The idea of Putin as a master strategist, like a sock missing its match, keeps showing up now and again. Certainly, when compared to Trump Putin might as well be the second-coming of Otto Von Bismarck. But for all the damage wrought by Russian covert intervention in the 2016 election, it’s important to remember that Moscow was—and is—playing an extremely dangerous game.
As best I understand it, Moscow’s earliest aim of interference was to undermine trust in American political institutions, as well as to weaken Clinton if she won the election. The theory behind the first goal is, unfortunately, rather sound, even though Russian contributions on this front pale besides that of right-wing media. The theory behind the second goal never made much sense. Presidents who are weakened domestically tend to focus on foreign policy, where they enjoy much more room to maneuver. Moreover, the typical GOP script—which would have been carried out in the even of a Clinton presidency—is to try to outflank Democrats by being more hawkish on Russia.
This last observation leads me to the second point. My strong sense, based on what we know so far, is that Moscow needed convincing to pivot toward going “all in” on a Trump victory. This, by the way, is the context for existing evidence of collusion:. Various individuals affiliated with the Trump campaign tried to secure Russian support. Trump himself signaled in public that he was amenable to striking a partnership.
And if Moscow did need convincing, it was not without good reason. Even headed into election day, the odds of a Trump victory looked poor. Basically, Trump needed to roll a fifteen or better on a twenty-sided die. So it’s worthwhile to think what might have happened had Trump failed his (sorry) attack roll. Clinton would have been elected. The US intelligence community would have been in possession of the same evidence that they brought to Trump in January of 2018. The Clinton transition would have shown no concerns about coordinating with Obama on Russia even before Clinton’s inauguration. There would have been no effort by the Executive Branch to derail investigation into Russian active measures and American collusion. Perhaps the Republicans might have gone to war against Clinton over Russian interference, but it’s also likely that, in the wake of a Trump loss, establishment Republicans—and GOP Russia hawks—would have been happy to destroy Trumpism.
In this counterfactual, you can damn well bet that the United States would have come down on Russia like a very angry—if such a thing were possible—mountain of bricks. We might expect extensive sanctions, an even larger commitments to NATO forward defense, and stronger backing of Ukraine and Georgia. This would have come in the context of general geopolitical pushback. We would have found out, in other words, how much of Russian wedge strategies against the American-led order depend, for success, on Washington’s assessment that they do not constitute an existential threat.
So, if anything like this outcome was possible, Russian intervention had around a 70% chance of causing massive blowback. Even as president, Trump has had failed, or not even tried, to stop increased spending on NATO deterrence and broader sanctions. If Russia thought Trump could deliver on his implicit promises, they’ve surely been disappointed.
Instead, the upside risk for Russia has turned out to be rather different: Trump’s venality, incompetence, impulsiveness, and illiberal tendencies are making partisan tensions in the United States even worse. They are terrifying core American allies, and spurring talk of strategic hedging and even decouplement. Trump may also be transforming Russia and NATO policy into a different kind of partisan issue than it was before—one no longer a question of degree, but rather of basic American geopolitical alignment. Still, we could see that reverse if Trump loses and the more traditional GOP foreign-policy wing reasserts itself. And the next Democratic candidate is likely to take a hard line on Moscow. In other words, by 2020 or 2024 Moscow could find itself worse off than if it had eschewed Trump in 2016. Indeed, if it had done so and Trump had won, Trump would have likely been much less constrained when it comes to Russia policy.
In this light, Moscow’s decision to back Trump was an enormous gamble—and it looks more like a desperate ‘Hail Mary’ than a strategically savvy decision. Sometimes, leaders make bad choices that nonetheless work out well. For this one to work out comes down to a horse-race: Can Trump do enough damage to American power, leadership, and influence before he’s gone? Can he lock-in a Republican shift against NATO and for Russia by 2020 or 2024? Will that be enough if the next President wants payback?
The problem is that the blowback Russia’s decision might engender could, in fact, make things worse for not only Russia, but also the United States and the world. Indeed, the combination of a geopolitically weakened and hostile Washington might be more dangerous for Russia than a stronger, but more secure, United States. And what if we game out what, say, a Franco-German anti-Russian axis might look like for European stability? A Europe operating under principles of anarchical self-help, rather than an American security umbrella, might prove something of a Trojan Horse for Moscow. It looks like a nice thing from a distance, but it contains great peril.
My wife likes to describe Putin’s intervention in the 2016 election, and its aftermath, in terms of the “proverbial dog that actually caught the car.” That seems about right.