Whether or not grains of truth can be sifted from a salacious intelligence dossier on what alleges to be Russian kompromat — a campaign of blackmail — targeting U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, Russia has much to gain, and risk, from the firestorm in Washington.
As we have written previously, nobody should be surprised that foreign intelligence agencies would collect information on U.S. presidential candidates. Nor should it be shocking that, in cases where capabilities permit, such information would be used in an attempt to influence U.S. foreign policy. After all, the United States is the most powerful country in the world. The bigger the disparity in power between nations, the more clever and resourceful the less powerful ones need to be in their attempts to subtly steer the global hegemon in a desired direction. The success of these maneuvers is far from given, and the scope of any Russian shaping operations in the United States is still murky. The leaked dossier, for example, appears to be sloppily written and compiled and contains a number of factual inaccuracies and oddities. This is not the only body of allegations concerning Russian attempts to interfere in the U.S. election. But the information resulting from the scrutiny of such activities by U.S. intelligence agencies have given Trump's foes plenty of political dynamite to toss at him.
And as the political commotion has grown in Washington, the Kremlin has become quieter and more restrained. The Russian government has repeatedly said there will be no official contact with Trump until after he is formally inaugurated. It has consistently downplayed the U.S. election result, saying Moscow would have to wait and see whether Trump's rhetoric about improving ties with Russia actually translates into reality. If Russia did play any role in facilitating Trump's election, now would not be the time to gloat or celebrate his win. This would be the time for Moscow to hunker down, deny everything and give the impression that any favorable outcome from a Trump administration will come as a pleasant and welcome surprise.
We imagine that there are several scenarios under debate within the Kremlin at this very moment. In the best-case scenario for Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russia works with a pliable U.S. president willing to begin negotiations by employing executive orders to ease sanctions against it, to be open to recognizing Russia's sphere of influence in Ukraine and, perhaps, to negotiate limits to NATO's military buildup in Eastern Europe. Of course, no negotiation is one-sided, and Russia would have to offer something in return. Russia has set itself up already to mediate in Syria and parts of the Middle East in hopes of enticing the United States into this broader dialogue, but Moscow is not about to substantially lower its defenses along the former Soviet periphery. Given the extreme difficulty of negotiating a sustainable solution to the Syrian crisis, however, Russia's offerings are unlikely to carry enough weight to compel a major reversal of U.S. strategy in Europe. Perhaps these constraints are what Putin anticipated all along.
That takes us to the next-best-case scenario for Russia — and perhaps the most likely one: Chaos consumes Washington. If the incoming administration has a tendency to treat such leaks and investigations as political conspiracy, a significant trust deficit will widen between the president-elect and the intelligence community. For all we know, the leaked dossier itself could be a piece of an elaborate Russian disinformation campaign. Depending on how deep the allegations of election misdeeds run and the willingness of the FBI to pursue investigations, Trump and his team will have to work out contingencies to insulate him from potential legal probes that could derail his presidency. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump's choice for national security adviser, has vocalized his disdain for civilian intelligence agencies. Not only would he play a critical role in filtering the intelligence that reaches the president, but he would also likely apply much of his attention to reforming the U.S. intelligence apparatus. A greater willingness by the Trump administration to shake up the intelligence community will be highly distracting and consuming — an outcome that could work in Moscow's favor as it tries to consolidate influence in its near abroad without U.S. interference.
But not all scenarios work to Russia's favor. With the focus on alleged ties between Russia and Trump's inner circle intensifying, any moves by the Trump administration to ease frictions with Moscow and move forward on negotiations will be saturated in the ongoing political drama. That could restrain the administration from taking a conciliatory approach to dealing with Moscow. This atmosphere may complicate the incoming administration's early moves, such as the prospect of Trump using executive action to ease sanctions on Russia. The administration could also respond to the allegations by focusing on the defensive and offensive moves the United States would need to make to guard against Russian interference. Notably, in his lively inaugural press conference as president-elect on Wednesday, Trump mentioned eight times in his comments how the United States needed to develop a "strong hacking defense" to deal with cyber threats. And if the best defense is a strong offense, then Russia may face some backlash from Washington in the months ahead, just as Putin prepares for his own re-election in 2018.