WASHINGTON, DC – Donald Trump has officially been inaugurated as US president, but questions about Russia’s interference in the election will not go away. Yet one key question is often lost in the fray: Why did Russian President Vladimir Putin do it?
Of course, it is not difficult to guess why Putin preferred Trump to his opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But there is a difference between hoping for an outcome and going to great lengths – and incurring great risks – to help bring it about. In our view, the US intelligence agencies’ conclusion that, by helping Trump, the Kremlin was advancing its “longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order” is not entirely convincing.
Russia’s meddling in the US election was unprecedented. Just three years ago, it would have been unimaginable: though the West’s relationship with Russia was far from ideal, and featured plenty of competition, it was also characterized by cooperation. As recently as June 2013, Putin and US President Barack Obama issued a statement that reaffirmed “their readiness to intensify bilateral cooperation based on the principles of mutual respect, equality, and genuine respect for each other’s interests.”
Everything changed in February 2014, when Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution culminated in the ousting of the Kremlin-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych. That development – and Putin’s response to it – fundamentally transformed the West's relationship with Russia.
Almost as soon as power changed hands in Kiev, the Kremlin’s foreign-policy posture became much more bellicose. Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, and then began supporting a grinding separatist insurgency in Ukraine’s Donbas region. The US and the European Union countered with increasingly harsh and sophisticated sanctions and a broader campaign to “isolate” Russia diplomatically.
Russia took its assertive behavior to the skies, leading to a number of close encounters between Russian warplanes and Western jets (both civilian and military), and to the sea, boosting its submarine activity in the North Atlantic to Cold War-era levels. According to the Obama administration, there was a spike in harassment of US diplomatic personnel in Russia.
On the political front, the Kremlin began supporting Euroskeptic and anti-EU forces. And it has gone out of its way to thwart Western efforts to address major international challenges, most prominently the Syrian civil war. Longstanding US-Russia agreements on nuclear security and non-proliferation have been angrily renounced. All of this culminated in Russia’s alleged leak of hacked emails aimed at discrediting the Clinton campaign.
While Russia’s efforts to interfere in the US presidential election fit the broader pattern of escalation that began after 2014, they still represent quite a step change. Russia probably hacked the Democratic and Republican campaigns in the 2012 US presidential election, too, given its formidable cyber capabilities. But its intelligence agencies quietly analyzed the information, in order to improve their understanding of a potential adversary’s future leaders – hardly shocking behavior by a government.
The election meddling also represented a significant risk for Russia. While the extent to which the leaked emails affected the vote is unknown, the Kremlin has certainly paid a price for its actions, alienating most of the American public, along with nearly the entire US political elite.
The Kremlin’s determination to have its way in Ukraine drove it to take such a risk. As its behavior since 2014 suggests, the Russian government considers the post-revolutionary status quo in Ukraine – in particular, the country’s headlong rush toward the West – a direct threat to Russian national security. By annexing Crimea, supporting the Donbas separatists, and lashing out at the West directly, Russia wants to make clear that it will do whatever it takes to have its interests taken into account.
But the West hasn’t cooperated. Despite the Kremlin’s escalation, the US and the EU have refused to acquiesce to the negotiation Russia wants, and continue to support Ukraine’s integration with the EU and NATO. And, though a formal offer of membership in either organization is at best a distant possibility, it has not been ruled out.
Once it became clear that Western policymakers were not going to blink, the Kremlin apparently decided to try to replace them. In light of Russia’s unbending commitment to maintaining its influence in Ukraine, an inclusive settlement there may well be necessary to prevent the Kremlin from pursuing ever more aggressive options for asserting its position.
Awareness of this uncomfortable reality should not lead the West to capitulate to Russia. Instead, it should strengthen the case for open dialogue and tough negotiation – precisely what has long been lacking in Western policy on the Ukraine crisis and toward the entirety of the post-Soviet Eurasian region. We have arrived at this point precisely because both Russia and the West have spent over a decade seeking unilateral advantages and eschewing negotiated compromises.
Holding talks in the current atmosphere of mistrust, mutual recrimination, and fearmongering will require a substantial investment of political capital for a sustained period. Moving beyond current adversarial approaches to find common ground will take time. A quick deal won’t be possible.
As Russia’s meddling in the US election amply demonstrates, the consequences of allowing the Ukraine crisis to continue extend far beyond that country’s borders. In order to find a new stable equilibrium in relations between Russia and the West, all parties must urgently make a good-faith effort to resolve it.