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The Kremlin Is Increasingly Alarmed at the Prospect of a Biden Win

Henry Meyer and Ilya Arkhipov
·5-min read

(Bloomberg) -- In Moscow, analysts for the Kremlin and its Security Council are working overtime to war-game scenarios for a Joe Biden presidency.

Increasingly alarmed at the prospect of a White House without Donald Trump, Russia is trying to determine what that’ll mean for sensitive issues from nuclear arms to relations with China, energy exports, sanctions and far-flung global conflicts, according to people familiar with the efforts. Though few see much prospect for improved ties if Trump is re-elected, Biden would likely be bad news for Russia, people close to the leadership said.

A Democratic victory may even give the Kremlin another reason to tear up its own electoral calendar, moving up parliamentary elections to the spring to get them out of the way before a new administration has time to impose additional sanctions or other penalties, according to a person close to the Kremlin, who spoke on condition of anonymity to express that opinion.

With so much at stake, Russia’s already meddling in the campaign, according to U.S. officials. But the situation is different from 2016, when Trump’s victory surprised even his backers in Moscow.

U.S. politics have become so polarized that there’s little need for Russia to step in and invent new controversies, according to a senior British intelligence official. Russia is nonetheless conducting a “very active” campaign to denigrate Biden and sow divisions in the U.S. political scene, FBI Director Christopher Wray said last week.

The Russian leadership hasn’t written off Trump yet, according to Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin adviser. “It’s not clear what kind of help they could offer Trump, but they’d give it to him as long as it didn’t provoke a big scandal,” he said. “They don’t want to trigger a boomerang effect.”

The U.S. leader is making Russia’s task easier through his own brand of information warfare, including repeated claims that mail-in voting will lead to massive fraud, assertions that Russian state media are amplifying.

Russian officials deny meddling, either now or in the 2016 elections. On Friday, Putin proposed that the U.S. and Russia exchange guarantees of non-interference in elections, according to a statement on the Kremlin website. He also called for talks on information security and restoring cybersecurity cooperation, reviving a proposal he floated after the 2016 election.

Since that vote, Moscow’s infatuation with Trump has dimmed. Russian officials say “Russophobia” in the U.S. establishment won’t change no matter who’s in the White House. But the contrast between the two candidates is striking. While Trump said last week that China and mail-in voting were greater threats than Russia, Biden has said he’d make Moscow pay for meddling, calling Russia an opponent.

Meanwhile, tensions are flaring with Germany and France over the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, raising the prospect of a deep freeze if Trump loses.

“If Biden is elected, we will confront a consolidation of the West on an anti-Russian platform,” said Andrey Kortunov, head of the Kremlin-founded Russian International Affairs Council.

The prospect of new Western sanctions on Russia has helped drive the ruble to the lowest levels since April. Even as the economy plunged amid the Covid-19 lockdown earlier this year, the Kremlin was cautious about spending, continuing to husband hundreds of billions of dollars it’s stashed in rainy-day funds for potential future crises.

Kremlin animus toward Biden goes way back, dating at least to when he visited Moscow in 2011 as vice president and told opposition leaders he thought Vladimir Putin shouldn’t run for president again. That kind of affront isn’t quickly forgotten, according to a person close to the Kremlin. Putin moved this year to extend his rule to 2036.

The Russian leadership relishes the chance to turn the tables on Washington after decades of what the Kremlin sees as sometimes-crude efforts to manipulate Russian politics, according to a person close to the authorities.

But Facebook and other social media companies are taking a more proactive stance on stopping disinformation, taking down accounts linked to the Kremlin. Late Thursday, Facebook said it removed more Russian disinformation efforts. The Treasury Department, meanwhile, sanctioned a Ukrainian politician it called a Russian agent for efforts to tar Biden for alleged corruption related to his son’s business dealings in Ukraine.

“There is very little incentive for the Russians to stop the information operations they’ve been doing,” said Michael Daniel, who formerly served as cybersecurity coordinator in the Barack Obama White House and currently leads the Cyber Threat Alliance organization. “What I don’t think they necessarily have a strong incentive to do is take a step that would drive the U.S. to a much greater degree of retaliation.”

Fiona Hill, the National Security Council’s senior director for European and Russian affairs until 2019, says divisions are emerging within the Kremlin over the wisdom of continuing a “dirty tricks” campaign that’s had mixed results and may now face diminishing returns.

On the one hand, Russia’s 2016 influence operations succeeded beyond the Kremlin’s wildest dreams. The U.S.-dominated, unipolar world that Putin has long railed against is no longer. America’s global leadership, NATO, the European Union and the structure of institutions and alliances the U.S. built after World War II have taken a hit. “On that ledger, wow, yes, basically over-fulfilled the plan,” said Hill.

At the same time, getting caught in the act of trying to sabotage U.S. democracy has proved costly. “They lost the entire U.S. political class and politicized ties so that the whole future of U.S.-Russia relations now depends on who wins in November,” she said.

(Updates with Putin’s anti-meddling proposal in eighth paragraph. A previous version of this story corrected attribution for hack of Biden lobbying firm and the affiliation of Michael Daniel.)

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