How Vladimir Putin won the US election
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.
"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."
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.
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."