I have been reading with considerable interest and concern the press reporting on Russia's use of advertising on social media to influence elections, notably in the US, possibly also in the UK. There are, in my opinion, some important factors at play in this whole affair which tend to go relatively unnoticed, as follows.
- Russia's conflict doctrine of choice has, for some years now, been 'hybrid warfare' (as I wrote about as long ago as August 2015 for Aon Benfield's biennial 'Hazards' conference). What Russia is accused of doing vis à vis the US election is totally characteristic of this doctrine.
- In President Vladimir Putin's world view the end of the Cold War was a battle lost between 'great powers', not the end of the struggle. Of course, the new Russian Tsar is continuing to pursue the long-term conflict!
- Russia certainly has the means to do all the things it is accused of; given this context, why wouldn't it?
- There is almost certainly a personal element in this too. Mr Putin is wedded to the conspiracy theory that the US has been bent on regime change since at least the start of the Reagan presidency, ultimately aimed at Moscow. To be fair there is a persuasive weight of circumstantial evidence to support this theory - the fall of the Berlin Wall, collapse of the Soviet Union, break-up of Yugoslavia, the colour revolutions, the Arab Spring etc. And there is no question other than that the Reagan Administration did indeed set about trying to weaken the already struggling Soviet economy by launching a new arms race, ie the Strategic Defence Initiative, commonly referred to as 'S tar Wars'. No disrespect to the US (well, not much!) but I haven't personally seem anything this coherent or far-sighted in US foreign policy (or even close to) for many a year. Nevertheless, Mr Putin believes what he believes and he therefore takes it as a given that the US, especially then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was behind the 2011/12 election-related protests against him personally in Russia. It is, I believe, more than possible therefore that Russian meddling (or, at least, the planning of it) started out as anti-Clinton, not pro-Trump.
- When presidential candidate Donald Trump came on strong, Mr Putin saw opportunities. It is an interesting, but in some ways hardly central, point whether what he saw first was an opportunity to put a 'friend' in the White House or just a chance to damage the credibility of the US electoral system/US governance in general. The latter is important: in Mr Putin's 'zero sum game' world view (which is shared by Mr Trump ironically), anything which is bad for America is, by definition, good for Russia.
- Mr Putin would almost certainly have preferred an American President who would have softened US policy towards Russia, treated it as an equal; but I am sure he is not so naïve that he seriously thought that would happen.
- And what he has achieved must be deeply satisfying to him: discrediting the US electoral system; seriously weakening US governance; damaging US foreign policy in Europe, the Middle East and Asia in particular; further polarising US society.
- Furthermore (as he has done for Xi Jinping in China and, possibly more widely given Beijing's aspirations spelt out at last month's 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China), he has implicitly, if not explicitly, promoted the 'merits' of non-democratic governance at America's expense, thereby greatly bolstering his own standing with 'ordinary' Russians.
- And, for all the Kremlin's denials of interference, I am confident that very few Russian's believe that Russia is innocent - and that they are quietly proud that the rodina has struck such a blow.
- As I wrote in the early days of the Ukraine crisis, Putin is not a chess grandmaster; he is a judoka. He certainly has a vision for Russia; but he is not a great strategist so much as an excellent tactician. He probes for his opponent's weaknesses; and he exploits it opportunistically when he finds one. He may not have got his first choice, ie equal partnership with the US; but I am very confident he is extremely pleased with what he has achieved.
The bottom line? Whatever Robert Mueller comes up with, Mr Putin has won this round.