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What Putin wants

Alexei Nikolsky / Pool Photo via AP

Anne Applebaum, a Washington Post columnist, professor at the London School of Economics and author of the new book "The Red Famine," gave a concise description of what Vladimir Putin's Russia aims to achieve by interfering in elections in Germany and throughout the West this week on NPR's Fresh Air:

  • "It wants to end the European Union, which it sees as something that thwarts its ability to do corrupt deals, and do bilateral deals in Europe.
  • "It wants to end NATO, because it wants the United States and its influence out of Europe.
  • "More generally it seeks to undermine and dislodge liberal democracy wherever it can, partly for practical reasons because Russian companies do business using corrupt methods and it would be more useful to them to do business in states where rule of law isn't so respected and they can bribe people…
  • "But I think they also seek to undermine democracy for a bigger reason — namely that democracy rhetoric, or the ideals of rule of law, and freedom of speech and freedom of decision, these are ideals that are undermining for the current Russian regime. It's an oligarchic, corrupt dictatorship, so what it fears the most is people on the streets calling for democracy. So the extent to which it can undermine its neighbors, and undermine their democracies, it's good for them. Then they can point and say, 'look, democracy is a disaster, it doesn't work for the United States, it doesn't work for Germany, so why should you want it either?'"

The big picture: Yes, Putin interfered in the U.S. election in part to hurt Hillary Clinton, and to sow chaos. But with these objectives in mind, he had clear incentives to back Donald Trump. Trump is no Europhile, expressed deep skepticism of NATO on the campaign trail and his administration has said it will not make advocating for democracy abroad a priority.

Mike Allen 6 hours ago
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A huge clue about Mueller's endgame

Robert Mueller testifies before Congress in 2013. Photo: Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images

Axios has learned that special counsel Robert Mueller has focused on events since the election — not during the campaign — in his conversations with President Trump's lawyers. The top two topics that Mueller has expressed interest in so far: the firings of FBI director James Comey and national security adviser Michael Flynn.

Why it matters: That suggests a focus on obstruction of justice while in office, rather than collusion with Russia during the campaign. But both sagas are interwoven with Russia: Trump himself has linked Comey's firing to Russia, and Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about conversations with the Russian ambassador during the transition.

Amy Harder 8 hours ago
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Column / Harder Line

The swamp’s tug-o-war over America’s ethanol mandate

American eagle with corn in its claws
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser / Axios

A biofuels standard Congress passed more than a decade ago in the name of rural development, energy security and climate change has devolved into an arcane fight over market share that has nothing to do with those initial three goals.

Why it matters: The law — called the renewable fuel standard that requires refineries to blend biofuels into gasoline — is a textbook example of how regulations create winners, losers and unintended consequences.