RD Interview: Well-known Russia expert Jeffrey Mankoff from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) weighs in on the current controversy over alleged Russian involvement in the current U.S. presidential race.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton during a rally at Abraham Lincoln High School, in Des Moines, Iowa, Aug. 10, 2016. Photo: AP

Allegations continue to swirl around potential Russian involvement in the U.S. presidential race involving Republican nominee Donald Trump and his Democratic counterpart Hillary Clinton. Most notably, in late July the Democratic National Committee (DNC) claimed that Russia had hacked into its servers and released damaging emails about Clinton to WikiLeaks in an attempt to influence the outcome of the election.

Amidst these concerns, Russia Direct sat down with Jeffrey Mankoff, deputy director and fellow at the Russia and Eurasia Program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), to discuss the Russian factor in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.

Russia Direct: In the course of the U.S. presidential primary debates, Russia – understandably – wasn’t a central issue. However, every time Democrats or Republicans mentioned Russia, it was in a rather unflattering context. Is it a reflection of the current mood in Washington or is tough talk on Russia just something that sells well with voters?

Jeffrey Mankoff: Perhaps surprisingly, discussions about Russia have become quite prominent in the presidential election. Russia seems to be one of the only foreign policy issues on which Republican candidate Donald Trump has attempted to put forward a coherent approach — one that is quite out of line with what has long seemed to be the bipartisan consensus about U.S.-Russia relations.

Trump has emphasized his ability to develop good ties with President Vladimir Putin (while dissembling as to whether he in fact already has a relationship with the Russian leader), downplayed the Russian presence in Ukraine, and called into question the willingness of the United States to defend the Baltic States in the event of a Russian attack.

His Democratic counterpart Hillary Clinton, much of the media in the United States, and even several key Republican foreign policy hands, have all emphasized that Trump’s views on Russia (among many other issues) make him unfit to be president, questioning his financial ties and those of his key advisers to Russia.

Clinton’s approach to Russia is also much more in keeping with what U.S. policy has been for many years: work with Russia on issues of mutual interest and deter Russian efforts to upend the status quo in Europe while speaking out against Russia’s failure to adhere to democratic principles.

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While Russia is unlikely on its own to be a decisive factor in November, the very different ways in which the two candidates speak about Russia suggests that there is something of a debate in the U.S. Tough talk on Russia remains popular within the foreign policy establishment. Whether it stays popular with voters during a time of reduced interest in international affairs remains to be seen.

RD: Looking at the mainstream American discourse on the role of Russia in the U.S. election, there’s a feeling that Putin’s alleged incentive to boost Trump is beyond question. Where do you think the roots of this perception are?

J.M.: Given Trump’s unusually pro-Russian rhetoric, some journalists and political figures in the U.S. have suggested that a Kremlin desire to see Trump become president is behind efforts like the hacking of the Democratic National Committee. Others argue that, regardless of what happens in November, Russia benefits from turmoil in the U.S. and the perception that the U.S. electoral system is unreliable. Since Putin has charged the U.S. with meddling in Russian elections, he could be trying to show that turnabout is fair play.

For those who suggest that Putin is actually trying to swing the election in Trump’s favor, the depth of Trump’s financial ties to Russia (since declaring bankruptcy in 2004, Trump has been unable to get financing from major Western banks, and has instead turned to Russian investors to finance his major deals), coupled with the positive things Trump has said about Russia and Putin, not to mention his dismissal of U.S. alliances as “obsolete,” all help make the case that the Kremlin is seeking a particular outcome in November.

RD: The DNC email scandal put Russia in the spotlight of the U.S. elections yet again. Some in Moscow who argue against Russia’s role in this insist that it’s a dangerous precedent that makes Russia hostage to U.S. domestic politics. It may be a helpful political tactic to take down your opponent, they say, but it is a bad policy in the long run as it further widens the gap between the two nations. What’s your view on this?

J.M.: Directly interfering in another country’s domestic politics, especially its elections, is a very dangerous precedent. Not only because it makes Russia (or any other country) hostage to domestic developments elsewhere, but because of the potential for retaliation and escalation.

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As James Clapper, the former CIA director noted, stealing information is very much an accepted part of what espionage agencies do, but releasing that information to alter the course of domestic politics in a target state is close to an act of aggression. There is now an active debate in the U.S. about how to retaliate.

Indeed, if Moscow carried out this operation in response to its belief that the U.S. was meddling in the 2011 Duma elections, then we are already in the cycle of retaliation and escalation. It bothers me because of the precedent it sets more than for its impact on bilateral relations, which could be serious enough.

RD: Some in Washington argued the timing of the leaks was Putin’s attempt to once again “endorse Trump.” Others say it was Putin’s revenge for what he saw as Clinton’s meddling with Russia’s internal affairs after the parliamentary elections in 2011. So far, however, the effect of the email leak seems to be minimal on Clinton and the Democratic Party. What did Moscow hope to accomplish with this move, if it was indeed behind it?

J.M.: In a sense, I am not sure it matters. I do not think that Moscow has a sophisticated enough understanding of U.S. politics to sway the election even if it wanted to. The DNC leak could just be a way to send a message, a kind of payback for what the Kremlin seems to think the U.S. was doing in 2011 without regard for its impact on the outcome in November.

Or it could be an active effort to help the Trump campaign, whose pro-Russian comments and skepticism of U.S. alliance commitments are surely of interest to Putin and others in Moscow. Either way, the integrity of the U.S. political process is compromised.

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RD: Every new presidency gives birth to hope for a new page in the relationship. It may not be the case with President Clinton and even more difficult to forecast with President Trump. But is there anything, in your view, that can be done at this point (in the midst of a presidential campaign in the U.S.) by Washington or Moscow to at least not widen the gap in the bilateral relationship, to not cloud it any further before either Clinton or Trump are in office?

J.M.: Well, not interfering in the U.S. election would have been a good place to start. Since that bridge has already been crossed, I am not optimistic that the bilateral relationship will improve at all before the inauguration of the new administration in January.

The Obama Administration is unlikely to make any major policy shifts this late in the game, and key officials from the White House on down are highly distrustful of Russia in general and Putin in particular. But in the spirit of the question, let me suggest that the full implementation of the Minsk agreement on Ukraine –however unlikely that scenario is – could be one way to develop some positive momentum on the bilateral relationship in the next few months.