May 30, 2019 –
The March 2019 Mueller Report – discussed by Mueller himself in a brief, televised press conference on May 29, 2019 - provides enormous detail on the patterns and impacts of Russian interference in America’s 2016 election that were authorized by the very top leadership in Moscow. However, the report does not explore the context behind Moscow’s choice for this brazen course of action. Combining Mueller’s insights and my past research and writing about President Vladimir Putin’s increasing appetite for foreign policy risk taking, this Strategic Insight contends that three main accelerants and one huge contextual factor encouraged Putin’s fateful early 2014 choice to meddle in and manipulate the US electoral process.
The three accelerants were: a) Putin’s anger over what he viewed as the Washington inspired ouster of pro-Russia Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich from power in Kyiv in February 2014; b) the subsequent beginning of U.S. and EU sanctions against Russia for its military intervention and annexation of Crimea; and c) Putin’s preexisting animus against former Secretary of State and then presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. These three accelerants were set against the wider context of Putin’s decade-long increasing appetite for foreign policy risk taking – an appetite reinforced by unexpected Russian success in Syria during 2013 that Moscow attributed to President Barack Obama’s weakness.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report tells us that Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections began in spring 2014. At that time, the Internet Research Agency (IRA) in St. Petersburg began to “consolidate U.S. operations within a single general department, known internally as the ‘Translator’ (Переводчик) department.” By early June 2014, IRA employees began to travel to the United States. By February 2016, IRA guidance to its operatives called for using “any opportunity to criticize Hillary [Clinton] and the rest (except Sanders and Trump—we support them).”
Yet before 2014, President Obama’s conduct of U.S. policy in Syria arguably accelerated the lessening of restraints in Putin’s mind to embarking on troublesome moves not only in Syria but elsewhere. This applies in particular to Obama’s failure to respond militarily in August-September 2013 to President Bashar al-Asad’s use of chemical weapons (CW). Obama’s obvious risk aversion in Syria helped shape and increase Putin’s confident activism in February-March 2014. A close observer would describe Putin as “on a sugar high” during this period.1 He would soon invade and annex Crimea, intervene later that year in the Donbas region in southeastern Ukraine, and at the same time launch a campaign to interfere in the upcoming U.S. presidential elections – calculating throughout that he would not have to pay a high price.
PUTIN’s GROWING APPETITE FOR RISK TAKING
Little attention has been paid to understanding the role that Putin’s increasing appetite for risk taking played in his decision to interfere in the U.S. elections. This applies especially to the impact that 2013 events in Syria had on Putin’s calculations of the risks he could take in dealing with the Obama Administration.
Former Deputy Secretary of State and Ambassador to Russia William Burns has noted Putin’s long-developing appetite for risk taking in foreign policy. Burns dates the beginning to 2007-2008, when Putin focused on Russian resistance to Western ambitions for Ukraine and Georgia, in particular President George W. Bush’s eagerness to bring both into NATO. Russian concerns were aggravated by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s energetic reciprocal drive to make NATO accession happen.2 At its April 2008 summit, NATO stated that “we agreed today that Ukraine and Georgia will become members of NATO.” 3 By August 2008, however, the Georgian-Russian war put this NATO aspiration on ice. Putin’s tactics in Georgia and against the Western democracies in the late 2000s did feature some internet and electronic warfare (EW) manipulation, but did not yet include cyber and assorted other interference in their elections. The social media platform Facebook, after all, was then still relatively new, and would not introduce its “Like” button until February 2009.
It would be Putin’s tactical response to events in Syria in August-September 2013 that would turn out to be the key inflection point in Russia’s approach to foreign policy risk taking – and not just in the Middle East. Up to fall 2013, Moscow had been prepared to lose in Syria. After that, however, Putin began to think more expansively, not just in Syria but beyond. And this would soon include the beginning of electoral interference in the upcoming 2016 American elections via cyber and other means. Facebook was now a giant that had celebrated its 10th anniversary in February 2014, and Moscow was ready to exploit it.
The chronology in Syria is informative as to Putin’s growing confidence that Russia could engage on a wide international canvas without fear of Obama Administration military counters. On August 18, 2011, President Obama declared, “Asad must go.” In May 2012, Putin asked Tom Donilon (Obama’s National Security Advisor): “When . . . are you going to start bombing Syria ?”4 In August 2012, Obama stated that the use of chemical weapons would constitute a “red line” that, if crossed by the Asad regime, would cause the United States to provide lethal weapons to the Syrian opposition.
But then, Obama did not react militarily when the Asad regime killed what the U.S. Government estimated to be over 1,400 people with sarin gas in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on August 21, 2013 – crossing what Obama in August 2012 had declared a “red line.” Instead of taking military action, Obama at the St. Petersburg G-20 summit in September 2013 discussed with Putin the idea of the U.S. and Russia working together to remove all chemical weapons from Syria. Putin made clear that he could persuade Asad to cooperate. However, before pledging to make the effort, Putin demanded that the United States refrain from bombing Syria.5
For Obama, the resulting deal to remove and destroy Syrian government CW stocks more than compensated for his decision to reverse course and not respond militarily to Asad’s egregious use of this type of weapon. The destruction of Syrian CW, however, was never total and Damascus continued to fight with it. Putin, moreover, was playing a longer game.6 He saw Obama’s backpedaling as now allowing for his goal of maintaining Bashir al-Asad in power to insure Russian influence in the Middle East. Three years later, in August 2016, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu marveled that the United States and NATO had 624 cruise missiles aimed at Asad regime targets in 2013 but did not use them. Had the U.S. and its allies struck, Shoigu noted, it would have been “very complicated” to restore the Asad “government structure”.
That, however, would only have been the case had Obama aimed at regime change and used the full panoply of armaments at his disposal to achieve this result. A more surgically limited strike, such as the 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles aimed at Shayrat airbase early in the Trump administration in April 2017 after yet another use of CW by Syrian government forces, would not have threatened the survival of the Damascus regime, but would have discouraged it from a quick repeat of its employment of CW. Obama’s reluctance to strike Asad regime forces in fall 2013 fed what would soon be described as Putin’s view of Obama as “weak” and “indecisive.” By spring 2014, “Putin and his inner circle” reportedly “had nothing but utter contempt for Obama and his administration—much of it cast in racist terms.”7
Only months after the events of 2013 in Syria, Ukrainian President Yanukovich fled Kyiv in late February 2014 and Putin secretly decided to annex Crimea. But the American Embassy in Moscow heard this early on -- in advance of the preparations to annex going public -- from a senior Russian government official who had access to Putin’s inner circle.8
Putin no doubt calculated that there was not much the U.S. and NATO could do militarily about Russia’s annexation of Crimea and later intervention in southeastern Ukraine. More Western economic sanctions would have had to be seen as a certainty, but Putin badly miscalculated their ripple effect and tenaciousness: sanctions would be hard to reverse. Moreover, he underestimated the firmness of European resolve. Finally, whatever chance Moscow had to divide if not conquer European opinion on sanctions was shattered in July 2014 by Russia’s callous handling of the shootdown by pro-Russian separatists of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH 17 over southeastern Ukraine.
Later that spring, after the beginning of American and European economic sanctions against Russia, the same Russian source told his contact in the American Embassy that “the Kremlin was planning a wide-ranging, multifaceted campaign to attack Western institutions and undermine Western democracies. The clandestine operation was to include cyberattacks, information warfare, propaganda, and social media campaigns.”9 In Moscow, the Russian reading was that Obama was risk averse, so Putin began to operate as if he could afford to be even more risk prone.
The Syrian CW crisis persuaded Putin that Obama was unwilling to fight and would prefer to negotiate. The view of some Russian experts was that the United States could make any Russian armed intervention on Asad’s behalf difficult if it wanted to. So Putin recalculated that he had to engage militarily in Syria while Obama was still in office. Obama’s decision not to back up his chemical weapons “red line” with military action against the Asad regime in 2013, therefore, in effect also opened the door for Putin two years later to establish a Russian air base in Syria and launch an air campaign on behalf of Asad.
Elsewhere, Putin’s experience in Syria dealing with Obama gave the Russian president added confidence that he could use strong arm tactics in Ukraine without fear of strong repercussions. At almost the same time, as we know from the American Embassy source, Putin also calculated he could extensively interfere in the American elections.
PUTIN’S ANIMUS TOWARD HILLARY CLINTON
Putin’s animus toward Clinton has been extensively documented. It exploded into public view in early December 2011, when then Premier Putin was running for a return to the Russian presidency. After glaring local election violations, then Secretary of State Clinton criticized what she called “troubling practices.” She asserted that “The Russian people, like people everywhere, deserve the right to have their voices heard and their votes counted.”10
Several days later, after mass demonstrations during which thousands chanted “Putin is a thief” and “Russia without Putin,” Putin charged that it had been Secretary Clinton who had “set the tone for some actors in our country and gave them a signal. They heard the signal and with the support of the U.S. State Department began active work.”
Some two years later, in March 2014, as Russia moved quickly toward annexing Crimea after invading it, Clinton -- now herself preparing to run for president – drew parallels between Putin’s claims that he was protecting Russian-speakers in Crimea and Hitler’s claims in the 1930s that he was protecting German minorities as he invaded Poland and other Eastern European countries. After that charge by Clinton, one Kremlin insider reported that “all senior Russian leaders consider her beyond redemption.”11
Western post-Crimea economic sanctions against Russia began soon after, in the spring of 2014, adding a third accelerant to the motivations for Putin’s authorization of first steps toward meddling in the U.S. 2016 presidential elections. As it assessed the risks in taking this step, the Kremlin would have calculated increased but manageable strains in the relationship with Obama. The American president still had two years left in office but could not run for a third term. Besides, based on Putin’s experience with Obama in Syria, the Kremlin would not have expected Obama to make much of a fuss over Russian electoral interference if detected, and Putin in any case would probably not have cared.
The more challenging and even threatening scenario was Clinton succeeding Obama in 2016 — in spring 2014 the most likely outcome. The Kremlin would have braced for at least four years under Clinton of more challenging relations with the U.S. than under Obama. This expectation would have provided arguments in the Kremlin in early 2014 for going forward with an effort to try to derail what seemed the certainty of facing a President Hillary Clinton, or at least to stir up as much opposition as possible to her administration once in office. Thus, at their spring 2014 inception, Russian electoral interference goals were most logically to shave Clinton’s winning margin and to undermine her governing legitimacy to the maximum extent possible.
Donald J. Trump would not have figured in Russian early scheming in 2014. The Mueller Report corroborates this when stating, “Russian-government-connected individuals and media entities began showing interest in Trump’s campaign [only] in the months after he announced his candidacy in June 2015.” By February 2016, as already noted, this “interest” had turned to “support” for Trump. By July 2016, just five hours after Candidate Trump called on “Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing [from candidate Clinton’s personal server],” the Russian military’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) targeted this server for the first time.
Whatever concerns the Kremlin may have had over detection of its interference campaign, its gamble paid off better than it could have prudently expected. Clinton was defeated, Trump won while calling for better relations with Russia, and official Washington – both the Obama Administration and the Republican Congressional leadership -- remained largely silent over Russia’s interference during the election campaign. For a variety of reasons, including the lack of early detection, the Obama Administration did not react publicly to Russia’s electoral interference until late in the game, when it released an intelligence community statement on October 7, 2016. Meanwhile, Senate Republic Majority Leader Mitch McConnell flatly refused to support a bipartisan public statement pointing to the potential threat from Russia to the election.12
PUTIN AND PROSPECTS FOR 2020
FBI Director Christopher Wray recently warned that Russia continued to interfere in the 2018 US elections. In a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, Wray described Russia’s 2018 efforts as “a dress rehearsal for the big show in 2020.” At this early stage of the long road to the state primaries and national party conventions, the main aim of Russia’s efforts to interfere in the upcoming elections is probably to increase President Trump’s chances for reelection.
Despite strong differences over issues such as the Iran nuclear deal, Putin continues to interact with President Trump while demonstrating careful respect, as in their recent phone call on May 3, 2019. Furthermore, after his meeting in Sochi on May 14 with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Putin made clear he was ready to meet with President Trump at the upcoming G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan. However, the Kremlin sees Trump as the needy party -- in search of a foreign policy accomplishment with Putin to tout heading toward the 2020 elections -- so has insisted that the White House formally ask for the Osaka bilateral.
In Trump, Putin faces an American president who, unlike Obama, speaks highly of him but who, like Obama, is also reluctant to use U.S. power kinetically in the Middle East or elsewhere. True, Trump early on authorized several effective strikes in Syria. Those, however, proved to be the exception and not the rule and were followed by Trump’s repeated calls, repeatedly amended, to withdraw all U.S. soldiers from Syria.
In addition, Putin clearly appreciates Trump’s taking at face value Putin’s denials of interference in the 2016 elections. Moreover, it is not lost on the Kremlin that Congressional Republicans, while joining with Democrats to impose a variety of economic sanctions on Russia, now regard the issue of Russian interference in 2016 as “case closed,” in the words of Senate Majority Leader McConnell.
However, Putin realistically cannot rule out that Trump may falter and the primaries not reveal another candidate with whom the Kremlin thinks it can productively work. In that case, as happened in the 2016 campaign before Candidate Trump appeared on the scene, Russia will again simply stir the pot, sowing divisiveness and raising questions about the legitimacy of the ultimate winner should it not be President Trump. Then, after the election, Putin will see what cards he has drawn before deciding how to play them.
1 Author’s conversations in Moscow, September 2014.
2 William J. Burns, The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and The Case for Its Renewal (New York: Random House, 2019), 200-201, 221, and 229-242.
4 Michael McFaul, From Cold War to Hot Peace (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018), 261.
7 Michael Isikoff and David Corn, Russian Roulette (New York: Twelve, 2018), 52.
10 For Clinton’s account, see Hillary Rodham Clinton, Hard Choices (New York: Simon & Shuster, 2014), 235.
11 Russian Roulette, 50 and 111.
12 Ibid, 181-220 and 238-248.
Dr. John W. Parker is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic Research, Institute for National Strategic Studies, at the National Defense University. The views expressed in this op-ed are the authors’ own and do not reflect the official policy or position of NDU, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.