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What Putin Sees in Trump

CAMBRIDGE – It is entirely possible that when Russian President Vladimir Putin gazes up at the stars at night and imagines the world of his dreams, he smiles at the thought of Donald Trump as US President. He may like the idea of an American leader who is focused on law and order at home rather than democracy-building abroad. He may even admire Trump’s swaggering leadership style, so reminiscent of his own.

But when he wakes from his reverie, Putin understands that it cannot possibly be in Russia’s interest for Trump to win in November. That’s why there cannot possibly be a serious Kremlin plan – relying on cyber or other means – to help orchestrate it.

Of course, it’s not hard to imagine that Russian hackers did find a way into the Democratic National Committee’s servers, or those used by Hillary Clinton’s campaign, as part of espionage efforts that target government, corporate, and political organizations of all kinds. In the twenty-first century, the Kremlin’s intelligence services would be accused of professional negligence if they weren’t vigorously attempting such attacks.

Russian leaders also have a long history of agitation and propaganda, or “agitprop” as their Soviet predecessors called the overt and covert campaigns to shape public opinion in foreign countries. But these efforts have a decidedly mixed record of success, and Putin has a heightened understanding that Russian meddling can easily backfire. Thus, it remains unclear just how much the timing and content of the recent leaks were determined by Russia itself or by WikiLeaks, where the documents actually appeared.