Whether through a well-timed public comment, a military deployment that exposed weaknesses in America's own war plans, or reportedly actual meddling in the U.S. electoral process, Putin has ensured that he got what he wanted out of this year's presidential race. In Donald Trump's victory, Putin has an American counterpart who has publicly stated he will adopt a more amenable policy toward Russia, getting out of its way in Syria and perhaps even overseeing lifting international sanctions. If Hillary Clinton had won, Putin still would have emerged as the perfect foil for any American president who sees Russia as an adversary, further hardening a view among the Russian people that NATO is once again attempting to surround its former Cold War foe and that they need a strong leader to protect them.
Throughout the campaign, Putin found a way to benefit from these perceptions and turn them into opportunities to reinforce his authority.
"It's the small opportunism that he knows how to target in a tactical, brilliant way," says Nina Khrushcheva, a specialist on Russian propaganda and professor at New York's New School University.
Very likely, the winner of the election was comparatively of little consequence to Putin, analysts suggest. More importantly, the Russian leader saw an opportunity to exploit what he sees as hypocrisy and unfairness in the American electoral process to counter Western criticism that he has manipulated votes in Russia to maintain his hold on power.
"An adversarial relationship suits Putin just fine," says Khrushcheva, the granddaughter of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. "He needs to stay in power, and what better form to stay in power than America breathing down your neck and wants to take you down? It's a really good argument which, of course, America fed into."
Many experts doubt Putin personally ordered the hacking of the Democratic National Committee, releasing thousands of emails from party leaders and granting fodder to those who believe Democrats orchestrated Bernie Sanders' defeat in the primary process. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper consistently refrained from ever flat-out accusing the Russian government itself, indicating the hackers had unspecific ties to Moscow even though the leaks were "consistent with methods and motivations of Russian directed efforts."
Regardless of who was behind it, the ploy served Putin's purposes. Clinton and her backers, embarrassed by a steady drip of unflattering revelations, focused their response on blaming Moscow.
"This image of him plotting and scheming and keen to influence the outcome is imaginary, a product of the Washington-campaign echo chamber," says Robert English, a specialist on Russian nationalism at the University of Southern California. "Putin is right about one thing: The Clinton and Obama people are overreacting to the hack and painting it as a nefarious Russian plot to subvert our democracy precisely because it diverts attention from the dirty linen that the hack reveals and turns it instead to Trump's strange bromance with Putin.
"Putin can only be laughing at how much apparent influence he has."
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