If Vladimir Putin did help to put Donald Trump in the White House, it would be the ultimate intelligence coup. Yet, it might also prove to be the ultimate own goal. An operation designed to ease the pressure on Mr Putin’s government by installing a friendly face in the White House has instead led to a tightening of sanctions on Russia, and a dangerous increase in the domestic political pressure on the Russian president.
As for Mr Trump, his campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia may have aided his electoral victory at the risk of destroying his presidency. It would be a strange irony if the intimacy of the Putin and Trump camps ultimately ended both presidents’ political careers.
Of course, the Russian government and Mr Trump’s diehard defenders still deny that any such collusion took place. But the US intelligence services are certain that Russia was behind the hacking of Democratic party emails.
It seems likely that the hack influenced the course of a tight election. I was in Philadelphia on the eve of the Democratic convention in July 2016 when the first leaked emails were released. The revelation that Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the co-chair of the Democratic National Committee, had been privately disparaging the Bernie Sanders campaign forced her resignation, and ensured that the convention got off to a chaotic start.
Mr Sanders’ supporters were convinced that their man had been robbed. And Sanders voters who switched to the Republicans, were crucial to Mr Trump’s victories in the vital states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. We now also know that Russian operators used Facebook and Twitter to spread anti-Clinton messages.
Throughout the campaign, Mr Trump was consistently sympathetic to the Kremlin. Whether he was motivated by ideology, investment or some embarrassing secret has yet to emerge.
But the Russian connection set off the chain of events that may ultimately unravel his presidency. Alarmed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s probe into his Russian contacts, Mr Trump sacked James Comey, the head of the FBI.
The backlash against the Comey sacking led to the appointment of Robert Mueller, a former head of the Bureau, as a special prosecutor to look into the Trump-Russia connection. And the remorseless progress of the Mueller inquiry is likely to spark indictments and resignations. That, in turn, could lead to the impeachment of Mr Trump — and the destruction of his presidency.
As for Mr Putin, the moment it became clear that his gamble might backfire was when Mr Trump was forced to sack General Michael Flynn, his first national security adviser, for not disclosing contacts with the Russian government. From that point on, it became politically impossible for Mr Trump to help Russia by easing sanctions. On the contrary, the backlash against Russian interference in the US election has led to the intensification of sanctions, with a distrustful Congress ensuring that Mr Trump cannot lift these measures unilaterally.
Indeed, for the Republican Congress getting tough on Russia seems to have become a surrogate for getting tough on Mr Trump. The sanctions added over the summer were aimed specifically at the Russian mining and oil industries, In response, Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian prime minister, accused the US of “a declaration of full-fledged economic warfare on Russia”.
So far from improving under Mr Trump, US-Russian relations are now as bitter as at any time since the height of the cold war. Realising that the Trump administration will not be able to lift sanctions, the Kremlin resorted to a mass expulsion of US diplomats in response to an earlier expulsion of Russians by the Obama administration. The prospect that the US might supply arms to Ukraine has become much more real. And Russia is about to embark on some major military exercises in eastern Europe, which will heighten US fears.
The irony for Mr Putin is that, if he had simply let events take their course, sanctions on Russia could have been eased in the natural run of events — even with Hillary Clinton in the White House. Mrs Clinton had already tried one “reset” with Russia as secretary of state, and might have been prepared to try another. Many in Europe were also tiring of sanctions on Russia.
When the Mueller inquiry reports, there is likely to be a renewed spike in American outrage towards Russia. The most obvious threat is posed to Mr Trump. But the Mueller inquiry also poses an indirect threat to Mr Putin. He will contest a presidential election in March and faces a re-energised opposition, led by the popular and daring Alexei Navalny, and a deteriorating economy that has hit Russian consumers hard. Even though very few people expect Mr Putin to lose the election, the pro-Putin euphoria of a couple of years ago is clearly fading. Articles about the post-Putin era have begun to appear in the Russian media.
Above all, the most powerful economic interests in Russia now know that there is no longer any light at the end of the sanctions tunnel. In fact, things are likely to get worse. Something radical will have to change to get sanctions lifted. And that change might be the removal of Mr Putin from the Kremlin. Indeed, it is only when Mr Trump and Mr Putin both go that it may truly be possible to reset US-Russian relations.
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