Who wins if Vladimir Putin meddles in the U.S. election?
Philadelphia (CNN) No one knows for sure whether Russian President Vladimir Putin is playing in the U.S. election.
But if allegations of a Russian espionage operation to leak damaging revelations from Democratic Party documents are true, it is a sign the Kremlin strongman already has his sights on the next U.S. president.
The unprecedented claims injected an explosive new element into the unpredictable 2016 campaign, after emails purportedly from a Russian hack and published by WikiLeaks appeared to show collusion among top Democratic officials — who are supposed to stay neutral — against Hillary Clinton rival Bernie Sanders.
On Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed the criticism that Russia would meddle in US elections. When asked by reporters about the allegation, he responded, “I don’t want to use four-letter words,” according to Reuters.
But the spying drama also poses much deeper questions about Moscow’s stance towards the next president — whoever it is — and the escalating East-West confrontation between major powers whose leaders are more estranged than at any point since the Cold War and still maintain competing nuclear arsenals.
Putin’s grudge against the West
Disclosures that cause discord in the U.S. and sully American democracy can only benefit Putin’s core political project — chipping away the West’s political institutions to weaken the power of what has been called the free world.
And the Russian leader clearly nurtures deep personal animosity against the Obama administration and Clinton, its former secretary of state.
It’s beyond question that the former KGB agent in the Kremlin has the means, through Russia’s sophisticated intelligence services, to sow mischief in the U.S. presidential election. And Putin has the motivation — a long-simmering grudge against the West.
“Was the 2016 election a target?” Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center, said of Russian intelligence agencies. “The answer is very plausibly yes.”
A harder case to prove is Democratic accusations that Russia carried out the DNC hack in order to advance the candidacy of Republican nominee Donald Trump.
“What the experts said when this breach initially happened at the DNC was that they believed it was Russian state actors who took these emails,” Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook said on Monday.
“What further experts are saying is that then, because they possessed those emails, that Russian state actors were feeding the email to hackers for the purpose of helping Donald Trump,” he claimed.
While forensic evidence will likely prove conclusively whether the hack originated in Russia, it may be impossible to clearly establish Putin’s own complicity in the operation, or the motivations of the Russian government.
The FBI confirmed Monday that it was investigating a hack into the DNC. U.S. officials suspect the intrusion was a Russian cyber hack, though the State Department said it was important for the investigation to run its course before making any determinations. But private-sector cyber security investigators hired by the DNC concluded that hackers working for the Russian government were behind the year-long breach of the committee.
Putin the super PAC?
But Putin’s behavior since returning to power in the Kremlin — after being the silent hand behind former president Dmitry Medvedev for the preceding four years — lend credence to the idea that Russia is attempting to play politics in the U.S.
The Russian president has made no secret of his desire to weaken the West, his belief that the U.S. and its European allies have conspired against Russian interests in Georgia, Ukraine, Libya and Syria, and sees a restoration of Russian global prestige at the expense of the West as paramount.
Undercutting America’s political system and thereby impeaching its ability to judge others would further that goal in Russian eyes.
“It is very consistent with a Russian approach,” said Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution, who co-authored the book “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin.”
“The whole purpose of Russian propaganda is to show that the U.S. and U.S. politics is filled with hubris and hypocrisy and to show it is not better than anyone else,” Hill said. “Putin operates like a super PAC, taking advantage of opportunities for negative campaigning. The purpose is to show that the U.S. has no moral authority.”