On October 7, 2016, the United States government accused Russia of illegally attempting to influence the results of the US presidential election. The Obama administration's condemnation of Russia's interference in the US electoral process followed widespread speculation about Russian collusion with WikiLeaks and allegations of Kremlin involvement in the August hacking of the Democratic National Committee (DNC)'s servers.
Even though Donald Trump's non-committal attitude towards NATO and praise for Vladimir Putin's leadership qualities have heightened Russia's interest in the 2016 presidential election, Moscow's actions can not solely be explained by the dynamics of the current election cycle. Taking a more long-range perspective, Russian policymakers view their interference in the US electoral process as a form of retaliation against past US meddling in Russian presidential elections.
The Clintons feature prominently in these past cases of US interference in Russian domestic politics. Under Bill Clinton's watch, the United States actively supported Boris Yeltsin's retention of power. Clinton's commitment to Yeltsin did not waver during the 1990s, despite widespread Russian public antipathy towards his economic policies and serious doubts about his competence to serve as president.
The negative memories of the 1990s transition period have caused Putin's allies to view US support for Yeltsin as an act of hostility towards Russia. As some of Putin's allies sympathized with the authoritarian ambitions of the 1991 coup plotters, allegations that US officials handed over secure codes used by coup plotting Soviet generals to Yeltsin have engendered particular animosity. The Russian state media has also described the active involvement of US political consultants in Yeltsin's come-from-behind presidential election triumph in 1996 as an egregious violation of Russia's sovereignty.
Since the colored revolutions of the mid-2000s, Kremlin policymakers have embraced the view that US involvement in the electoral processes of Russia and other CIS countries is motivated by a pernicious desire to prevent Russia's re-emergence as a great power. The 2011-12 Russian election protests consolidated this negative view of Washington's intentions.
During the 2011-12 mass protests, Putin's allies frequently accused the CIA of sabotaging Russia's elections. Representatives of Putin's United Russia Party argued that the United States was attempting to instigate an Orange Revolution-style turnover of power in Russia that would bring back "perestroika" and revolutionary chaos. Liberal nationalists like Alexey Navalny were publicly discredited as foreign agents. Putin's supporters also launched large-scale anti-Orange demonstrations in Moscow to protest against perceived US meddling in Russia's elections.
The Euro-Maidan Revolution in Ukraine, and rising influence of hardline anti-American policymakers like Vladislav Surkov and FSB head Nikolai Patrushev, have made Putin even more reactive to perceived US involvement in Russian internal politics. Former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul's decision to redirect $50 million towards civil society assistance to Russia in March 2012 has been cited as smoking gun evidence for pernicious US interference in Russian politics.
Despite these circumstantial claims and US financial assistance to liberal Russian organizations, the body of evidence demonstrates that the 2012 Russian election protests were not the product of US interference. Instead, Putin has effectively used popular anti-American conspiracy theories to deflect from the discontents expressed by liberal nationalists and middle class Russians frustrated by authoritarian backsliding and economic inequality. As Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State during the 2011-12 protests, Putin's anti-American approach has manifested itself in an attempt to sabotage the Clinton campaign.
Many US media outlets have regarded these anti-Clinton sentiments as face value proof for a Russian endorsement of Trump. Yet Russian elite opinion on Trump's campaign is a lot more circumspect than many commentators have argued. The hegemonic aspirations inherent in Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan and Trump's disdain for the United Nations (UN) conflict markedly with Putin's dream of a genuinely multipolar world order.
Putin demonstrated his potential discontent with Trump in emphatic fashion on October 27, claiming that rumors of Russian elite support for the Trump campaign were mere fictional US media concoctions. This suggests that Russian involvement in the US elections is largely a targeted revenge mission against Clinton for perceived past wrongs and not a full-fledged endorsement of Trump by Putin.
Russia's ability to interfere in the US election process also bolsters domestic perceptions of Russian great power status and can help rally Russian nationalists around Putin's rule. Even though Moscow has denied involvement in the US elections, Russia's ability to flagrantly violate America's sovereignty by releasing unfavorable documents about Clinton is rooted in its desire for symbolic parity with the United States.
In the eyes of Kremlin policymakers, the ability to violate international law without consequence is a defining feature of a great power. By ironically employing the same double standards as the United States, Putin has been able to demonstrate to the Washington establishment that Russia will not roll over passively to US pressure.
Allegations from Moscow that the US government has banned Russian election observers from overseeing the presidential elections also entrench the notion that the US employs double standards in its foreign policy. Giving the United States a taste of its own medicine during a politically sensitive period like an election cycle resonates powerfully amongst anti-American nationalists within Putin's inner circle.
From a tactical standpoint, interfering in the US election process also expands Russian soft power by giving Russia a political support base in the United States that is amenable to Putin's authoritarian, socially conservative style of government. Right-wing nationalists in the United States drawn to Trump's candidacy have also been attracted to Putin's socially conservative agenda, anti-LGBT legislation in Russia, and Moscow's hardline approach to combatting Islamic extremism.
Russia's outreach to the alt-right in the United States closely resembles its cordial relationships with anti-EU, far-right political parties in Europe. Covertly crusading against Clinton's presidential campaign helps Moscow curry the favor of right-wing populists in the Republican Party, giving Putin a political base within the United States. This support base could eventually give Moscow a voice in the US media and government.
To fully understand the motivations for Russian interference in the 2016 US election cycle, political analysts need to move beyond the mere analysis of Trump's incoherent foreign policy proposals and analyze Putin's broader objectives. Interference in the US presidential election cycle provides Putin with belated retribution for past US interference in Russian politics and bolsters domestic perceptions of Russia's great power status. This means that regardless of who wins on November 8, Russian involvement in US politics is likely to be an enduring feature of Kremlin foreign policy for years to come. Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony's College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who writes regularly for the Washington Post and Diplomat magazine. He can be followed on Twitter at samramani2 and on Facebook at Samuel Ramani.