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Is Russia Trying to Influence the US Election?

FILE - A woman wears a shirt reading "Trump Putin '16" while waiting for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to speak at a campaign event at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, N.H., Feb. 7, 2016.

As the U.S. presidential campaign heads into its final hours, Kremlin presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov issued Russia's own last appeal to U.S. voters: Russia has no intention of interfering in America's elections.

Never mind White House charges of Kremlin hacking of Democratic Party computers. Never mind the Wikileaks release of Clinton campaign emails that U.S. intelligence says come from Russia's secret services. And never mind a relentlessly partisan Russian state media campaign that has promoted one candidate over another — both at home and abroad.

In a year when Russia has assumed a central role in American elections, the Kremlin spokesman dismissed interest in any possible Russian subterfuge as "absurd."

"[The Americans] have enough problems without us," said Peskov.

Welcome to the next phase of the Kremlin's take on America's elections: Whoever the victor, the outcome will show how broken and corrupt American democracy has become.

And the Kremlin is preparing.

In the run-up to election day, Russian state television has been warning of "dead souls" rising from the grave to vote (for Clinton); "carousel voting" in the inner cities (for Clinton); decrepit election infrastructure prone to manipulation (by Clinton); and that the will of American voters (for Trump) will be subverted by U.S. electoral college delegates (for Clinton).

Dmitry Kiselev, anchor of the weekly Vesti Nedeli (News of the Week), whose nationally televised program has pushed conspiracies surrounding the American vote for months, predicted nothing short of a stolen election (by Clinton).

"After these elections, the U.S. may find itself addressing itself with the same phrase that it awards others: that the U.S. elections were not transparent, were conducted without real competition, and included mass falsifications and government abuse.”

“They cannot,” Kiselev concluded, “be considered free or democratic.”

The message, says Vladimir Frolov, a foreign policy analyst and columnist with The Moscow Times, is clear.

"The intent is to discredit the system," he told VOA. "So-called American democracy stinks. It's a circus and nothing to envy."

FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin listens during a meeting in the Kremlin, in Moscow, Russia, July 26, 2016.
FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin listens during a meeting in the Kremlin, in Moscow, Russia, July 26, 2016.

Kremlin favorite?

Even to casual Russia observers, the Kremlin's passive preference for a Donald Trump presidency has been apparent, if not understandable, throughout the election season.

Trump's positions on key issues of the day — from Syria to Ukraine to NATO's expansion into Eastern Europe — dovetail with Russia's own declared interests. Clinton campaign charges that Trump is colluding with the Russian authorities notwithstanding, FBI-led investigations into the issue have found no proof.

That, said Frolov, makes little difference from the Kremlin's point of view.

"What's not to like?" he asked.

By contrast, state media has relentlessly embraced far-ranging conspiracies surrounding Hillary Clinton's campaign: Mrs. Clinton is sick and ailing; she is corrupt and facing certain indictment or prison; and she is beholden to nefarious dark forces, including radical terrorist groups.

Most importantly, Clinton is portrayed as virulently anti-Russian.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's antipathy to the Democratic Party nominee, in particular, is well known. In 2011, he accused Clinton, then U.S. secretary of state, of "giving the signal" to thousands of Russians to protested rigged elections during the country's parliamentary contests.

Polls reflect the pileup of negative coverage since. More than one-third of Russians believe a Trump presidency will bring an improvement in relations. By contrast, a majority think U.S.-Russian relations — already deeply troubled — will suffer more under a future Clinton administration. A separate poll showed nearly half of Russians think a direct war between the U.S. and Russia is likely.

Amid the growing Russia controversy this election season, Putin denounced candidates for "playing the Russia card." Moscow, he said, was willing to work with either Trump or Clinton — provided the new White House occupant meets Russian interests half way.

But Konstantin von Eggart, a long-time analyst and host of the independent TV Rain channel's coverage of the U.S. elections, says he finds the Kremlin's overt tilt towards Trump "bizarre."

"I think Russia's policy is a big blunder," said von Eggart. "Even in the Soviet days, the Politburo wasn't influencing in the U.S. elections because they knew they'd have to work with whoever was the next American president."

Yet von Eggart predicts the Kremlin will double down in the event of a Clinton win on November 8.

"They'll blow out of proportion any irregularities to say the Trump was denied victory," he said.

The hope, he adds, is that Trump will continue to "sow chaos" in the U.S. political system, distracting Washington elites while Moscow defends its own interests.

Meanwhile, foreign policy analyst Frolov argues the Kremlin's focus on undermining the current U.S. campaign is merely "a shot across the bow" ahead of Russia's own presidential elections, which are scheduled for 2018.

Putin, in and out of power since 1999, has yet to declare his candidacy. But even then, Frolov suggests a future memo to Washington regarding the election day 2018 has already been drafted.

The message: "Who are you to judge?"