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There were quite a few allegations that Russia interfered, or at least tried to interfere, with the 2016 US presidential election, and new allegations have started to appear that similar interference in the 2020 election may have started or will soon start. Reams and reams have been published about the evidence for or against these allegations, debates over the fundamental definition of election interference and whether the supposed evidence fits such definition, and what an appropriate penalty for proven electoral interference should be. This question is not about any of that.

What would Russia have to gain from interfering with the US election in 2016? Was there an issue of military superiority? Obtaining favorable trade agreements? Coercing a reduction in tariffs? Getting their embassy moved to a better DC neighborhood? Intimidating other countries with their mad leet election interference skills?

Again, to be clear, I'm not asking about whether any interference did happen, only what benefits other than "street cred" would be likely obtained by doing so.

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    @makelemonade, the question skirts several problems. Perceived benefits are close to motivations which are guesswork unless there is a press release (and often even then). It is very easy to google possible benefits and knowing which one is right hits the first issue I mentioned. And we're getting close to the US election, where it makes sense to be vigilant regarding questions which "seem" to promote one side or the other. No down vote or close vote from me, but I see why one might vote to close on any one of them. – o.m. Aug 12 at 18:50
  • @o.m. thanks I'm aware of those things, and I've tried to make the question as neutral and objective as possible. If anyone can propose changes to improve the question even more, please go ahead and do so! – Robert Columbia Aug 17 at 11:40
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There are two potential gains from interfering in another nation's elections:

  • Gaining political influence: Nation A might interfere in Nation B's elections in order to put in power someone sympathetic to Nation A's interests. This has been a fairly common practice with underdeveloped nations, where a major power works to install a government that will bow to the major power: providing resources, allowing military bases, securing trade and movement routes, etc. It's less common between major powers (which tend to be more guarded) but not unheard of.
  • Destabilizing competitors: Nation A might interfere in Nation B's elections to cause internal strife in Nation B, or to cause Nation B to lose reputation with other nations, leaving Nation A free to pursue international agendas of its own. We're all familiar with this kind of manipulation on a personal level — the people who try to break up couples so they can sleep with one partner, or who play head-games to take advantage of vulnerable people — but the same principle applies on the level of nations. A nation concerned with its own internal welfare, or whose leaders are acting irrationally, cannot effectively defend its international interests.

These are not mutually exclusive, obviously. In the context of the question, one could argue that Russia wanted to install Trump as the US president because they felt Trump would turn a blind eye to their actions (in the 'sympathetic puppet' mode). One could also argue that Russia wanted to interfere in the US election merely to delegitimize the election so that the US would focus on its internal squabbles, not the world stage (the 'destabilization' mode). But Russia would be satisfied with either outcome. So long as Russia's annexation of the Crimea, its increasing efforts to exert power over Eastern European states, its rising influence in the Middle East, Putin's move to secure his own power indefinitely, etc. escape attention by the US, Russia could care less whether they have 'their boy' in power in the US, or have just messed things up enough so the US is isolated and weak. The net result is that Russia gains power.

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  • *couldn't care less – OrangeDog Aug 15 at 22:41
  • Good answer! Some linked examples and sources would take it to the next level. – Noah Aug 16 at 23:03
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Russia would benefit from weakening the United States because that will prevent the US from interfering with Russian actions in the Russian near abroad and from fomenting a color revolution in Russia itself. Personally I do believe in the former but not in the latter. But it does not matter what I believe as long as Russia is afraid, see this RAND study.

  • They could weaken the US by impartially slinging mud in both directions and damaging national cohesion, again referenced by RAND.
  • They could weaken the US by helping to elect a President whom they see as weaker.
  • They could weaken the US by helping to elect a President who is compromised. The idea that Donald Trump is compromised appears unproven to me but it is in the media, like CNN, supported by unusual reluctance to release his tax returns as it is customary.
    (Mentioning that news story with the qualifier that I consider it unproven is a nasty rhetorical trick, of course, since I did bring it up after all. Would I do that if I saw no fire under the smoke? At least I'm trying to make the reader aware of their reaction.)
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    It seems disingenuous to mention "reluctance to release his tax returns" as the evidence given by the media, but not mention all of the Trump administration and campaign aides who have been indicted or convicted of finance violations, obstruction of justice, and treason in relation to their dealings with Russia. – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Aug 12 at 23:09
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    Treason? There have been indictments and convictions of treason? – CGCampbell Aug 13 at 1:01
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    @CGCampbell: You're right, it's "conspiracy against the United States", which I misinterpreted. It's an indictment of defrauding the government. – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Aug 13 at 1:49
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    This answer should really explain why Russia would benefit from a "weaker" US and how exactly this "weakness" is quantified. Are we talking number of nuclear weapons, military funding in USD, ability to carry out geopolitical strategy? And then we need to see how that weakness affects Russia's interests, the relevant ones being listed out too. – Frank Aug 13 at 9:28
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    @o.m. The arrangement with the Sunnis is simply that OPEC maintain energy exports in USD, and those current account surpluses are then used to buy weapons from the US military industry. In essence, central banks around the world are forced to maintain national USD reserves for national oil purchases. This is then used via Saudi to prop up US industries. So, if Trump got into power as an outsider he might be tempted to upset this cozy relationship, in favour of (for example) domestic shale oil and investment in national industries. Different powers and interests. – Frank Aug 13 at 10:18
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It also served Mr. Putin's interests to show his own constituency that democracy itself is not that wonderful, and that a strong (perpetual?) leader with a plan is better than the wasteful and divisive political campaigns of Western democracies. This was argued in an article in The Economist published on the day of the 2016 elections:

Whoever wins the American presidential election, Russia comes out ahead

Two days before America’s presidential election, Dmitry Kiselev, the television host who serves as Russia’s propagandist-in-chief, announced that whichever candidate emerges victorious, the real winner will be the Kremlin. (...) First, the campaign was the dirtiest in America’s entire history, and made a mockery of the country’s political system (...). Second, whoever wins the election will be a “lame-duck” president, facing an impeachment effort from the very start. Third, the occupant of the White House will lack legitimacy.

(...) Mr Putin has long understood that the biggest threat to his rule is posed not by any particular candidate, but by the very idea of free and competitive elections. So his main goal is to present America’s elections as a destabilising process that Russia should avoid.

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    Russia has pretty well demonstrated that "a strong leader with a plan" ends in death and poverty. – acpilot Aug 13 at 4:42
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    @acpilot : one more reason for Putin to point to flaws in the US (or in the EU, for that matter) and pretend things are even worse in democracies. – Evargalo Aug 13 at 8:47
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    Another good example of this is Russia's current brand of propaganda. The point isn't to convince people what the truth is, it's to destroy the idea of knowable truth in the first place. – eps Aug 13 at 15:46
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    No, you are wrong. One commands the men with rifles and the other uses money to leverage corruption. Nestle can't send competitors to forced labor camps. Don't pretend it is the same thing. – acpilot Aug 14 at 14:39
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    Comparing authoritarian strong men and their militaries to corporate mercs is absurd. You're really reaching to prove a point. While the line has been blurred, pretending that hired corporate guns are in any way comparable to authoritarian regimes is just stupid. – acpilot Aug 14 at 23:48
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It's difficult to definitively prove some of the reasons, because in order to do that we'd have to have access to Trump's financial records.

The first thing I would say in terms of "what do they have to gain" is to look at major events that have unfolded over the past few years, and see how much Russia has been able to do whatever they felt like. The USA used to be a obstacle to that. In terms of what they have to gain by this person as president, I think a lot of it has been demonstrated that they already have.

You have the USA, the world's dominant military and economic super power.

You have Putin, who wants to increase Russia's influence and achieve her ambitions through sheer brute force and audacity.

What is the main obstacle, potentially, to that? NATO, led by the USA.

If Russia were able to help to see a leader of the United States elected who could be completely cowed and acquiescent to Putin, then there would be little to no obstacles to Putin being able to greatly advance his personal and national ambitions.

Disregarding some of the more salacious rumors about Trump we can look at some of the potential leverage that might be brought to bear to keep Trump relatively in line.

Despite his claims of wild business success, Trump is well known for defaulting on massive business ventures, many times. This made it nearly impossible for Trump to obtain funding from traditional western banking resources at reasonable rates. Trump has received hundreds of millions in loans from Deutsche Bank, which is known for laundering money for Russian oligarchs, and he has had a number of real estate transactions where shady Russian billionaires have purchased properties for far, far more than their value from Trump.

Essentially, they have the ability to ruin him at any time because his finances are, to a large extent, propped up by Russian money.

Who wouldn't want someone they could completely control as the leader of the world's greatest superpower?

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    I think this answer is the most relevant one currently given, but it could really use some references. As you say, the financial records aren't available, but those loans and Russian billionaire properties you allege surely do have some reports elsewhere? – leftaroundabout Aug 13 at 12:27
  • @leftaroundabout - The latest WordPress auto-upgrade broke our company's public website, so my plan is to circle back with more references when I have more time. – PoloHoleSet Aug 13 at 12:47
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    Can you drop your general phrases and name a few SPECIFIC things that Russia was unable to do while Obama was in office and can do now with Trump? – Oleg V. Volkov Aug 13 at 22:35
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    @OlegV.Volkov - Not sure if you read my comment, above, but that has to wait due to work priorities. It is my intention to do so. One obvious example is Russia completely running the show in Syria. Another would be to pay bounties in Afghanistan for US military personnel killed without any kind of response. Yet another would be the lack of consequence for their active interference in the 2016 election. The list is pretty long, so if you want that more detailed and supported listing, you'll have to be patient until my workplace IT emergencies have been resolved. – PoloHoleSet Aug 14 at 14:34
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Vladimir Putin (lets be clear when we say "Russia", we primarily mean one man) is motivated to interfere to make himself look good, and to create fear of the other. As Machiavelli said, "Men are driven by two principal impulses, either by love or by fear".

Trump has been relatively sympathetic towards Russia compared to other US politicians. For example, although he has supported the strengthening of NATO, he has measured his words when speaking of Putin personally. Although it is important to note that there is a big downside for Russia in securing too compliant a U.S. president, that may be bigger than the upside: it gives them less scope for using the narrative of fear (with the U.S. as the enemy), which has historically (not just in Russia) motivated the electorate to support hard-line candidates such as Putin.

In other areas of potential conflict, such as the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Libya, Trump has reduced U.S. military involvement, which has given Russia greater leeway to pursue it's geopolitical goals. Overseas adventurism typically gives rulers greater opportunity to portray themselves in a good light.

Negotiating an end to sanctions is an important goal, particularly since the economy has likely been hit very hard by COVID and a long period of low oil prices. Trump has generally been supportive in this regard, but if that is what he really believes, he hasn't been particularly successful in persuading the broader political establishment.

I would suggest that "mad election interfering skills" would play well to a domestic audience, but foreign countries less so. Again, there is a balance to be struck: interfering for the sake of proving ones capabilities is good, but Putin genuinely seems to maintain high approval ratings, and Russia is still broadly democratic: the Russian electorate are therefore likely to support the principle of a nation choosing their own ruler, even if that is the U.S. Even though the U.S. is frequently blamed for the fall of the Soviet Union many people there would be aware that the story is a lot more complex than that.

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Robert Reich has a great video explaining an answer to your question; it goes through half a dozen points of direct benefits to Russia with a weakened and untrusted US. The video is titled "Trump and Putin | Robert Reich" and can be seen here

The other thing mentioned in some books and sources is Putin holds a personal grudge against the US for humiliating the USSR and bringing down communism and is an bent on destabilizing US, like we did to the USSR in the 80's.Here is a link

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  • This is interesting. Can you provide the actual references for this answer? (Robert Reich's video, some books). – Alexei Aug 13 at 13:57
  • I didn't mention it in my answer, because I thought it would be too much about Putin's personal benefit, but I do agree that the humiliation is a very large part of his motivation. This podcast is quite good: bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02tssz1 – makelemonade Aug 13 at 14:14
  • Do you have any evidence that Putin "holds a grudge". I perceived him to a very strategic thinker and. I believe the possibility that he actually holds a grudge against a nation is much smaller than then the possibility he wants you to think he does to hide his real motivation. I would be amazed If you could present me with any evidence Putin does anything that is not geared towards increasing his power and influence! – Daniel Aug 14 at 11:07
  • @Daniel I really recommend you listen to the podcast in above comment. It answers your question and is quite entertaining – makelemonade Aug 14 at 19:32
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Apart from the reasons presented above, there can be another one: being afraid of one candidate more than being afraid of the other candidate.

Say Russia is afraid candidate B will declare war on Russia or it will declare war on Iran, affecting the trade of Russia with Iran. Or the candidate will increase hostility against Russia.

In the same time Russia is also afraid of candidate A but not so much.

And then Russia will desire to see candidate A become president of the USA, to increase the chances for a peaceful and good relation with USA

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