How Vladimir Putin won the US election

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No matter the results on Tuesday, one outcome was always secured: Russian President Vladimir Putin has used the U.S. election to bolster his standing at home and increase his relevance overseas.

Whether through a well-timed public comment, a military deployment that exposed weaknesses in America's own war plans, or reportedly actual meddling in the U.S. electoral process, Putin has ensured that he got what he wanted out of this year's presidential race. In Donald Trump's victory, Putin has an American counterpart who has publicly stated he will adopt a more amenable policy toward Russia, getting out of its way in Syria and perhaps even overseeing lifting international sanctions. If Hillary Clinton had won, Putin still would have emerged as the perfect foil for any American president who sees Russia as an adversary, further hardening a view among the Russian people that NATO is once again attempting to surround its former Cold War foe and that they need a strong leader to protect them.

Putin's name came up frequently during the campaign, including amid reporting on Trump's business ambitions in Russia and his former campaign manager's ties to powerful figures in Moscow and Ukraine. The Republican nominee held up the Russian president for his strength of leadership, favorably comparing him with President Barack Obama in that regard. For Hillary Clinton, he loomed as the bogeyman at the center of a conspiracy to undermine her chances of moving from chief diplomat to commander in chief.

Throughout the campaign, Putin found a way to benefit from these perceptions and turn them into opportunities to reinforce his authority.

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Obama and Putin's awkward meetings through the years
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Obama and Putin's awkward meetings through the years
FILE - In this Monday, Nov. 16, 2015 file photo, U.S. President Barack Obama, right, talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, prior to a session of the G-20 Summit in Antalya, Turkey. The tide of global rage against the Islamic State group lends greater urgency to ending the jihadisâ ability to operate at will from a base in war-torn Syria. That momentum could also force a reevaluation of what to do about President Bashar Assadâs future and puts a renewed focus on the position of his key patrons, Russia and Iran. (Kayhan Ozer/Anadolu Agency via AP, Pool, File)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and U.S. President Barack Obama shake hands at the COP21 UN Conference on Climate Change in Paris, France, Monday, Nov. 30, 2015. (Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
United States President Barack Obama, right, and Russia's President President Vladimir Putin pose for members of the media before a bilateral meeting Monday, Sept. 28, 2015, at United Nations headquarters. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
U.S. President Barack Obama, right, gestures while speaking to Russian President Vladimir Putin before a bilateral meeting at United Nations headquarters in New York, Monday, Sept. 28, 2015. (Mikhail Klimentyev, RIA-Novosti, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, passes by US President Barack Obama at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit, Tuesday, Nov. 11, 2014 in Beijing. (AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Presidential Press Service)
Leaders pose for a group photo at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit at the International Convention Center in Yanqi Lake, Beijing, on Tuesday, Nov. 11, 2014. Among those pictured are, left to right: Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah; Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O'Neil; Indonesia's President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo; Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe; U.S. President Barack Obama; Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott; Chinese President Xi Jinping; Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak; Russian President Vladimir Putin; New Zealand Prime Minister John Key. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
BEIJING, CHINA - NOVEMBER 10: U.S. President Barack Obama (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) attend a family photo ceremony during the APEC Leaders meeting November 10, 2014 in Beijing, China. The APEC Summit hosted 1500 economic leaders in Beijing to deliberate key issues facing the Asia-Pacific economy. (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)
SAINT PETERSBURG - SEPTEMBER 05: U.S. President Barack Obama (R) greets Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit on September 5, 2013 in St. Petersburg, Russia. The G20 summit is expected to be dominated by the issue of military action in Syria while issues surrounding the global economy, including tax avoidance by multinationals, will also be discussed during the two-day summit. (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)
Russia's President Vladimir Putin, left, shakes hands with U.S. President Barack Obama during arrivals for the G-20 summit at the Konstantin Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013. The threat of missiles over the Mediterranean is weighing on world leaders meeting on the shores of the Baltic this week, and eclipsing economic battles that usually dominate when the G-20 world economies meet. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
Russias President Vladimir Putin (L) walks past US President Barack Obama as he arrives to pose for the family photo during the G20 summit on September 6, 2013 in Saint Petersburg. World leaders at the G20 summit on Friday failed to bridge their bitter divisions over US plans for military action against the Syrian regime, with Washington signalling that it has given up on securing Russia's support at the UN on the crisis. AFP PHOTO / JEWEL SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
FILE - In this Monday, June 17, 2013 file photo President Barack Obama meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. In an interview with the Associated Press on Tuesday Sept. 3, 2013 Putin sought to downplay the current chill in the U.S.-Russian relations and said that the two countries need to cooperate on a range of issues in the interests of global stability. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
FILE - In this June 17, 2013, file photo, President Barack Obama meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. The White House is considering canceling a fall summit between President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, a move that would further aggravate the already tense relationship between the two leaders. The White House is dangling that option over the Russians as Moscow considers a temporary asylum petition from Edward Snowden, the American accused of leaking information about classified U.S. intelligence programs.(AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
ENNISKILLEN, NORTHERN IRELAND - JUNE 18: Leaders (L-R) Russia's President Vladimir Putin, Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron, US President Barack Obama stand for the 'family' group photograph at the G8 venue of Lough Erne on June 18, 2013 in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. The two day G8 summit, hosted by UK Prime Minister David Cameron, is being held in Northern Ireland for the first time. Leaders from the G8 nations have gathered to discuss numerous topics with the situation in Syria expected to dominate the talks. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
G8 leaders from center rear clockwise, Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron, US President Barack Obama, French President Francois Hollande, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a working session during the G-8 summit at the Lough Erne golf resort in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland on Tuesday, June 18, 2013. (AP Photo/Yves Herman, Pool)
FILE - In this June 18, 2012, file photo President Barack Obama and Russiaâs President Vladimir Putin, left, go to shake hands during their bilateral meeting at the G20 Summit in Los Cabos, Mexico. In a few days' worth of opportunistic diplomacy, Vladimir Putin has revived memories of an era many thought long gone, where the United States and Soviet Union jostled for influence in a Middle East torn between two powers. Whatever happens with its proposal to relieve Syria of chemical weapons, Russia reemerges as a player in the region _ and one who does not easily abandon allies. That's meaningful in a region where America's dumping of Hosni Mubarak has emerged as a seminal moment _ and it may resonate with Iran, whose leaders are carefully watching the global chessboard as the clock ticks toward another showdown, over their nuclear program.(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)
U.S. President Barack Obama, right, reacts while listening to Russia's President Vladimir Putin before the opening of the first plenary session of the G-20 Summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, Monday, June 18, 2012. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)
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"It's the small opportunism that he knows how to target in a tactical, brilliant way," says Nina Khrushcheva, a specialist on Russian propaganda and professor at New York's New School University.

Very likely, the winner of the election was comparatively of little consequence to Putin, analysts suggest. More importantly, the Russian leader saw an opportunity to exploit what he sees as hypocrisy and unfairness in the American electoral process to counter Western criticism that he has manipulated votes in Russia to maintain his hold on power.

"An adversarial relationship suits Putin just fine," says Khrushcheva, the granddaughter of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. "He needs to stay in power, and what better form to stay in power than America breathing down your neck and wants to take you down? It's a really good argument which, of course, America fed into."

Many experts doubt Putin personally ordered the hacking of the Democratic National Committee, releasing thousands of emails from party leaders and granting fodder to those who believe Democrats orchestrated Bernie Sanders' defeat in the primary process. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper consistently refrained from ever flat-out accusing the Russian government itself, indicating the hackers had unspecific ties to Moscow even though the leaks were "consistent with methods and motivations of Russian directed efforts."

Regardless of who was behind it, the ploy served Putin's purposes. Clinton and her backers, embarrassed by a steady drip of unflattering revelations, focused their response on blaming Moscow.

"This image of him plotting and scheming and keen to influence the outcome is imaginary, a product of the Washington-campaign echo chamber," says Robert English, a specialist on Russian nationalism at the University of Southern California. "Putin is right about one thing: The Clinton and Obama people are overreacting to the hack and painting it as a nefarious Russian plot to subvert our democracy precisely because it diverts attention from the dirty linen that the hack reveals and turns it instead to Trump's strange bromance with Putin.

"Putin can only be laughing at how much apparent influence he has."

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Newspapers around the world react to Trump's win
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Newspapers around the world react to Trump's win
A businessman walks past copies of the London Evening Standard newspaper, featuring a picture of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump on its front page, waiting to be picked up in the square mile financial district of the City of London, U.K., on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016. Donald Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States in a stunning repudiation of the political establishment that jolted financial markets and likely will reorder the nation's priorities and fundamentally alter America's relationship with the world. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A Mexican holds a newspaper with headlines referring to the eventual triumph of Donald Trump on November 9, 2016 in Mexico City. / AFP / PEDRO PARDO (Photo credit should read PEDRO PARDO/AFP/Getty Images)
Mexican newspapers with their front page referring to the eventual triumph of US presidential candidate Donald Trump on November 9, 2016 in Mexico City. / AFP / YURI CORTEZ (Photo credit should read YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
A Mexican holds a newspaper with headlines about on the eventual triumph of Donald Trump on November 9, 2016 in Mexico City. / AFP / PEDRO PARDO (Photo credit should read PEDRO PARDO/AFP/Getty Images)
Copies of a special edition of the Financial Times newspaper, featuring a picture of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump on its front page, sit waiting to be picked up in the square mile financial district of the City of London, U.K., on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016. Donald Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States in a stunning repudiation of the political establishment that jolted financial markets and likely will reorder the nation's priorities and fundamentally alter America's relationship with the world. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A Mexican newspaper with its front page referring to the eventual triumph of US presidential candidate Donald Trump on November 9, 2016 in Mexico City. / AFP / YURI CORTEZ (Photo credit should read YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
A Mexican newspaper with its front page referring to the eventual triumph of US presidential candidate Donald Trump on November 9, 2016 in Mexico City. / AFP / YURI CORTEZ (Photo credit should read YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
A Mexican reads a newspaper with headlines about on the eventual triumph of Donald Trump on November 9, 2016 in Mexico City. / AFP / PEDRO PARDO (Photo credit should read PEDRO PARDO/AFP/Getty Images)
View of Guatemalan newspapers informing about the victory of US presidential candidate Donald Trump in their front pages, in Guatemala City on November 9, 2016. / AFP / JOHAN ORDONEZ (Photo credit should read JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Colombian newspapers report the victory of US presidential candidate Donald Trump on their front pages, in Medellin, Colombia, on November 9, 2016 / AFP / STR / RAUL ARBOLEDA (Photo credit should read RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images)
An 'I Voted' sticker adorns a newspaper at an election watch party organized by the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, China, on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016. Republican Donald Trump was projected to win North Carolina and Florida, an unexpectedly strong showing in results Tuesday night that potentially throws the balance in the presidential race to Michigan and Wisconsin, key parts of Hillary Clinton's Midwestern electoral firewall. Photographer: Anthony Kwan/Bloomberg via Getty Images
TOKYO, JAPAN - NOVEMBER 09: A man distributes an extra edition of a newspaper featuring a front page report on the U.S. Presidential Election and Republican President-elect Donald Trump on November 9, 2016 in Tokyo, Japan. Donald Trump defeated Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton to become the 45th president of the United States. (Photo by Yuya Shino/Getty Images)
Chilean newspapers report the victory of US presidential candidate Donald Trump on their front pages, in Santiago, on November 9, 2016 / AFP / MARTiN BERNETTi (Photo credit should read MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP/Getty Images)
An Iraqi man holds an edition of Iraqi daily newspaper Azzaman displaying pictures of US presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in Baghdad on November 9, 2016. Billionaire populist Donald Trump, tapping into an electorate fed up with Washington insiders, was on the verge of a shock victory over Hillary Clinton in a historic US presidential election that sent world markets into meltdown. / AFP / SABAH ARAR (Photo credit should read SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images)
The New York Post newspaper featuring president-elect Donald Trump's victory is displayed on a New York newsstand, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016 in New York. Donald Trump claimed his place Wednesday as America's 45th president, an astonishing victory for the celebrity businessman and political novice who capitalized on voters' economic anxieties, took advantage of racial tensions and overcame a string of sexual assault allegations on his way to the White House. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
A Clarin newspaper, left, with a headline reading in Spanish "Trump was winning and U.S begins an era that shocks the world" with a picture of President-elect Donald Trump is prepared to be delivered outside a building in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
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Putin's praise for Trump also aligns with the kind of world leaders he's preferred in the past. He notoriously courted disgraced Italian politician and business magnate Silvio Berlusconi, including with trips throughout Crimea's wine country, with the likely goal of encouraging his prospective return to power as the ultimate broker between the Russians and the West. In Italy, Trump is seen as "Berlusconi Americano."

Yet Trump is unpredictable, a trait that calculating Soviets and how Russians have traditionally abhorred in foreign leaders, particularly superpower foes.

"Normally, they would be a little wary of someone who seems erratic. They like predictability in the same way they like conservatives," says Melvin Levitsky, a former head of the State Department's U.S.-Soviet Bilateral Relations who now teaches at the University of Michigan Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. "Probably the fact that Trump has said these positive things about him, like he's a better leader than Obama, certainly affects him. But Putin is a very calculating guy."

And despite friendly rhetoric, Trump's specific policies toward Russia remain unclear.

That's very different than Clinton, for whom Russia became a centerpiece of her tenure as secretary of state through the ill-fated "Russia reset policy." Putin, then serving as prime minister after being term-limited out of the president's office, reportedly did not appreciate this not-so-subtle effort to drive a wedge between him and Sergei Medvedev, Russia's elected president at the time. He also reportedly blamed Clinton for fomenting dissent among protesters objecting to his 2012 bid to reclaim the presidency.

Through the campaign, Putin has offered well-timed musings on the U.S. elections. In January, Putin deferred questions on his own desire to run for president again in 2018, saying through a spokesman two years is too far in the future. (Clinton announced her candidacy in April 2015). But he seized the opportunity nonetheless to comment on the "mudslinging" toward Russia in the U.S. presidential race, then still in the primary season.

"It's clear that negativity is being collected in regard to the head of our state, and of course this is used to apply pressure and influence on the future election campaign," his spokesman said.

In mid-October, Putin again accused both candidates of "playing the Russia card," according to Russia's state-run news service.

"As for using [the image of] Russia and its president in the U.S. presidential campaign, I'd hope that the reason for this is Russia's growing importance and influence, but I think that it is mainly about manipulating the public opinion inside the country," Putin said.

Putin's adventures abroad, too, have prompted Trump to call for Putin to lead the way in Syria, and challenged President Barack Obama's attempts to find peace there, undermining the plan that both the incumbent and his [would-be] successor said throughout the campaign she would like to continue.

Russia stepped up its war rhetoric in March. At the end of September, it began a continued and particularly brutal campaign to rid the rebel stronghold of Aleppo of its opposition fighters. The day of the U.S. election, Russian media reported its aging and sole aircraft carrier had completed its journey around Europe, arrived in the Mediterranean and was preparing for operations against rebels in Syria.

His continued campaign in Ukraine, as well as snap exercises along its border with Europe have stoked fears among America's allies, prompting the U.S. to lead a military ramp-up of its own.

Perhaps most fruitful to Putin, and a signature feature of this election that will certainly pervade for months, are Trump's accusations that the U.S. election process was "rigged."

Moscow routinely requests permission to deploy monitors to ensure a clean vote in the U.S., also routinely met with denials from U.S. states.

As Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in October, "the Russian card and the mention of our president has become an integral part of the U.S. election campaign."

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