This analysis was published in partnership with Vox.
Alex Finley (@alexzfinley) is the pen name of a former journalist and an officer of the CIA from 2003 to 2009, who is now writing analyses of Robert Mueller’s investigation. She is the author of Victor in the Rubble, a satire about the CIA and the war on terror.
On the night of Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton, Russian President Vladimir Putin must have surely felt triumphant. Members of the Russian Duma reportedly burst out in applause when Trump’s election was confirmed, and Putin was spotted sipping champagne. In a speech at the Kremlin, he announced, “Russia is ready and wants to restore full-fledged relations with the U.S.” In the middle of the celebration, Kirill Dmitriev, the head of Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, received a text from a friend in New York: “Putin has won.”
One can hardly blame Putin for his sense of triumph. The sweeping operation aimed at dividing the American people and landing a pliable candidate in the White House, which he had launched in 2014, must have looked like a resounding success as the Electoral College votes were tallied.
After all, Russian military intelligence, the GRU, had successfully hacked into the emails of the Democratic Party during the campaign and orchestrated their leak at opportune moments. The operation had hammered the reputation of both Clinton and the Democratic Party, while deflecting attention away from embarrassing news about Putin’s preferred candidate, Trump. The same group had even made digital forays into state election systems before the vote, possibly practicing for more disruptive future activities.
At the same time, the Internet Research Agency, the IRA, had run a large campaign from St. Petersburg to amplify divisions within the American electorate, utilizing fake accounts, bots, and trolls to catalyze polarizing actions by our own citizens – all the while hiding its hand and appearing to be organically American.
Although special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s report, released on April 18, said he did not “establish” the existence of conspiracy or coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia, there was a convergence of pre-election interests: “The Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, [while] the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.”
Trump’s campaign got the public dump of Hillary Clinton’s emails, while Trump’s campaign director Paul Manafort fed a well-connected Russian with internal campaign polling data on Trump’s standing in key battleground states such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. We don’t know for sure what the Russian, Konstantin Kilimnik, did with the information because Mueller wasn’t able to learn it, but we could presume Kilimnik’s rapt attention to such obscure data was not idle curiosity.
But once the election was over, Putin’s priorities needed to shift. To promote a future pro-Russian tilt to American foreign policy, he and his colleagues had to forge direct connections to Trump and his incoming advisers. And because Trump’s team was small, insular, and had mostly lacked diplomatic experience, this meant using a complex network of interlocutors and finding nontraditional pathways to communicate – an effort described in fresh detail by Mueller.
Putin or those close to him directed a number of proxies — oligarchs, businessmen, and, allegedly, one ostensible student — to build targeted relationships with American individuals who were or soon would be in a position to help shape American foreign policy. As Robert Anderson Jr., a former top counterintelligence official with the FBI, explained in a March court document related to the student’s indictment, these types of back channels “would have benefited the Russian government by enabling Russia to bypass formal channels of diplomacy, win concessions, and exert influence within the United States. Such benefits to the Russian government would have carried with them commensurate harm to the United States, including harm to the integrity of the United States’ political processes and internal government dealings, as well as to U.S. foreign policy interests and national security.”
As Mueller’s report makes clear, Putin viewed Trump and his aides as potential collaborators in his plan to restore Russia’s role as an influential player. So, Mueller, reported, “as soon as news broke that Trump had been elected President, Russian government officials and prominent Russian businessmen began trying to make inroads.”
We know in particular that Putin wanted an early meeting with Trump after the election, and also was floating an agreement he wanted Trump to sign about the importance of the two nations’ ties and their commitment to working jointly on global problems – a deal that would have been a feather in the cap for a country with a fraction of Washington’s economic power. He also wanted Trump to lift the economic sanctions imposed to punish Russia – and its wealthy elite – for the annexation of Crimea, and to forestall the imposition of tougher sanctions. His government was pushing a Ukraine peace plan that would largely preserve the status quo, and it needed Trump’s assent to quell international and regional opposition.
For a while, the effort to create warmer relations and find a compliant partner must have looked like it was making headway.
The month after the election, for example, then-President Obama launched a series of new sanctions aimed at punishing Russia for its interference in the election. But Michael Flynn, a Trump adviser who would soon be named as his national security adviser, quickly handed Putin an opportunity to curry favor with Trump, which Putin adroitly seized. As the report describes, Flynn phoned Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak and asked him to persuade Putin not to respond to Obama’s sanctions in kind. The following day, Kislyak phoned Flynn to inform him that his request “had been received at the highest levels” (as the report put it). And Trump was able to tweet, “Great move on delay (by V. Putin).”
Dmitriev, the head of Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, also had some success. After Putin had urged his oligarchs at a quarterly meeting to build relationships that could help ensure the lifting of sanctions, Dmitriev took it upon himself to pass on a “proposal for reconciliation between the United States and Russia,” according to Mueller’s report. With the help of Rick Gerson, a hedge fund manager and friend of Trump son-in-law and top adviser Jared Kushner, Dmitriev managed to get the proposal into Kushner’s hands. Kushner then passed it on to Trump adviser Steve Bannon and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Dmitriev also texted George Nader, who also played a role in bringing the players together, that Putin hoped Trump would use the proposal to prepare for a phone call between the two leaders. Nader texted back, “Definitely paper was so submitted …. They took it seriously!”
But some of the Russians’ entreaties were ignored — partly due to dysfunction and incompetence on the part of Trump’s team. Although Dmitriev sought a direct meeting in November 2016 with a Trump aide, he was forced to settle in January 2017 for a Seychelles meeting with Erik Prince, who was not an official campaign adviser. “Dmitriev was not enthusiastic about the idea of meeting with Prince,” according to Mueller’s report. After the meeting, Dmitriev expressed disappointment. He had wanted to meet with someone with more authority, and he had hoped to develop a more substantive “roadmap” for Russia and the United States. He found Prince’s comments “insulting.”
Then, as questions about Russian election interference began to swirl in the American media and the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation into Russia’s influence efforts – which had formally kicked off four months before the election — expanded, Putin’s proxies started running into walls. Flynn, who had convinced Kislyak to tell Putin to hold off on retaliation for sanctions, was booted from the White House within a month of Trump’s swearing in, after the FBI made it clear he had lied to the vice president and was a counterintelligence risk. He later pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and made a plea deal, explaining his sanctions conversations to Mueller.
Petr Aven, the oligarch Chairman of the Russian Alfa Bank, had sought — at Putin’s direction — intermediaries to push for a communications channel to improve U.S.-Russia relations, according to the Mueller Report. But he was told in an email from Richard Burt, a former U.S. ambassador who was on the board of one of Aven’s companies, that “with so much intense interest in the Congress and the media over the question of cyber-hacking (and who ordered what), Project A [a back channel] was too explosive to discuss.” Later, the Mueller Report states, Aven had to explain to Putin in one of their quarterly meetings that not only had he failed to establish a back channel with the new American president, he had received a subpoena from the FBI and been questioned about his efforts to do so.
Mariia Butina, the gun-loving Russian national with an affinity for Republicans who was supposedly studying at American University, was arrested by the FBI in July 2018. She later pleaded guilty to being an unregistered foreign agent and, as part of her plea agreement, promised to cooperate with investigators. She is now awaiting sentencing. She will be deported once her sentence is served.
So as problematic as things got – with multiple pre- and post-election contacts between Russians and Trump aides or administration officials that went unreported to the FBI, contrary to standing U.S. government policies – they might have been even worse, the section of Mueller’s report dealing with Russia suggests.
It’s not unlike his message in the other half of the report, dealing with Trump’s persistent, extensive efforts to stop Mueller’s probe from moving forward. It was bad, the report suggests, but it could have been worse – if any of Trump’s aides had taken the steps he asked them to undertake.
As Mueller notes, for example, White House counsel Don McGahn refused to tell Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to fire Mueller. Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager, declined to relay instructions to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to limit the special counsel’s investigation. And Dan Coates, the director of national intelligence, declined the president’s request to state that there was no link between Russia and the Trump campaign.
So how are we to evaluate who won and who lost in the long-running scandal – Russia or others? Putin’s tactics worked to help bring Trump into the Oval Office, and Trump’s role as a strategic disruptor is obviously paying dividends, with America’s popular reputation provably in decline around the globe. But the overall plan may still prove a strategic failure for the Russian president. Despite attempts, even by Trump himself, to play down Russia’s interference, the considerable evidence to the contrary dug up by Mueller has now mostly been published.
So even as the trolls and bots continue to try to spread disinformation, the truth — or at least part of it — is finally out. And with it comes a diminished chance of repairing U.S.-Russia relations on terms that Putin might like. For now, at least, relations between to the two countries remain tainted by scandal, and Putin has yet to secure a Ukrainian peace plan, meaning some (although not all) sanctions remain in place.
At the same time, the American electorate — despite the unwillingness of Trump to affirm the scope and seriousness of what Putin did in 2016 — has more information now about how disinformation works, which will make it harder, although not impossible, for Russia to implement the same playbook in 2020. Perhaps Putin, as he held court over his minions and sent them out to wreak havoc on our democracy, couldn’t imagine checks and balances being enforced by others on a national head of state. In Trump, Putin found a willing dance partner. But our democratic institutions still aren’t playing the music he wants to hear.
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