Is Russian President Vladimir Putin satisfied? According to one line of analysis, despite the victory of his favored candidate, he hasn't really gotten what he wanted from his country's unprecedented effort to manipulate the American presidential election in 2016. There haven't been sweeping changes in American policy toward Russia, and specific irritants like the Magnitsky Act remain in place. And after all, the election itself wasn't the goal; it's what happens after that matters.
That view isn't wrong in its particulars, but it provides too narrow a focus on what Putin may want and what helps him. And it doesn't explain why Russia isn't done screwing around with American elections.
Which they most certainly aren't. On Tuesday, the leaders of the American intelligence community testified to Congress that Russia has already set its sights on this November's midterm elections. "We expect Russia to continue using propaganda, social media, false-flag personas, sympathetic spokesmen, and other means of influence to try to build on its wide range of operations and exacerbate social and political fissures in the United States," said Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats. "There should be no doubt that Russia perceived its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations."
And why wouldn't they? Just think what they accomplished in 2016. For a laughably small investment — a few hundred thousand dollars here and there on social media ads, employing some (probably low-paid) hackers — not only did they help President Trump get elected, but they achieved what is surely Putin's more fundamental goal: undermining American democracy.
Part of that was accomplished just through the election of Trump. He diminishes public faith in democratic institutions and processes. He increases anti-American sentiment around the globe. He weakens Western alliances. And by the time he's done, who knows what damage he'll do.
Like any dictator, Putin is concerned above all with his own hold on power. So it's vital to him that Russians don't develop any ideas about wanting a more representative and accountable democracy, perhaps even one where it wouldn't be possible for one man to lead the country indefinitely (Putin has been in power for nearly two decades and is about to win yet another term in the presidency). He can tell them that the little tastes of self-rule they now enjoy are more than enough; after all, they certainly wouldn't want to live under some kind of crazy system like the United States has, where any reality show buffoon can get elected president, would they?
So if you were him, why wouldn't you try to keep things in the U.S. as chaotic as possible, when it's so easy — and when the U.S. president is determined to let you do it? It may be that Putin really does have some damaging kompromat on Trump, or it may just be that Trump is unwilling to entertain any notion that might call his glorious election victory into question. Either way, to this day Trump is unwilling to even admit what everyone else knows, that Russia did indeed try to help him in 2016. He's practically holding the door open for Russia to walk in to our midterm elections.
And they've done it before. One of the least-discussed parts of the Russia scandal is that in 2016 they helped not just Trump, but Republican congressional candidates as well. As The New York Times reported in December 2016, Russian hackers penetrated the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's systems and stole thousands of pages of documents, including candid assessments of Democratic candidates in key races. Those documents were then carefully leaked so they could be used against the candidates.
One Republican operative and blogger was reportedly in direct communication with Guccifer 2.0, the identity created by Russian hackers. "I don't think you realize what you gave me," he told the Russians at one point after getting a look at the stolen documents. "This is probably worth millions of dollars." Republicans then eagerly used the material against their Democratic opponents; it even showed up in an ad aired by a PAC allied with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.
Russia may or may not succeed in that kind of hacking again. And it may not succeed in something even worse, hacking election systems; according to the U.S. government, Russia attempted to penetrate the systems of 21 separate states in 2016, and may have succeeded in some places. But the Russians can do a lot to simply create chaos, in ways that are difficult to stop. Their army of social media bots will probably be deployed to stir up anger and confusion and spread falsehoods, like this weird forgery meant to discredit Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), which has been retweeted over 14,000 times. The more they do it, the less trustworthy any information is, the more divided the country gets, and the more uncertain and distrustful we all become.
At Tuesday's hearing, the intelligence officials admitted that no one in the government is in charge of fighting back against Russian use of propaganda and social media to disrupt our elections. Perhaps that's because the president himself continues to resist the idea that Russian meddling ever happened in the past or is an ongoing threat. Whatever the cause, we can be pretty sure that Russia is going to mucking about as we get closer to November. And it's hard to see how we're going to stop them.