There's a lot to parse when it comes to Russia's role in the US election — both the overwhelming evidence that it interfered in the vote and the recently disclosed CIA conclusion that it did so in order to help get Donald Trump elected. But there's an even more fundamental question that needs to be answered:
What the hell are the Russians thinking?
Interfering in a US election is a dangerous game. Imagine if Hillary Clinton had won — as virtually every pundit and statistical model was predicting at the time that Russia started leaking hacked emails of Clinton allies. The Russians would have infuriated the most powerful person in the world.
That didn't happen, and the US instead elected the most Kremlin-friendly presidential candidate in recent American history. But it's not clear that Russia will get off scot-free, with lawmakers from both parties calling for as-yet-unspecified punitive measures designed to retaliate for Moscow's interference in the 2016 elections and to deter Russia from trying to meddle in elections to come.
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So why take the risk? Part of the answer has to do solely with Trump's jarringly positive views of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his willingness to embrace policies — like potentially pulling the US out of NATO — that have long been among the Russian strongman's top strategic objectives. Compare this with Clinton's long record of hawkishness on Russia, and Trump was (from the Kremlin's perspective) a far better choice.
But there's a deeper answer, according to several Russia experts: The Putin government is much weaker than it appears, and the hack comes from a position of weakness, not confidence.
Their argument is that Moscow is outclassed militarily by the US and its NATO allies and buckling economically under the weight of international sanctions and low oil prices. It's a country that's very far from reaching the heights of power that Putin wants for it.
The hack, on this analysis, is the clearest evidence yet of how far Putin is willing to go to weaken his rivals and thus raise Russia's relative strength. He's not trying to repair his own government; he's trying to damage those of other countries. With a democracy like the US, the best way to do that is to use a large and sophisticated propaganda campaign to shake confidence in the election and elect a threat to the established Western order like Trump.
"The military balance is grim; the economic balance is grim. And so how do you deal with that?" asks Dan Nexon, a professor at Georgetown University who studies great power politics. "[Information warfare] is pretty much what the Russians have going for them."
Trump's instincts are a lot friendlier to Putin than Clinton's
Nobody really knows what Donald Trump will do as president. But if his policy ideas voiced during the campaign were a good guide, the Kremlin will have reason to celebrate.
Trump has praised the Russian bombing campaign in Syria, supported moves like Brexit that destabilized Russia's European rivals, and personally praised Putin. Most importantly, he has mused about weakening American commitment to NATO. Nothing Putin could do on his own would help Russia's standing on the world stage and regional influence more than the collapse of the Cold War–era military alliance.