By Andrew Osborn
MOSCOW (Reuters) – The Kremlin says U.S. intelligence agency allegations it ran an influence campaign to help President-elect Donald Trump win the White House are false. But if U.S. spies are right, Moscow may wish it hadn’t bothered to meddle in the first place.
The belief, widely held in the West, that the Kremlin helped discredit Democratic rival Hillary Clinton by orchestrating embarrassing media leaks, has relegated U.S.-Russia relations to a post-Cold War low and stoked fears Russia will try to subvert French and German elections this year.
And true or not, the bipartisan view that Russia tried to help Trump, supported by a classified U.S. intelligence report, may make it harder, not easier, for Trump to make common cause with President Vladimir Putin, something both men say they want.
In the latest wrinkle, U.S. officials said on Tuesday that Trump has been presented with claims that Russia had compromising information about him. The accusations are uncorroborated and denied by the Kremlin.
“There was initial delight in Russia when Trump won and there was more delight after Trump picked Rex Tillerson as secretary of state,” said Alexei Makarkin, deputy director at the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies.
“There is significantly less delight now.”
Former Exxon-Mobil CEO Tillerson, Trump’s pick for America’s top diplomat, is seen as a friend of Russia. His firm has been thwarted from carrying out a huge project in the Russian Arctic by economic sanctions imposed by the outgoing Obama administration to punish Moscow for its actions in Ukraine.
Makarkin said Trump and his circle would now be accused of being Kremlin stooges every time they pushed for detente with Russia, with senior Republicans likely to warn that any rapprochement would hand political capital to the Democrats.
Putin, who has repeatedly praised Trump’s political skills, is hoping his incoming U.S. counterpart will ease or annul the sanctions, stay out of Russia’s domestic affairs, and maybe even team up with the Kremlin in the Middle East.
But the furor over hacking and allegations of wider Russian interference have triggered pressure from Democrats and Trump’s fellow Republicans in Congress for tougher, not weaker, anti-Russian measures.
That has amplified Congressional calls for an independent bipartisan investigation into Russian dirty tricks and prompted President Barack Obama to expel 35 suspected Russian spies, denting early Russian optimism about a Trump presidency.
When the announcement that Trump had won the Nov. 8 presidential election was made in Russia’s parliament by Vyacheslav Nikonov, the grandson of Stalin’s foreign minister, lawmakers erupted in applause. In Moscow, Clinton was widely seen as being anti-Russian.
Two months later, the mood has soured.
“The new hacking allegations against Russia are clearly timed to coincide with the handover of power in the United States,” Alexei Pushkov, a senator who sits on the upper house of parliament’s defense and security committee, said.
“The aim is to force Trump into enmity with Russia.”
Victoria Zhuravleva, an expert on U.S.-Russia relations who writes analytical papers for the government, said the current mood in the United States meant Trump would struggle to improve relations with Moscow even if he wanted to.
“If we are realistic we have nothing to wait for,” said Zhuravleva, who said Congress could stymie Trump’s Russia policies and would probably present him with proposals to hit Moscow with fresh sanctions rather than roll back existing ones.
To be sure, some observers of U.S.-Russian relations say the Kremlin still emerges from the affair with a major win: the new U.S. president favors closer ties with Russia and has named people who share that view to key posts. And Trump can plow ahead with rapprochement even if some in Washington oppose it.
“The Constitution privileges the Executive in war and foreign policy,” Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, author of ‘We Know All About You: The Story of Surveillance in Britain and America,’ wrote in e-mailed comments.
“Once Trump and Putin begin to play together (if they do), the hacking issue will become a minor historical footnote.”
But with U.S.-Russia tensions so strained, some in Russia fret Washington will strike back with its own cyber attack.
German Klimenko, Putin’s Internet adviser, has suggested Russia must be ready to disconnect itself or to be involuntarily cut off from the global Internet.
“America could say it will throw up virtual borders to protect itself from (external) influence,” Klimenko told Reuters. “I can imagine … any actions.”
With so much focus on alleged Russian meddling, attention is now turning to presidential elections in France and Germany this year with some European politicians and intelligence services warning Moscow will try to interfere there too.
The Kremlin’s preferences appear clear from state media, where Chancellor Angela Merkel has been denigrated as ‘an old witch.’ French National Front leader Marine Le Pen and center-right Francois Fillon have both been portrayed more positively.
Former intelligence agents and cyber experts say neither country has the technical ability to protect itself or fully understand by whom and how it is being hacked, creating a rich opportunity for disinformation and unverifiable claims.
Several intelligence experts said elements of Russia’s intelligence community won’t be able to resist trying to replicate their U.S. election operations in European elections — even while other parts of the ruling elite see such operations as highly risky.
“This publicity (around the U.S. election) made Russia look so powerful that it almost provokes them to try their hand elsewhere,” said Andrei Soldatov, co-author of Red Web, which examines how the FSB security service uses the Internet.
Yuri Felshtinsky, a friend of murdered Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko and an expert in the Russian intelligence services, said Europe should brace itself.
“During the U.S. campaign Russia created a very powerful tool to influence elections. This tool, including hacking and the creation of web sites involved in publishing fake news, will now be used everywhere.”
(Additional reporting by Christian Lowe and Maria Tsvetkova in Moscow; Editing by Peter Graff)