Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts What the Iowa Caucus Means for Russia
What the Iowa Caucus Means for Russia

What the Iowa Caucus Means for Russia

The complicated political dance that is the Iowa caucus devolved into a flustered and chaotic disaster for the Democratic Party. Although human error and faulty technology are the culprits, the statewide failures in ballot reporting weaken trust in election validity beyond the caucus system. Somewhere in the lavish halls of the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin is no doubt quietly celebrating. For Russia, the bedlam in Iowa is a welcome disruption to American democracy—and Moscow apparently did not lift a finger. As for the putative frontrunners, Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg, Russia will likely monitor their next contests with fresh interest.

What do Iowa’s frontrunners mean for Russia, and, more importantly, how does the Kremlin feel about Sanders and Buttigieg?

For Russia, Less Passion but Equal Stakes in 2020

Just as in 2016, Putin and his team are following the lead-up to the 2020 election with keen interest. Four years ago, Russia intervened in the presidential election to thwart Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Then, hacker group Fancy Bear and the Kremlin’s army of social media trolls sought to block Clinton—not necessarily to coronate Trump—because Putin loathed Clinton’s tough behavior toward Russia, especially her condemnations of the 2011 Russian parliamentary elections. In fact, former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the 2016 election revealed that Russia’s disinformation enterprise promoted Sanders in addition to Trump. According to a February 2018 indictment, these specialists were directed to “use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump – we support them).”

To be clear, Sanders has unequivocally denounced Russian interference. Moscow plainly favored a Trump victory, based on both the Mueller Report and hours of witness testimony that has since emerged. But the willingness to support Sanders is proof of how much Putin despised Clinton.

Four years later, Moscow’s tool kit continues to include undermining trust in American institutions and leadership—at this point, it is default Russian strategy. But this time around, Russia’s motivations are somewhat less passionate. Putin simply does not hate any candidate the way he hated Hillary. His man is the incumbent. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party’s campaign season has failed to produce a compelling alternative.

Trump is Still Russia’s Choice

Undeniably, the Kremlin is gunning for a Trump reelection. After all, look at the unexpected foreign policy gold that intervening on Trump’s behalf has earned Russia. Trump withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). He repeatedly has praised Putin and other illiberal leaders, such as Victor Orban. He replicated Kremlin talking points disparaging Ukraine and froze aid to the country. His decision to withdraw from Syria widened a power vacuum in the Middle East that Russia eagerly filled. Trump even shared nuggets of classified intelligence with Russian officials in the Oval Office. Perhaps most significantly, Trump’s poor treatment of U.S. allies has blunted the integrity of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and European Union. Trump frequently blasts both bodies for burdening U.S. resources and publicly has snubbed leaders of major NATO and EU member states.

Last week, Trump was acquitted of all impeachment charges. If he wins in November, then he will be emboldened by both victories and unencumbered by the restraints of first-term presidents. That surely means more of the same policies that withered America’s relationships with partners and undermined U.S. credibility abroad—maybe on a larger scale. In Putin’s zero-sum worldview, America’s losses are Russia’s gain.

Sanders: Familiarity Breeds Complacence

Despite waging elections interference in support of Sanders, Moscow never favored a Sanders presidency over a Trump one. Unlike Trump, Sanders has called Putin an “anti-democratic authoritarian” and supports policies that are punitive for Russia, such as sanctions, freezing assets, and corporate divestiture. Sanders has blasted Russian malign activities around the world and promises to work with European allies to bolster Ukraine.

At the same time, it seems that Russia does not detest Sanders, as demonstrated by his mixed coverage in the Russian media. According to Clint Watts at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Russian media outlets mentioned Sanders 204 times between January and November 2019, with “an even split of positive and negative mentions.” RT positively portrayed Sanders’ performance in the August 2019 debate. Of course, positive coverage may signal Russia’s intent to manipulate the anger of Sanders supporters toward the Democratic establishment—as occurred in the 2016 contest—to Trump’s ultimate benefit. 

Russia likely approves of the Sanders campaign’s positions on military spending and trade, and his stated willingness to work with Russia on existential security issues, such as climate change. Sanders also proposes reducing defense spending; the aim is partly to loosen up funding for education and healthcare. But Russia views any reduction in U.S. defense spending as a boon. A tighter U.S. defense budget allows Russia to spend less on maintaining deterrence and could reduce funds that bolster U.S. military alliances, such as NATO. In addition, Sanders’ support for arms control is probably reassuring to Russia, given the demise of most bilateral nuclear agreements.

Buttigieg: The Lesser-Known Candidate

For the Kremlin, Buttigieg is an untried and untested challenger. Mayors of small midwestern cities do not feature much in Russia’s purview. Perhaps due to his lack of a foreign policy record, the Russian media has largely stayed quiet on Buttigieg.  According to Watts, Russian outlets mentioned Buttigieg only 48 times prior to November 2019, and the majority of mentions were neutral. Even as a candidate, Buttigieg’s comments on Russia mostly have been limited to Trump’s impeachment and denouncing election interference.

Buttigieg has criticized Russia for its intervention in Ukraine, “destabilizing” activities abroad, and sponsorship of “nationalism, xenophobia, and homophobia.” He has promised to revitalize alliances, including NATO, and send aid to Ukraine. Like Sanders, Buttigieg does not support TPP.

Ultimately, Buttigieg is a moderate, and moderate Democrats tend to be tough on Russia. Based on Buttigieg’s ideological position, Russia is unlikely to look favorably on his success. If Sanders and Buttigieg remain the frontrunners, watch for internet trolling of Buttigieg to rise to a greater level of vindictiveness.

Sanders and Buttigieg may not hold their positions at the front of the pack. This campaign cycle is unprecedented, and voters are notoriously unpredictable. Any of the other candidates could surge over the next few weeks. But either way, Putin is sitting pretty after the caucuses disaster. Russia may find it does not need to work too hard to erode faith in American democracy. Iowa took care of that.