[Note 1: I am not judging whether the strategy was effective in influencing the election outcome. I will note that the indictment asserts that, at its peak, the Russians spent $1.25 million in September 2016. Hillary Clinton spent $1.4 billion, while Trump spent $900 million.]
[Note 2: There are many oddities in the Mueller investigation as well as in the specific charges made in the indictment that have been missed in much of the press. Just one for now - Mueller will never have to prove his allegations because none of the defendants are in the U.S.! More on the indictment later.]
The Win-Win In 2016
To start with, the Internet Research Agency, based in St Petersburg, which gets top billing in the Mueller indictment, has been a known entity to the US government for several years, which was aware of its ongoing attempts to sow confusion and conflict in America. In fact, the IRA was the subject of a very long article in the New York Times Magazine on June 2, 2015 which recounts its activities and the arguments within the Obama administration on how to respond. One possible reason for the President’s reluctance to respond more forcibly is not raised in the article, but has been speculated on elsewhere: his belief that he needed Russian cooperation on closing the deal with Iran and, secondarily, on Syria, and was thus reluctant to alienate Putin.
In any event, it is only against this overall strategy of weakening America, and the belief that Hillary would win, that Putin’s approach to 2016 can be understood. It was never specifically about Trump or Clinton and, as the Mueller indictment clearly lays out, it would not end no matter who was elected.
So from Putin’s perspective how did things look at the beginning of the primary campaign?
To my recollection, all of the leading Republican contenders, with the exception of Trump, were quite hostile to Putin. So the references in the Mueller indictment to Russian propaganda being directed to denigrate Cruz and Rubio makes sense. Further, with the exception of Trump, they were all more hostile to Russia than Hillary, the likely Democratic nominee.
While Hillary had been played by Putin for a dupe in her Russian “reset” policy, since his controversial reelection she had been much more rhetorically hostile to Putin’s regime than Obama or anyone else in his administration. And certainly, whatever Hillary’s views on Russia, Bernie Sanders was going to be more friendly and accommodating, so supporting Bernie and denigrating Hillary, as Mueller alleges happened during the primary, makes sense.
How did things look to Putin during the general election campaign?
Hillary must have appeared to be the certain winner to Putin, as she did to most everyone else. I think that while Putin was willing to expend some of his ammo on her during the campaign, he didn’t want to expend it all because it would be needed after her expected election. And, during the course of the campaign, she fell into another trap he laid for her.
For instance, it is reasonable to assume that Putin knows a lot more about the tens of millions of dollars funneled into the Clinton Foundation from Russia and the former Soviet Republics than is currently publicly known. Holding that over President Clinton’s head could be very effective.
It is also reasonable to assume the Putin has all of Hillary’s emails, including the deleted ones, which he could deploy on his own timing. And I’ve always assumed Hillary knows it. How convenient.
Finally, he would be able to show that the Clinton campaign had colluded, through its cut-outs, directly with the Kremlin, in assembling the Steele dossier, a fact that would prove embarrassing to a Clinton administration if and when Putin chose to release the details. And why, if Putin was really confident Trump could win, would he authorize the release of such information to Clinton? It was not for the purpose of beating Trump; it was to give him future leverage over Clinton.
As to Trump, while Putin assumed he would not win, he wouldn’t be upset if that happened. Trump was the most Russia friendly of the Republican candidates. He was extremely unschooled in international politics and very susceptible to flattery. Putin played him well, flattering him and getting flattering comments in return (Trump was even willing to demean America in the course of doing so). In his campaign were people sympathetic (Manafort) or at least not hostile (Page, Papadopolous) to Russia. And, just as with Hillary, Putin had run his own entrapment, the Trump Tower meeting with Fredo Trump Jr and Jared Kushner (at least Clinton had the sense to use cut-outs – Perkins Coie, Fusion GPS, Steele). Fredo and Jared weren’t “unwitting“, they were “witless“.
The Mueller indictment also confirms it didn’t really matter to Putin who won because it asserts that after the election Russian efforts were devoted to instigating more pro and anti-Trump rallies and continuing to stir up the American populace on divisive issues. Facebook has also noted that the majority of Russian sponsored postings it has identified occurred after the election.
UPDATE: After writing this I just read Andrew McCarthy in NRO who puts it very well, as usual:
In reality, what happened here could not be more patent: The Kremlin hoped to sow discord in our society and thus paralyze our government’s capacity to pursue American interests. The Russian strategy was to stir up the resentments of sizable losing factions. It is not that Putin wanted Trump to win; it is that Putin figured Trump was going to lose. That is why the Kremlin tried to galvanize Trump supporters against Clinton, just as it tried to galvanize Sanders supporters against Clinton, and Trump supporters against Cruz and Rubio, during the primaries. It is why the Russians suddenly choreographed anti-Trump rallies after Trump won. The palpable goal was to promote dysfunction: Cripple a likely President Clinton before she could even get started, wound President Trump from the get-go when he unexpectedly won, and otherwise set American against American whenever possible.Mission accomplished thanks to the Democrats and Robert Mueller, with an able assist from the bumblings of Donald Trump and his campaign.
Background: From the 1940s to 2016
Much of the media acts shocked, as if this has never happened before. A reminder:
The January 2017 intelligence assessment from the CIA/FBI/NSA (about which I wrote a year ago) asserts that Russia, and the Soviet Union before, have had a long history of trying to influence US elections, though the effort in 2016 was quite significant. The assessment does not reference any specific examples (with the exception of the first below) but we know of many (both for elections and major policy issues), including:
The January 2017 assessment references two other recent Kremlin efforts, (1) support of the anti-fracking movement in the US, and (2) support for Occupy Wall Street (support shared with Obama, Pelosi, and David Duke).
In 2012 we had Russian influence “hidden in plain sight“. The Kremlin openly supported Obama (in fact, though little noted, they did the same in 2008 because they hated McCain). Obama in turn attacked and mocked Romney for being too hard on the Russians, and was caught on open mic assuring Medvedev that he’d have more flexibility after the election. It would be fascinating to know if the intelligence community has any information regarding covert support from Moscow during that campaign.
The hysterical anti-cruise missile movement in the US and Europe in the early 1980s was also supported covertly by the Soviets, along with propaganda regarding Reagan’s supposed warmonger tendencies, manipulation that received wide acceptance in the West. It would also be interesting to know what the Soviets did in connection with the 1984 presidential campaign.
The idea that the assassination of President Kennedy was due to a right-wing conspiracy originated with the KGB in 1964, the first article proposing it was from a secretly communist funded publication in Italy; an article soon picked up by conspiracy theorists in the US who ran with it. The result contributed to widespread conspiracy mania, particularly in the late 60s through mid-70s, but which has had a long life. Instead of believing that a communist who fervently supported Fidel Castro and who had just a few months earlier tried to assassinate a right-wing figure (Edwin Walker), then went on to kill an anti-communist president who himself was trying to kill Castro, most Americans to this day still believe there was a conspiracy in which the right wing killed JFK. It’s become part of popular culture, beloved of those obsessed with conspiracies as with Oliver Stone’s JFK, the Bruce Willis wisecrack in Armageddon, and Donald Trump speculating that Ted Cruz’s dad, an anti-Castro Cuban, was involved in the murder.
The unilateral nuclear disarmament movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s in both Britain and America was directed by communist front groups under Moscow’s direction.
The Progressive Party presidential campaign of Henry Wallace in 1948 which was essentially run by the Communist Party and which, early in the campaign, was seen as having a serious chance to undermine President Truman’s reelection. Several years later Wallace admitted he’d been duped by advisers he didn’t know were commies. In addition, during the 1930s and 40s it was common practice for the Communist Party to run front groups not openly identified as communist in order to attract people who would unwittingly support the party line. As we know now, the American Communist Party was financially supported and ideologically directed by Moscow.