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Trump a 'puppet' of Putin? WikiLeaks target isn't who you may think, Russia experts say

If Russian President Vladimir Putin is indeed pulling the strings in this U.S. election, he's likely less interested in shaking up the outcome of the race than in proving a point about American democracy, experts say.

Goal may be 'to sow doubts about the electoral process' rather than to help either candidate

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, left, denies he is being manipulated by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, right, suggested on Wednesday night that Trump was being viewed as a 'puppet' of the Kremlin. Russian hackers are suspected of interfering with the U.S. election via WikiLeaks. (Carlos Barria, RIA/Reuters)

Maybe he's a puppet, maybe she's a puppet, maybe this whole dang system is a puppet. 

One way or another, experts say, if Vladimir Putin is indeed pulling the strings in this U.S. election, the Russian president is likely less interested in propping up Donald Trump's candidacy than in trying to expose American democracy itself as a farce.

During the final presidential debate on Wednesday night, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton accused Trump, the Republican, of allowing himself to be manipulated by Moscow.

Speaking about suspected Russian hackers leaking documents that could boost Trump's chances of winning, Clinton said Putin "would rather have a puppet as president of the United States" than a candidate willing to stand up for American interests.

"No puppet! No puppet!" Trump objected, showing flashes of rage that he had suppressed for the first 30 minutes.

Clinton described Trump as a "clear favourite" of the Kremlin, citing his willingness to break up NATO and abide Putin's "wish list."

'No, you're the puppet'

"You're the puppet. No, you're the puppet," Trump called out while Clinton spoke.

Trump loses his cool for a moment as Clinton calls him a 'puppet' of Vladimir Putin's 0:36

WikiLeaks, the whistleblowing organization, has published thousands of pages stolen from the email servers of the Democratic National Committee and from Clinton campaign staffers. 

Top U.S. security advisers believe Russia is responsible for publishing the material, much of which has been seen as damaging for Clinton's campaign.

The disclosures have advanced theories by pundits as well as Clinton's campaign that Putin is trying to pave the way for Trump to inherit the Oval Office, reasoning his administration might be easier to work around. Trump has stated, for instance, that he would "look into" supporting Russia's annexation of Crimea.

But Thomas Graham, a Yale University Russia scholar, has his doubts, arguing that viewing this as a matter of favouring one candidate over the other is too narrow an outlook.

"The goal of these leaks is not primarily to help Donald Trump," he says. "It's to sow doubts about the electoral process in the United States; to tarnish the reputation of the U.S. running smooth democratic processes."

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that he does not believe WikiLeaks scandal's effect on the U.S. election serves Russia's interests. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/Reuters)

The WikiLeaks disclosures include discussions by the DNC about complicating Bernie Sanders' path to winning the Democratic nomination. One email suggests Donna Brazile, the interim vice-chair of the committee, was in communication with Clinton staffers and shared a draft question received "in advance" the day before a CNN town hall in March.

Brazile denies she sent any questions. But if the documents are to be believed, they would smack of collusion — an idea the Russians would find irresistible, Graham says.

Putin brushes off U.S. 'hysteria'

Beyond embarrassing the U.S., distracting the country from dealing with policy, and deepening political rifts, a cyberattack that raises questions about the legitimacy of American democracy could prove a point from the Kremlin's perspective. The official party line disparaging collusion in America could carry a lot of weight in Mother Russia.

A WikiLeaks document dump alleges in an email that Donna Brazile, the acting Chair of the Democratic National Committee, provided an advance question to Hillary Clinton's campaign before a March town hall debate. Brazile denies the allegation. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

"They might say, 'Look what they're doing in their own country,'" Graham says. "'Why does the U.S. think that it should tender election monitors and determine what's free and fair?'" 

Putin has maintained that nothing in the hacking scandal benefits Russia, criticizing the U.S. presidential campaign for "hysteria" and telling a business forum in Moscow that WikiLeaks "has nothing to do with Russia's interests."

But Henry Hale, a George Washington University professor who lectures on Russian politics, argues that by weakening faith in American democracy, Russia would be able to challenge the wisdom of exporting democracy abroad.

'We're going to mess with you'

"The leaked emails can give Russia's leaders concrete 'evidence' to point to when telling their own population that democratization is not going to solve their problems," Hale says.

The message?

"Don't bother pushing for democracy at home," he says. "It's bad over there, too."

Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton speaks during the third and final 2016 presidential campaign debate at UNLV in Las Vegas. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Even if Russia doesn't directly benefit from the problems WikiLeaks wreaks, Hale says the alleged meddling would amount to another move in its "tit-for-tat" relationship with the U.S.

"They see Americans interfering in their domestic politics, trying to undermine Putin, and people in his regime really think that," he says. "This is sort of like, 'We're playing the same kind of game. We're going to mess with you and your domestic politics as well.'"

Graham notes that the fictional Netflix series House of Cards is particularly popular in Russia. 

"Why? Because it demonstrates the American political system is corrupt; that the president of the United States is corrupt."

Donald Trump smiles during the third and final debate with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in Las Vegas, Nevada last Wednesday. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

At least in that regard, Putin may have an unsuspecting co-conspirator in Trump, who, in the face of dismal polling numbers and a trio of poor debate performances, has ramped up claims that the election outcome is "rigged" against him.

But there's another reason Russia might not necessarily want to see Trump in the White House. What Putin likes most in foreign policy is predictability, Graham notes. And Trump has shown he is anything but predictable.

"Even if it's not necessarily positive for Russia, the idea is at least they know who they're dealing with," he says. "And there is some confidence they know who Clinton is, what she'd represent as a president, and beyond that, they know the people who they'd expect to be advising her. With Trump, you just don't know how to read him."

About the Author

Matt Kwong

Reporter

Matt Kwong is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong