About an hour before the first U.S. polls opened on Election Day, the Kremlin’s leading news agency published an interview with Sergei Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service, the SVR, which helped orchestrate the Russian attempt to interfere in the 2016 elections. His prediction for the outcome of the 2020 vote was grim, and he struggled to suppress a smile as he delivered it.
“No matter who wins,” Naryshkin said, “the social crisis” in the U.S. will only deepen. Whoever loses will refuse to accept the result, prompting “radicals to go out in the street.”
“There will just be this large basis for disputing the whole system,” he added. ”So this disease, this sickness of American society, of the American state, will endure.”
This statement was more than a prognosis for Naryshkin, who took over the SVR in October 2016, at the height of the Russian effort to sabotage the U.S. elections. It was also a statement of intent. Russia’s aim in 2016 was not merely to help Donald Trump win the presidency, but to undermine public faith in the democratic system as a whole. Four years later, the President himself is saying and doing things that have the same effect.
Since Election Day, Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on the democratic process. He prematurely announced his own victory on Wednesday morning and, the next day, tweeted: “STOP THE COUNT!” – even as millions of votes had yet to be tallied and certified. On Thursday evening at the White House, Trump said, “It’s a corrupt system,” drawing criticism from Republican Senator Mitt Romney, who said that the President’s statement “damages the cause of freedom here and around the world.”
That is precisely what U.S. experts in Russian propaganda worry about. “The Russians must be sitting back and thinking: This is beyond our wildest dreams,” says Marc Polymeropoulos, who oversaw CIA operations in Europe and Eurasia before retiring in 2019. “They must be handing out medals in the SVR headquarters by now.”
That feeling may not last. Joe Biden has pledged to “impose substantial and lasting costs” for any foreign interference in the vote if he emerges as the winner. U.S. officials from the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and other agencies have repeatedly testified that Russia is interfering in the 2020 vote, and the Kremlin appears to have grown concerned about the risk of an American backlash. In an assessment published on Sept. 3, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security stated that the Kremlin’s aim in 2020 was to “undermine public trust in the electoral process.”
The Kremlin pursued the same goal in 2016, when it launched a coordinated campaign of hacks, leaks and disinformation that culminated in the release of emails stolen from the Hillary Clinton campaign. This time, Trump’s allies have launched their own effort, with the President’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, taking a leading role. Giuliani advanced another email scandal, this one targeting Biden and his son, in the weeks before the vote.
Russian nesting dolls depicting Putin and Trump on sale at a fair in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Dec. 29, 2019.
Sergei Mikhailichenko—SOPA/LightRocket/Getty Images
The operation was hardly covert. Giuliani advertised it on his YouTube channel, where he questioned his sources over whiskey and cigars about the alleged corruption of what he called the “Biden crime family.” One of those sources was the Ukrainian parliamentarian Andrii Derkach, a graduate of Moscow’s main spy academy, whom the U.S. government sanctioned in September as an “active Russian agent.” In a final flourish on Election Day, Giuliani appeared on RT, the Kremlin’s English-language broadcaster, to attack both the Bidens and the validity of mail-in voting.
Giuliani’s appearance on a Russian propaganda outlet seemed especially brazen and bizarre on the day Americans headed to the polls. But from Moscow’s perspective, the spectacle was partly the point, says Matthew Schmidt, who studies Russian political warfare at the University of New Haven in Connecticut. “Russia’s operations are often designed to get caught,” he says. “Russia wants its fingerprints everywhere.” The aim, he says, is to paint the U.S. political system as so weak and disorganized that Russia can manipulate it from a distance, using nothing more sophisticated than a social media campaign and a handful of willing provocateurs. Changing the outcome of an election is not the only purpose of these operations. What counts is the perception that the vote is vulnerable.
During the 2018 mid-term elections, for example, one of the notions spread by Russian “malign influence actors” was that Russia had gained control of U.S. voting systems, according to the DHS assessment of Sept 3. Such claims appear to have been a Russian bluff. U.S. law enforcement agencies have said they found no evidence of vote tampering either by foreign or domestic actors.
But Russia plays up its ability to game Western elections precisely in order to discredit them, says Alex Younger, the former head of MI6, the British foreign intelligence service. “Russia feels threatened by the quality of our alliances and, even in the current environment, the quality of our democratic institutions,” Younger told TIME soon after retiring from espionage at the end of September. “It sets out to denigrate them, and it uses intelligence services to that end.”
Polymeropoulos came away with the same impression during his interactions with Russian security officials. He recalls them having “a weird insecurity about wanting to be equals,” which showed in the way they tried to argue, even during meetings about counterterrorism and other issues of mutual concern, that the U.S. system of government was even more corrupt than the Russian one.
“It was always about tearing us down, finding a way to say, ‘the American system is broken. It’s incompetent,’” says Polymeropoulos. As long as the U.S. President continues to advance that message himself, Putin and his spy chief can sit back and enjoy the show.