a “clear preference” for Jeb Bush or Ted Cruz had they been nominated? This seems doubtful.
More likely it seems Mr. Putin saw (and continues to see) in Mr Trump a unique opportunity to destabilize the United States and reduce its influence in the world. He saw that for the first time the United States might elect a President who lacked most of the skills needed to govern and decided he needed to take advantage of the situation.
He seems to have quickly realized that Mr. Trump was extremely volatile and polarizing and would probably quickly divide the country. He also likely soon figured out that Mr. Trump isn’t particularly intelligent and that he has a poor understanding of the world around him (and knows Mr. Trump probably doesn’t even recognize this). Most importantly, he appears to strongly believe that Mr. Trump is weak, insecure and easy to manipulate.
Mr. Trump’s response to this report appears to confirm Mr. Putin’s suspicions. Instead of being horrified by the report, he is trying to downplay it. Instead of asking for more information, he is disparaging our intelligence gathering community. He even appears to see Putin’s activity as a backhand compliment, instead or recognizing how badly he is being played.
Although it is clear Mr. Trump does appear to have one thing right. Mr. Putin is definitely “very smart”. I suspect he will have a very productive four years.
No man is so foolish but he may sometimes give another good counsel, and no man so wise that he may not easily err if he takes no other counsel than his own. He that is taught only by himself has a fool for a master. – Ben Jonson