Donald Trump has had strange relations with Russia during the 2016 election cycle. From early unexplained contact with the Kremlin during the campaign trail to openly appointing allies of the Kremlin to key positions of power in the new regime, Trump has been pandering to Vladimir Putin for some time. The reward seems to have been the presidency but the cost has yet to be revealed.
It is entirely possible that Trump and Putin are allies simply because they had a mutual enemy, Hillary Clinton, but there are too many coincidences surrounding this election cycle for comfort. On a personal level, Putin doesn't want Hillary Clinton in office because she accused him of rigging his last election, which several independent observers have corroborated. He appears to have repaid her in kind.
Russia has had a lot of experience rigging elections. Transparency International is one of the leading corruption observers, producing a yearly corruption index classifying each country. In 2015, Russia scored a 29 on the 100 point corruption scale, 0 being absolutely corrupt and 100 being highly clean. Throughout every level of government, Russia is corrupt and it's been using the techniques it regularly uses within its own borders to influence other states. Georgia has claimed Russia has been hacking into their computer systems to steal information and has been spreading propaganda through news outlets. Russia has been accused of doing so throughout Eastern Europe, attempting to install pro-Russian politicians in power. Russia is also accused of flooding Facebook and other sites with false information. In a recent study, the younger generation from middle school to college level kids weren't capable of determining real from fake news even though they have grown up with the internet and have much greater capabilities online than older generations. It stands to reason that duping voters with false information would be easier in this age of information and Russia appears to have done exactly what Georgia has been accusing them of, flood the US with propaganda catering to the far-left and far-right fringe groups. While the international community condemns Russia's antics, nothing has been done besides sanctions which do little to hinder Russia. Vladimir Putin responds to almost nothing but military strength, and to that he responds negatively.
Russia has been surprisingly aggressive in consuming its neighbors. Since the surprise Russo-Georgian war in 2008, Russia has been militarily expanding, annexing parts of Georgia and later parts of Ukraine, testing new weapons and bolstering its military arsenal. The goal is the revival of the barrier between the West and Russia via satellite nations in response to the expansion of NATO. Vladimir Putin wants Trump in office because Hillary Clinton has been a thorn in Russia's side for quite some time. Clinton has aggressively opposed Russian expansion, condemning their military actions while attempting to counter by supporting the satellite states near Russia and supporting sanctions against the Russian regime. Although these sanctions have negatively impacted the Russian economy, Putin has countered by imposing counter sanctions and nationalizing industries like oil production. It has not effectively prevented Russian military expansion.
Putin stands to gain immensely from a Trump presidency. Trump has been a sharp critic of NATO for some time and has stated he would curtail or even withdraw from the organization. As Turkey has increasingly militarized over the years and switched from being an ally to the US to allies of Russia and China, when Trump pulls out of NATO or even curtails NATO contributions, Russia is left as the strongest power in Europe bar none. By gaining Turkey as an ally, Russia also gains safe passage through the Dardanelles and the Bosphorous which guarantees fresh water commerce year round, which has been a goal of Russia for as long as it has been expanding in Eastern Europe. The US and Turkey are the two largest contributors to NATO monetarily and militarily at this time. Russia has been preparing for this for some time, as they have lined the borders of Baltic states, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, with Russian soldiers. NATO Article 5 dictates the terms of the defensive pact. If any member state of NATO is attacked, which includes all three Baltic States, all others must come to their aid. Without the two leading members of NATO's military, Russia can invade the Baltic states, either forcing a war NATO can't win or hopelessly compromising NATO doctrine.
Trump has expressed his wish to repair relations with Russia. The best way to do that from Russia's perspective is to relax US based sanctions against Russia and it is exactly what Trump plans to do. Russia's economy is strong enough to survive a war, giving them more economic flexibility will most certainly give Russia the ability to aggressively expand even further. Putin is seeking to regain the glory of Russia's past and having Trump in office is a great leap forward for his authoritarian dream.
The benefits from Russian involvement in the US election are immense and the overall risk is minimal at best. With regard to the recent accusations of voting machine hacking, Russia is the prime suspect. Russia need only flip the vote in a handful of areas in key democratic states to swing the vote in favor of Trump and it very likely did so.
Russia is accused of hacking the Democratic National Committee and releasing the information to Wikileaks, a website that has been publishing stolen information online for some time. This is important for two reasons. The first being that Russia is essentially an authoritarian regime with power heavily centralized and in the hands of Vladimir Putin. Opponents of Putin have been disappearing or being found dead for quite some time and the legislature is a rubber stamp for Putin in all but name. Operations like this could not have been undertaken without the express order of Vladimir Putin. Second, it was a willful violation of US sovereignty. When Wikileaks released Hillary Clinton's emails, US intelligence agencies blamed Russia. Trump's response was to praise Russia and ask them to do it again. Trump has discounted everything the intelligence community has put forth, suggesting he is either in on it or incompetent. He now says he knows something about the situation others don't know. Perhaps it's that he paid to rig the election, then again perhaps it's him making it up as he goes.
The DNC emails Wikileaks released revealed, unsurprisingly, that the heads of the democratic party were working against Bernie Sanders. For anyone that doesn't know, Bernie Sanders is a proud independent running under the label of democratic socialist. While socialism is a four letter word in the states, Sanders places himself on the left of the spectrum around the international norm for a liberal party, too far for the US democratic party to be comfortable with as they are mostly a centrist party. After 26 years of being an independent, Bernie Sanders jumped ship to run for president under the Democratic party, refusing to join the party and still being highly critical while taking resources away from a true democratic candidate in the eyes of the DNC leadership. Unfortunately for them, the DNC is supposed to be impartial and that particular belief was completely undermined by the leak. Wikileaks founder Julian Assange predicted an organization targeted by this type of tactic would fall apart, and after a few more leaks the DNC did.
Unfortunately, Julian Assange isn't truly looking to reveal political injustices. At the start of the 2016 campaign trail, the RNC and the Republican party clearly favored Marco Rubio and was definitely working towards restricting Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, both of whom were considered dangerous to the Republican platform. If the RNC had also been hacked, both sides of this unusual and disturbing election would likely be found guilty of violating their impartiality. The US intelligence community believes Republican officials were hacked and that information could have been disseminated but was not beneficial to Russia.
Almost unanimously the US intelligence community believes Russia intervened in the 2016 election, except for the FBI who made suspicious actions during the campaign, orchestrated by FBI Director James Comey, to attack Hillary Clinton. Officials have been gathering further information facing strong criticism from Donald Trump and will hopefully disclose their findings to the public soon.* Either this information is well constructed and well faked that it has duped one of the worlds largest intelligence networks, or it is factually accurate. In a Republican controlled Congress, the chances of any of these accusations being investigated is as close to zero as possible. Republicans will not infringe on their control of government even if it will likely lead to disaster.
* US Intelligence agencies have released a declassified version of the reports from earlier
Putin does not need Trump to succeed; he will benefit from a Trump victory regardless of their cooperation. Taking the risk of associating with Trump would be uncharacteristic of Putin as it would be an unnecessary risk. Trump is by no means an equal on the international stage to Putin. Trump has behaved like a child during his 2016 campaign, attacking anything and everything seemingly on a whim. His antics have been the exact opposite of what a true presidential candidate should be, which does not instill trust among his allies. The Kremlin denies having contact with Trump but a Russian diplomat announced that they had, in fact, been in contact with the Trump campaign although the details were not made public. It is possible that Trump only had a slight idea that Russia may intervene or that he had no idea at all. Either way the intelligence community in the US is unanimous in its assertion that Russia intervened in some way.
Trump announced over twitter he wants to revamp the US nuclear arsenal. The US already has over 7500 nuclear weapons, at least disclosed to the public. During the same week Russia announced plans, via state controlled news site Sputnik, to build a bomber capable of deploying nuclear weapons from space to anywhere on the planet. Trump and Putin signaled a dangerous, ego fueled end to international disarmament, one in which weapons are poised to expand into space before humanity. It is unclear whether or not Trump and Putin are colluding together, or even the extent to which the two are willing to cooperate. It could be a coincidence but looking at how much power Putin and Trump are set to gain and the unclear circumstances surrounding the entire election, it is unlikely that both parties were unaware of each others actions. The next four years will shape the potential rise or fall of the US, hopefully Trump proves to be a steady hand at the wheel rather than the Russian marionette he appears to be.