The Real Goal Of Russian Election Interference

Russia's real goal in interfering in American elections may not have anything to do with favoring one candidate over another.

The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake argues that Vladimir Putin’s goal in interfering in the 2016 election wasn’t so much to get President Trump elected as it was to sow chaos in the American political process:

There has been plenty of fighting over exactly what Vladimir Putin’s goal was in interfering in the 2016 U.S. election. The intelligence community has concluded he favored Donald Trump, but Trump has publicly cast doubt on this, and members of his administration have regularly sought to obscure it.

In a way this all misses the point. The even-bigger motivation wasn’t necessarily about Trump personally; it was about destabilizing the American system of government. “Russian efforts to influence the 2016 US presidential election represent the most recent expression of Moscow’s longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order,” begins the January 2017 report from the U.S. intelligence community. Trump, by virtue of his controversial style and tendency to destroy societal norms, simply became the most obvious conduit — arguably a near-perfect one, in fact.

And this week showed just what a success it all has been for Putin.

Nearly every week we feel as though we’ve crossed the Rubicon, but this week outflanked the vast majority of them. The president of the United States publicly suggested his attorney general shut down an investigation of the president of the United States. Tensions between President Trump and the media boiled over at a couple Trump rallies, and the White House seemed to double down on its emerging campaign to tag the media not just as “fake news” but the “enemy of the American people.” And a growing number of Trump supporters at those same rallies seemed to be embracing a particularly bizarre, baseless and dangerous conspiracy theory known as “QAnon” — which could soon, with just one tweet from our conspiracy-theorist president, explode.

Large swaths of the country have decided that Trump is guilty of collusion and obstruction of justice. Many have also decided he is beholden to Putin — that the Russian president does have that much-discussed kompromat on Trump. There are certainly much more innocent explanations, including that Trump is merely the world’s most politically powerful contrarian — a guy who can’t be controlled and who is bent on getting and keeping the country’s attention no matter what it takes.

But the practical implications are really the same: Whatever his reasons, we have a president who is quite happy to destabilize the system of American government — and indeed thinks that’s the goal in many ways. And destabilizing it he is.

Blake’s argument goes to a point that I’ve been pondering for quite some time now, specifically the question of what goal the Russians had when they decided to intervene so blatantly and, in retrospect, openly in an American political campaign. The supposition among many of President Trump’s harshest critics, of course, is that the Russians interfered in the election with the specific intent of helping President Trump win the election and preventing Hillary Clinton from winning. The logic behind this argument, of course, is the fact that there was plenty of evidence that Vladimir Putin had a negative opinion of Clinton based on her time as Secretary of State and that he believed that Trump would be easier to deal with or manipulate. The more sinister theories, of course, speculate that Putin has something on Trump or even that Trump and/or people around him are acting, on at least some level, as conscious assets of a foreign power. At least at the moment, though, there’s no evidence to support either of those hypotheses and, unless and until such evidence is uncovered and made public I would suggest that there’s a far simpler, and in some ways more sinister, explanation for the goal the Russians had in 2016 and which they are likely to have in future efforts to interfere in elections in the United States or elsewhere in the world.

The evidence for this hypothesis is all around us, and it explains much of what happened over the course of the past three years or more in a far more logical way than the search for some compromising material that Putin may or may not have on Trump. The biggest indictments to date in the Russia investigation have been those handed down in February against thirteen Russian individuals and a number of companies linked to the Russian government and the second set of indictments handed down last month against a dozen members of the Russian GRU, which is Russia’s military intelligence unit. The facts alleged in these indictments make clear that the planning for the interference we know occurred in 2016 began long before Donald Trump entered the race for President, making it clear that the plan to interfere in the election was at least not initially tied to Trump’s candidacy. Instead, it appears that the entities carrying the operation out latched on to Trump’s campaign and the populist forces that gathered around it to assist in the achievement of their goal, which appears to have been to exploit the hyperpartisanship that has developed in American politics thanks largely to the rise of the Tea Party.

Judged by this standard, of course, Putin’s plan has arguably been more successful than he probably thought it would be. The past eighteen months have seen partisanship in the United States become even more bitter and divisive than it was during the Obama Era, and given the wide disparity between the way that Democrats and Independents judge the President’s performance on the job compared to Republicans, that’s only likely to continue. Indeed, public opinion on the Russia investigation itself is becoming ever more sharply divided to the point where it’s clear that most Republicans simply won’t accept Special Counsel Mueller’s conclusions no matter how much evidence there might be to support it. This will just mean more hyperpartisanship, and more division, as we head into the 2018 midterms and, beyond that, the 2020 Presidential election. Given that, one could say that Putin has already succeeded even if there is no further interference in our electoral process.

None of this is to dismiss the possibility that there isn’t something more to Putin’s machinations or that he didn’t prefer Trump to Clinton. Indeed, he pretty much acknowledged the latter fact at the press conference following the Helsinki press conference when he affirmatively acknowledged that he wanted Trump to win in 2016 and at least seemed to imply that the inference campaign was designed, or came to be designed, as means of helping Trump defeat Clinton. Additionally, notwithstanding the fact that the Administration has imposed some sanctions against Russia related to its actions, the President has not imposed all of the sanctions mandated by Congress. Most importantly, though, consciously or not. Trump has allowed Putin to accomplish something that leaders of the Soviet Union from Stalin to Gorbachev were never able to do, drive a wedge between the United States and its allies, and most especially between the United States and NATO. Finally, of course, there was Trump’s obsequious performance in Helsinki, which served only to enhance Putin’s own worldwide prestige.

So, regardless of what Putin’s goal was, it’s clear that he’s succeeded masterfully, largely because we let him get away with it.

FILED UNDER: National Security, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. george says:

    I think that’s pretty obvious.

    Its the same reason America interferes in Russian elections and internal affairs, why both have interfered in many other countries elections and internal affairs for decades. Its the international game, and its been going on a long time (at least since the Ancient Greeks).

    The only thing unusual (though not without precedent) was the cooperation of one of the candidates (Trump) with that interference. That Russia and America play games with each other’s elections is very old news.

  2. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Putin’s goal in interfering in the 2016 election wasn’t so much to get President Trump elected as it was to sow chaos in the American political process

    These two things are not mutually exclusive goals by any stretch of the imagination.
    In addition, helping to elect Dennison succeeded – wildly – in helping to sow chaos in the American political system…an effort which continues today and is provided cover for by the POTUS.
    Your thesis would be far sounder if you rewrote it to say that; Putin started out simply to sow chaos in our system but then lucked into a useful candidate, who had already been acting as a Russian agent for decades, to help in that task – whether wittingly or not.

    The supposition among many of President Trump’s harshest critics, of course, is that the Russians interfered in the election with the specific intent of helping President Trump win the election…At least at the moment, though, there’s no evidence to support either of those hypotheses

    Well…except that every single intelligence service, and the Senate Intelligence Committee has said so repeatedly. I assume the IC has evidence for this unanimous conclusion.

    Breaking with their House Republican counterparts, the Senate Intelligence Committee said Tuesday that the intelligence community properly concluded in January of last year that Russian President Vladimir Putin was trying to help Donald Trump when Moscow meddled in the 2016 election.
    C’mon Doug…

  3. Kit says:

    My guess is that Putin long ago placed a bet on cyber warfare. When the US election rolled around, Russia must have realized that it had a no-lose bet to play. The high-paying long shot was that their man Donald would win. But Hillary winning was almost even better, with Trump refusing to recognize an election tainted by Russian influence. The long-shot follow-up bet would have been massive civil unrest aided by a do-nothing Congress.

  4. TM01 says:

    Holy crap, Doug.

    You just literally gave heart attacks to 3/4 of the people who post here.

    Not that I expect any of them to listen or consider this. They’ll just keeping on doing Putin’s bidding by screaming COLLUSION at the sky.

  5. @TM01:

    The fact that Putin’s goal may have gone beyond the election of a specific candidate does not preclude the possibility of collusion (i.e, conspiracy) between Trump campaign officials and Russian officials, the evidence in favor of which appears to become more abundant by the day.

    Sorry to disappoint you.

  6. Michael Reynolds says:

    Hmm. . . nope, no heart attack. You don’t understand the issues so of course you don’t understand the matter at hand. You’re a bubble boy. #Cult45.

  7. Michael Reynolds says:

    Putin backed Trump because:
    a) He owned Trump.
    b) He knew Trump would be a disaster.

    The answer is (a) and (b). Also c) He hated Hillary for standing up to his bullying.

  8. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:



    There is no such crime.
    There is conspiracy to defraud the United States, something you appear to not care about.
    Why do you hate America, so?

  9. gVOR08 says:

    This is hardly news. Looking at how Kompromat and cyber warfare work and how they’ve worked in Europe, many people have been saying this since day one. Whether Putin wanted Trump elected or not, there’s no question that he did help Trump. There’s also no question individuals in his campaign “colluded” with Russians. It appears likely Russian money found its way into Trump’s campaign and/or dark money supporters. The only real open question is the extent to which Trump himself knew of the “collusion” and participated.

    As I’ve noted before, being blackmailed is not a crime. But it sure as hell ought to be cause for impeachment.

  10. Hal_10000 says:

    I think the point that Putin wanted to sew chaos is clearer if you look at several other pieces of information:

    1) Some evidence that Putin’s been supporting far-right candidates in various European elections.
    2) Good evidence that Putin supported Brexit
    3) Evidence that the Russians have been trying to influence Eastern European politics, with the specific goal of drawing them away from the EU and/or NATO.
    4) Speculation (and some evidence) that CalExit, when it was still a thing, was getting some Russians support.

    It’s not just the US. He’s trying to sew chaos everywhere. One of the things Robert Heinlein (I think) used to say is that you cannot understand Russian politics without understanding the deep paranoia that motivates them. Not surprising, considering their history. Putin and many Russians think that NATO/EU are a threat. I think it was Vox that ran an article about how many Russians think our Baltic alliances have the goal of invading Russia and taking Moscow. If there is a specific goal for Putin, it’s less about Trump per se and more about breaking up the Western Bloc that has been such an effective counterweight to him.

  11. Jen says:

    Of course Putin is attempting to sow chaos wherever he can–this is KGB 101, which is how he was trained. They’ve been doing this for decades, the only difference is that social media and the internet has made it far easier to reach more people, including ones daft enough to dissipate propaganda without question if it matches their internal biases. Good grief, this is not news. The corollary is true too: Putin is using similar propaganda measures on his own population as well.

    That it came at the expense of Hillary Clinton was a bonus. Putin has hated her for a long time.

    None of this excludes or excuses the Trump campaign’s willingness to go along with it. As others have noted, collusion is not a crime but conspiracy is. So is knowingly accepting election assistance from foreign countries, whether that be cash, in-kind donations, or computer hacking. There is ample smoke around that points to laws broken, just in routine media coverage. Once money trails are confirmed and made public, we’ll know if actual crimes were committed.

  12. Michael Reynolds says:

    The justification for Russian paranoia is overstated IMO. I mean yes, they are absolutely paranoid as hell. But no, they don’t automatically gain that right because of Napoleon and Hitler. Take a look at the expansion of Russia from Muscovy to the USSR: they have been aggressors often. Quite often. They stole their country by violence same as we did with ours.

    As for the Great Patriotic War, I’d feel they had more justification had they not collaborated with the Nazis and invaded Finland and Poland. I mean, that should really take the edge off their eternal sense of victimization. Had Stalin not been a blithering, unhinged lunatic (kinda like. . .) who murdered his own officer corps, sent the NKVD out to shoot Russian soldiers in the back, and refused to see the patently obvious until the Germans were halfway to Moscow, the effects would not have been so catastrophic. I mean, it’s 80o miles, give or take, from Poland to Moscow, (about the same as NYC to Chicago) how in hell could any competent Russian commander fail to disrupt a supply line that long? But the Russians still honor the mad bastard because the Russians are. . . how shall I put this. . . eternally incompetent at self-government.

  13. @Michael Reynolds:

    Russian (and before it Soviet) foreign policy has long been infected with the paranoia of being “encircled” by enemies notwithstanding the fact that even before nuclear weapons, Russia’s size and the nature of its territory and climate makes the idea that any nation would successfully be able to conquer them does really bear out in reality. Napoleon and Hitler both came close (and Hitler arguably might have succeeded had the Wehrmacht made a drive to capture the oil fields in Azerbaijan rather than getting bogged down in places like Stalingrad) but Russia proved to be far bigger a bite than they had the capacity to chew.

  14. @Michael Reynolds:

    Also worth noting that Operation Barbarossa probably would have gone far differently if Stalin had not purged the Red Army General Staff in the 1930s and replaced them with a bunch of Communist Party hacks.

  15. Slugger says:

    I think that Putin is an extremely clever, intelligent man whose motives and actions are deliberately difficult to analyze. Most of us, me included, are not as smart as he is, but we should try to look at more than one perspective when trying to understand his moves. We can assume that his strategy is self serving which includes doing things that are benign in order to get an advantage later. The likelihood is that Putin thought that Trump would be manipulable even by a clown like Kim Jung-un. Russians have long stereotyped Americans as naive and gullible.

  16. Lounsbury says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    Putin started out simply to sow chaos in our system but then lucked into a useful candidate, who had already been acting as a Russian agent for decades, to help in that task – whether wittingly or not.

    This seems a focused and cogent rewrite of the thesis,although “for decades” may be overstating.

  17. Lounsbury says:

    @Michael Reynolds: it hardly seems to me he was stating Russian paranoid actions are justified as your response reads it, he only was noting the Russian perception and basis of that.

  18. Kathy says:

    It’s like this:

    Faced with a 4th and 1 around midfield, it would be too far for a field goal, and too close for a punt. The team with the ball might, then, reasonably try to advance one yard and get a new set of downs. But they may get lucky and the fullback may break loose and score a TD, say if a defensive lineman slips, or is too slow to react for fear of drawing an offside penalty.

    That’s what Putin got with Trump. Except Trump as lineman is escorting Putin to the end zone he’s supposed to be defending.

  19. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:


    “for decades” may be overstating.

    Maybe. Maybe not.
    And his ghostwriter responds;
    To be clear…I believe much of it is unwitting, perhaps even his underling’s conspiracy during the campaign…Dennison is a useful idiot. Vain and stupid…who else is easier to manipulate?

  20. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Mods…can I get rescued from the queue?

  21. Kathy says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Russian (and before it Soviet) foreign policy has long been infected with the paranoia of being “encircled” by enemies notwithstanding the fact that even before nuclear weapons, Russia’s size and the nature of its territory and climate makes the idea that any nation would successfully be able to conquer them does really bear out in reality.

    That was also a fear the Germans held, which contributed to WWI. As now, their fear was rooted in an alliance, back then between Russia, France, and Great Britain. Today it’s NATO, plus the alliances the US has in Asia. The notion of encirclement is also why it makes strategic sense to prop up China, though that carries with it the balancing act of not letting China get too powerful (a forlorn hope by now).

    Napoleon and Hitler both came close

    Napoleon was never close. Russia is immense, even now, and has had governments willing to trade territory for time. Scorched earth tactics were common, leaving the invader at the end of an ever longer supply line. Napoleon even took Moscow, and that did him exactly no good at all, as the Russian armies could still fight.

    Hitler might have come closer. Staling faced a bigger problem than the Czars, as he had to move entire industries east, not to mention people, in order to keep his armies going. He benefited from Russia’s vast extent, as well as Hitler’s many blunders, such as delaying Barbarossa to bail out Mussolini in Greece.

  22. george says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Also c) He hated Hillary for standing up to his bullying.

    Um, other than Trump, what senior American politician has ever not stood up to Russian (or Soviet) bullying? If anything, American leaders have tended to overreact to Russian activities, threatening nuclear response rather than to back down even an inch.

    Reagan for instance was a bad president for a lot of reasons, but its extremely hard to argue he gave in to Soviet bullying. Nor did Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Carter, Bush Sr, B.Clinton, Bush Jr., or Obama.

    I doubt Putin had any more resentment against Hillary for not putting up with his attempts to bully than he had against any of the 20 previous presidents and secretary’s of state who stood up to Russian bullying (and typically tried to bully in return, or even initiate the bullying); if they dislike each other it’ll be for personal reasons, not because both are continuing to do what their countries have done for decades – only idiots take things like that personally, and whatever Putin is, he’s no idiot. Speaking of idiots, Trump is the single anomaly in his giving in, the rest were willing to start WW3 rather than give Russia its way even in small things.

    Putin was simply mucking around with America in the same way America mucks around with Russia. Its part of the international game, and its not even both sides do it, its all sides do it, and have done so for thousands of years.

  23. Gustopher says:

    Eighty-some-odd undisclosed contacts between the Trump campaign and Russians suggests that there was, in fact, coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russians who were interfering in our elections. Or a complete disregard for disclosure on security forms.

    We know that in addition to helping Donald Trump, the Russians also helped at least one Republican congressional candidate.

    Two data points does not make a trend. But we also have a Russian agent working with the NRA, which endorsed Trump very early in the Republican primary. And Russian fake news on Facebook.

    I would love to see an investigation into when the Russian involvement on American social media began, by the way.

    Putin wants a weak America and a divided West. That’s the only environment where Russia gets to act like a superpower again.

    He would also like an American President who is his puppet, because who wouldn’t?

  24. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    This Omarosa woman just told MSNBC’s Katy Tur that she spoke to Mueller this morning.
    She says Dennison knew about hacked emails before they were released.


    I mean…just in case you wondered why he was on twitter, this morning, flailing around like a sunfish on the dock.

  25. SC_Birdflyte says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Indeed. There’s a good body of research which indicates that the German Abwehr (military intelligence service) was feeding information to Stalin which amplified his already-powerful paranoia.

  26. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:


    I would love to see an investigation into when the Russian involvement on American social media began, by the way.

    I would love to see a very public list of everyone who retweeted, or liked, or somehow interacted favorably with Russian efforts…and how often they did so. Sort of a public shaming of the stupid. Maybe put a big red “R” on their chest…a la Hester Prynne

  27. Gustopher says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: I’m sure there’s a perfectly innocent explanation…

    Thank God our President is psychic!

    Ok, seriously, his campaign may have been tipped off by WikiLeaks right before the release, and this may not have involved meeting with any Russians.

    Or Omarosa may be lying. I hear she is a low IQ dog or something. Trump surrounds himself with scumbags, and I wouldn’t trust any of them unless there is corroborating evidence.

    Now, who told Rudy Giuliani that Comey was about to reopen the emails case? That is well documented, and keeps getting neglected.

  28. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:


    Ok, seriously, his campaign may have been tipped off by WikiLeaks right before the release, and this may not have involved meeting with any Russians.

    Except for the well-known cooperation between Wikileaks and the Russians…see; go-between

  29. Gustopher says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: I’m wondering if it stretches back to the Birther stuff and the Tea Party, or whether they learned the art of carefully targeted crazy from the American right.

    Jade Helm… All-American crazy, or Russian conspiracy? Who can really tell at this point. PizzaGate? Vince Foster?

    I suspect that if we understood it better, it would be fascinating. I think the paranoia about Vince Fosters suicide was all-American crazy, and PizzaGate is just too stupid to believe that anyone could have come up with it as anything other than a very dark joke, but I don’t know.

    Or was the first Russian social media experiment an awkward thing that read “Comrades, Hillary Clinton Eats Boogers For Breakfast! She Is Ambitious Woman. Ambitchess.”?

  30. Gustopher says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: Has it been verified that the Trump campaign knew WikiLeaks was acting in Russian interests? Was the gobetween Russian? Was it Roger Stone chortling and cackling with glee?

    There’s a world of difference between being tipped off that WikiLeaks is about to dump stuff, and being informed by the Russian government that the requested information has been obtained and is going to be released by WikiLeaks in three days time. People tend to gloss over that world of difference.

    I mostly believe that there was active and deliberate coordination, but the evidence of that (if it exists) isn’t public. Just lots of people acting really guilty, and lots of unreported meetings. And the Trump Tower meeting.

  31. TM01 says:

    Nice list.

    Russia is also behind the anti frakking movement here in the states. And they’ve been behind some of the antifa protests and what not as well.

    But yeah… What I said earlier.

  32. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Until all these people are under oath and their statements are collaborated…nothing has been verified. But Stone was talking to Gucifer 2.0 (the GRU) and to Assange so if he didn’t know then something is wrong with him.
    It is entirely possible that the Dennison campaign is guilty of no more than being stupid and incompetent. In either case they shouldn’t be running this country.

  33. Jen says:

    @george: Putin has a long-standing grudge against Hillary Clinton:

  34. george says:


    Sure, but not because she’s the only American secretary of state in history to stand up to Russian bullying – as I said, every American president and secretary of state before Trump has been more than happy to stand up to Russian bullying (sometimes standing up against it before Russia has even done any bullying).

    If his grudge against her is for that, then he’d have a very long list of people to have grudges against, because that was the norm until Trump took office.

  35. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:


    Russia is also behind the anti frakking (sic) movement here in the states.

    They may be stoking and promoting the movement, but they aren’t “behind” it.
    Unless you are saying the Sierra Club is a Russian front.
    You’re dumb.

  36. teve tory says:

    If Obama had publicly said “Hey Russia, please look into Mitt’s emails.” and Mitt’s emails had subsequently been broken into by Russians, all the Trumper trolls here would be telling us how necessary it was to impeach him.

  37. grumpy realist says:

    @Lounsbury: rather than “Russian agent” (which indicates a certain level of savoir-faire), I think “useful idiot” is more appropriate. The Russians kept shoving money and offers at Trump for years and years and years and sucked Cadet Bone Spurs deeper and deeper into compromising situations, a.k.a. acting as money launderer for the Russian oligarchy. Now Trump’s terrified that it’s all going to come out and is flailing around while the Russians (and the Norks, and everyone else) gently manipulate him through a combination of flattery and righteous complaints.

  38. Jim Brown 32 says:

    Russian Strategic doctrine is easily pulled up online. “Election meddling” is not a strategic goal and neither this “Screw with the US because they screw with us”

    Russia was a distant number 2 in the Bi-polar world of Post WWII. They realize there is no way for them to project power in their own region as long as they have to run up against US alliances everywhere they turn. Russia has no problem with the US as a single nation-state actor. That falls in line with their desire for a multi-polar world where there is Russia and the US are but 2 of 5/6 countries in global competition. The easiest and cheapest way to do that is to shape Washington by support candidates that are committed to isolationist policies and/or who show little regards for collaboration with other global economic powerhouses who happen to be their national rivals. The Super-Pac campaign finance model gives them…and frankly…other countries the anonymity to shape US foreign policy in ways beneficial to them.

    Basically they want their region and world to look like it did before WWI

  39. Scott O says:

    @Gustopher: “I’m wondering if it stretches back to the Birther stuff”

    Remember Orly Taitz? I wonder if she got some funding from the old country.

  40. teve tory says:

    The HillLike Page
    7 hrs ·
    BREAKING: President Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort rested his case without presenting any evidence or calling any witnesses as he faces 18 counts of alleged bank and tax fraud.


  41. Hal_10000 says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Definitely agree. The Soviets invaded and raped Eastern Europe, did it again as they pushed Hitler back and then engaged one of the largest ethnic cleansings in history to push their borders westward while moving Poland the Ukraine westward.