Assessing who Putin’s preferred 2020 candidate will be


The Kremlin is apparently gearing up for a sustained intervention in the 2020 U.S. presidential elections.

The core of Robert Mueller’s special counsel probe provides overwhelming evidence that Russia’s intelligence services intervened in the 2016 U.S. elections and aimed to help Donald Trump win the presidency. However, Moscow’s calculations may have changed regarding whom to support in the November 2020 ballot.

{mosads}As President Vladimir Putin faces mounting public protests at home, he will seek to deflect attention by undermining U.S. democracy and disrupting policymaking. The White House is mistaken if it calculates that this will again work in Trump’s favor.

The Trump presidency has deeply disappointed the Kremlin, as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has strengthened its capabilities in Europe. Moscow’s targets — Ukraine and Georgia — are now better armed, and economic sanctions against Moscow have been reinforced. Hence, Putin may well favor one of Trump’s Democratic opponents. 

Moscow’s disinformation and influence operations will have two primary aims: to help foster confusion and conflict during the U.S. election campaign and to prevent the election of former Vice President Joe Biden. 

Biden has a long congressional track record of strengthening NATO, understands the extent of Russia’s imperial ambitions and is most likely to increase U.S. pressure on Moscow if elected. 

Kremlin intervention in the 2016 elections demonstrates that America is a soft target for foreign subversion. Russia’s intelligence services have probed American politics for many years, seeking to gain influence or obtain intelligence on personalities, politics and policy.

However, under the Putin regime, the Kremlin became more ambitious in its intentions and more capable in its operations. 

Russian state services focus on at least five entry points into U.S. elections: hacking, hoaxing, corrupting, compromising and penetrating. The hacking strategy consists of intercepting, altering, forging and releasing personal communications to discredit presidential candidates.

Selections of stolen documents are provided to Russian surrogates such as WikiLeaks for general release at politically opportune occasions during election campaigns.

The hoaxing strategy entails planting and disseminating false stories about politicians and parties through both the traditional media and social platforms. The fabricated accounts can be positive or negative, but the purpose is to spread rumors that may stick in a voter’s mind even if the stories are subsequently debunked as false.

Even spreading fraudulent stories about collusion with Russia can serve Moscow’s objectives by denigrating certain politicians and campaigns while generating political disputes.

The corruption strategy involves enticing, duping, bribing or recruiting political activists, lobbyists, journalists and academics to promulgate Moscow’s conspiracy theories or whitewashing its policies. The Kremlin’s well-tested European model of financial corruption is likely to be more comprehensively applied in the U.S.

The compromising strategy focuses on gathering scandalous and salacious material that can be used to blackmail political leaders and affect U.S. policy. Russian services would be failing in their duties if they did not gather
“kompromat” — i.e., compromising material — on all major U.S. politicians and businesspeople.

The Kremlin can hold this material in reserve in case it needs to generate scandals against an incumbent president and undermine White House policies. 

The fifth method is a strategy of penetration. Hackers recruited by the Kremlin will seek to gain access to election rolls and voting systems, possibly to alter voter information and affect elections at local and state levels.

Although it is unclear what precise impact this may have on the vote count, the information gained can be used in subsequent elections to target particular voters. 

Moscow’s five methods for influencing the outcome of elections relies on favorable political conditions in contemporary America. Polarization between the two major parties is so profound that foreign actors have space to infiltrate and provide a candidate with useful assistance against a domestic opponent.

Partisan rifts are also reflected in a deeply divided electorate, which is susceptible to conspiracy theories and negative propaganda against the rival party.

{mossecondads}A divided political environment also fosters neglect and naiveté among decision-makers about Moscow’s strategic aims. The utopian idea that Russia can be a strategic partner lulled much of the political establishment to sleep until the extent of Moscow’s intervention in the 2016 elections unfolded.

During the past decade, America has become a vulnerable society with a false sense of security. Although the FBI and other government branches can defend against major cyberattacks, it is more difficult to protect against propaganda, disinformation and political penetration. And Washington remains largely passive in a much-needed intervention to undermine the Putin regime. 

Putin’s preferred choice in the November 2020 elections is likely to be a progressive or populist Democrat. The Kremlin will assess which candidate:

  • has a weak record on the NATO alliance and international military involvement;
  • has previously voiced sympathies for leftist dictatorships; and
  • is more likely to reach out for a new “grand bargain” with Moscow that will allow it to extend its “sphere of influence.”

Such a candidate would be in a position to perform the function that Trump proved unable to accomplish.

Janusz Bugajski is a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). He is the former director of New European Democracy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Follow him on Twitter: @JBugajskiUSA.

Tags Donald Trump Election Security information warfare Joe Biden Robert Mueller Vladimir Putin

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