Some two years since Russia’s involvement in the 2016 presidential election roiled American politics, anger has again erupted over Moscow’s potential role in the midterm elections. At a White House press briefing last week, Intelligence Community leaders averred that Russia “continues to engage in malign influence operations” and warned that Russian hackers might resume targeting America’s voter rolls and voting machines as they did in 2016. The briefing undoubtedly had a domestic political purpose, but it is safe to assume that these officials would not make such assertions, nor would the White House host their briefing, absent real evidence of Russian activity.
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In testifying to the reality of the Russian threat, however, the briefing left a major question largely unaddressed: What could the Russians possibly be thinking? If Moscow is hoping to pursue the ambitious bilateral agenda that President Putin proposed in Helsinki, continued election meddling would seem tailor-made to preclude it. On the other hand, if the Kremlin is looking not to normalize relations, but rather to divide and conquer American democracy by sowing dissension, then it could not have ginned up a more counterproductive tactic. Although Americans seem deeply divided about nearly every issue in our national debate, there is a strong bipartisan consensus on Capitol Hill that the country must do something serious about Russian meddling. As Putin himself knows well, few things are more effective in uniting a fractured polity than battling a common external enemy. How then can we explain Russia’s actions?
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