When Vladimir Putin praised Donald Trump as talented and the absolute leader in the U.S. presidential race back in December, the embrace seemed more mischievous than malign.
But now, with Election Day in just two weeks, the Kremlins role has become one of the dominant topics in the campaign. From the debate last week when Hillary Clinton and Trump traded barbs on which was Putins puppet to U.S. charges that Kremlin leaders were behind the hacking that has dogged the Clinton campaign — a conclusion Trump has refused to accept — Russia has transfixed the campaign in a way no foreign government has in decades.
Not since the Red Scare of the 1950s has Russia been accused of such sweeping influence on U.S. politics. The presidential headliners aside, cyber-attacks on election boards in several states have spawned fears the results could be tampered with. Sowing doubt about the integrity of democracy has found a fertile audience among voters increasingly suspicious of established political parties and ideas like free trade and immigration that had long been beyond question.
This seems to be unprecedented both for the dramatic difference in the candidates approach to Russia and Russias insertion into our electoral process, said Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and a former official in the State Department bureau of political-military affairs.
The alleged hacking has added to the vitriol in a U.S.-Russia relationship thats already at its lowest point since the Cold War amid differences over the civil war in Syria, Kremlin intervention in Ukraine and western sanctions on Russia.
For Putin, once dismissed by the White House as a regional player, the long shadow he has cast over the elections is a triumph, even as the Kremlin denies any role. After years of accusing the U.S. and its allies of undermining his political system — backing critics, opponents and election observers who cast doubt on the legitimacy of Russian votes — Putin has turned the tables.
Anything that undermines our reputation as a leading democratic power works to their advantage, said Thomas Graham, managing director at Kissinger Associates and a former senior White House aide on Russia.
Putin has been honing his tools for years in the U.S. and Europe, from Kremlin-funded TV networks and friendly political parties to hacker groups. In Germany, which holds national elections next year, officials have accused the Kremlin of trying to undermine Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Ultimately, Putins role as the bogeyman of the U.S. campaign could backfire. The prospect of a victory for Clinton, who has called him a bully and vowed to take a harder line against Russia, could bring new tensions the Kremlin isnt likely to welcome. While the rhetorical battling helps boost Putins domestic support, the risk of tougher economic sanctions or other U.S. retaliation could derail Kremlin efforts to stabilize the battered economy.
Putins obvious support for Trumps campaign is without precedent in Russian and even Soviet political history, said Gleb Pavlovsky, a former political adviser to the Russian president. The Kremlin is so determined to be noticed that it clearly underestimated the consequences, both for Trump and ties with the U.S.
Four years ago, Russias global role had so faded that Obama ridiculed Republican nominee Mitt Romney as being stuck back in 1975 for saying Russia was the U.S.s No. 1 geopolitical foe.
Trump to Moscow?
But last week, Trump said he might make his first trip if he wins before hes even inaugurated to meet Putin, something he said would be wonderful. The Clinton campaign blasted the comments as further evidence Trump is in Putins pocket.
Even before the campaign, Trumps public enthusiasm for Putin has been greater than the Kremlins for the billionaire. In 2013, Trump had planned on meeting Putin during his stay in Moscow for his Miss Universe pageant, asking in a tweet if he would become my new best friend. But the Kremlin leader didnt turn up, according to a Russian associate of the U.S. tycoon. Trump had a high opinion of Putin, praising him as a real personality, said billionaire Aras Agalarov.
The brash Trump brand seemed uniquely suited to the hunger for glitz of post-Communist Russia, whose wealthy flocked to his high-end U.S. real estate projects. But little evidence has been found to date of significant Trump business ties in Russia, though the candidate hasnt released tax returns or other financial records that might reveal them.
The Kremlin has quietly denied Trumps repeated claims of having met Putin. When a campaign adviser, former investment banker Carter Page, visited Moscow in July to give a speech, the public reception was cool. U.S. intelligence agencies later said they suspected he had clandestine meetings with top officials, something both the Kremlin and Page denied.
The Page speech came as the hacking was just beginning to come out. The first reports of the breach of Democratic National Committee servers by hackers allegedly linked to Russia came in June. A month later, the first wave of revelations cost the party chief her job.
In another of the many surprises of the campaign, Trump in July said he hoped Russia had hacked the e-mails from Clintons private server. Russia, if youre listening, I hope youre able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing, he said at a press conference. Even his political allies sought to distance themselves from that appeal.
The flow of leaks has continued through the summer and into the fall, keeping the Clinton campaign on the defensive.
Putin, who had accused the U.S. of being behind the leaks in the spring of offshore financial information that exposed the wealth of some of his closest allies, seemed to revel in the attention.
Its not that he has some diabolical strategy for how to undermine everything, said Fyodor Lukyanov, who heads a Kremlin foreign-policy advisory panel.
Hes known for never missing an opening when he senses one, he added. Hes enjoying playing at this.
In an interview with Bloomberg in September, Putin said the U.S. was wrong to focus on the source of the breaches. Does it even matter who hacked this data? he said. The important thing is the content that was given to the public. He criticized both campaigns, saying, I dont think they are setting the best example.
In October, the same day a massive dump of e-mails from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta appeared on WikiLeaks, the U.S. director of national intelligence took the unprecedented step of publicly charging that only Russias senior-most officials could have authorized these activities. The hacking was intended to interfere with the U.S. election process.
Just how long the Kremlins reach is remains to be seen, especially given that Russia-friendly Trump is sinking in the polls.
Moscow doesnt have any illusions about the effectiveness of these tools, said Valery Solovei, a political scientist at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations. Theyre trying to play on nerves, nothing more.
With the U.S. now threatening unspecified retaliation, Putin could be at risk of overplaying his hand, alienating the incoming administration if Trump loses.
But with ties strained, the Kremlin may reckon it has little to lose. Relations with Clinton have been frosty since at least 2011, when Putin accused the then-secretary of state of encouraging protesters to take to the streets in opposition to his rule. As president, shed have the backing of Republicans in Congress, who dont share Trumps enthusiasm for the Russian leader.
Putin is absolutely convinced that as long as he is president, the West has no intention of improving relations with Russia and that the Wests goal is his overthrow, said Solovei.
Keeping the Kremlin at the center of a chaotic U.S. campaign is a big propaganda win for the Kremlin.
Putin and Russia have become practically the central themes of the American elections, said Alexei Chesnakov, a former Kremlin political staffer. That of course is beneficial, since it underlines the status of the country and its leader.
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