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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Americans are at each other's throats. Politically, socially and culturally, we suspect each other's motives and plain sanity. So certain are we of the other's intent to do the nation harm, some of us have joined political gangs and assaulted one another, resulting in at least 1 death.

Which is to say: Americans have played into Russian President Vladimir Putin's hands — again. It is assumed he can attack next year's elections if he so chooses, but since no outsider knows exactly how, what comes next is one of the great underlying mystery-dramas of the 2020 election campaign.

  • The fear is dangerous needling of already-fraught U.S. social turmoil.

The big picture: Espionage and trickery between the West and Russia is not new — it goes back to Peter the Great, 3 centuries ago. But scholars say they are pressed to identify any episode of direct political mischief-making in this long history comparable to the breadth, scale and intensity of the Russian hacking, leaking and social media campaign in the 2016 U.S. election.

  • When it comes to its rivals and enemies, Moscow's objective often is to create chaos, and thus incapacitate the other power as a threat to Russian aims.
  • To get there, the weapon of choice is usually the exploitation of existing divisions in the other society.
  • That is where, in 2016, the U.S. made itself a sitting duck — and where polarized, ultra-bellicose Americans remain perhaps even more exposed to emotional manipulation in the coming election.

Russia hands in Washington and elsewhere are worried. No one can say with absolute certainty that Putin will attack this time, nor if he does, what means he will use. But what no one disputes is that the country — despite mountains of descriptions of Russia's actions last time — is little-better prepared now to defend itself than it was 3 years ago.

In 2016, the GRU — Russia's military intelligence arm — carried out the hacking of Clinton adviser John Podesta's emails and documents at the Democratic National Committee, according to the investigative report by special counsel Robert Mueller. At the same time, the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency was behind the massive social media campaign to provoke discord.

  • President Trump and Republican leaders at the federal and state levels have stifled efforts to form a national political strategy to combat a redux of the Russian campaign. One reason: Trump seems to view such efforts as challenges to the legitimacy of his 2016 victory.
  • While the defenses remain down, Trump appears especially prepared to stoke rawpolitical, societal and social emotions, often amplified by political commentators and talk show hosts at Fox and other media outlets.
  • "If Putin is going to throw the match of chaos, he needs kindling here. Our political system provides far too much of it right now," says Richard Fontaine, CEO at the Center for a New American Security.

Some possibilities of what's next:

  • Aric Toler, lead researcher at Bellingcat, a European investigative organization, says that if he had to choose one possible Putin plan for the U.S., it would be more of the same — "a lot of ad hoc actors within and from outside the Russian government/security services with similar targets as in 2016."
  • Mark Galeotti, a leading scholar on Russian intelligence and author of "We need to talk about Putin," foresees an effort "to escalate and magnify the inevitable divisions that become exacerbated in election times. With Trump running, and many Democrat voices prone to castigate his supporters as racists and morons, these opportunities are likely to be plentiful."

The bottom line: "I see no reason to expect that U.S./Western actions since 2016 have changed Moscow’s appetite for risk. Buckle up," said Andrew Weiss, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment.

A wild card: A Russia expert contact of mine formerly with Britain's MI-6 said that, if Putin's strategy is what's expected — to do whatever will best polarize the U.S. — he may choose to do nothing. "Trump seems to be doing a pretty good job all by himself, depending on where you sit, so it might be easier to leave well alone."

Go deeper

Jan 28, 2021 - Technology

Big Tech bolts politics

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Big Tech fed politics. Then it bled politics. Now it wants to be dead to politics. 

Why it matters: The social platforms that profited massively on politics and free speech suddenly want a way out — or at least a way to hide until the heat cools. 

21 mins ago - Health

White House says Obamacare sign-ups hit record

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra speaking in the White House in December 2021. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

The White House said Thursday that a record 14.5 million Americans have signed up for health insurance through Obamacare marketplaces since Nov. 1, including more than 10 million enrollments through HealthCare.gov.

Why it matters: Last year's stimulus bill contained substantial investments in the program, including increased subsidies for people who don't receive health insurance from an employer or through Medicare or Medicaid.

42 mins ago - World

Kremlin says U.S. written responses ignored Russia's main NATO demand

Sergey Lavrov. Photo: Dimitar DilkoffI/AFP via Getty Images

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Thursday that the United States' written answers to Russia's security demands do not contain a "positive response" to the Kremlin's top priority, which is a freeze on NATO expansion, according to Russian state media.

Why it matters: A spokesperson for the Kremlin stressed that no conclusions will be drawn until Russian President Vladimir Putin has time to analyze the papers, but a lack of movement on Russia's core concerns means the crisis over Ukraine is unlikely to de-escalate.