But in this election, the broad strategy — as opposed to the specific tactics — are not exactly a mystery. Mr. Putin, the analysts agree, mostly seeks anything that would further take the sheen off American democracy and make presidential elections in the United States seem no more credible than his own. After that, he is eager for a compliant counterpart in the White House, one unlikely to challenge his territorial and nuclear ambitions.
Not surprisingly, the Kremlin says this is all an American fantasy, aimed at demonizing Russia for the United States’ own failings. “These are more paranoid announcements which, to our regret, will multiply as we get closer to the election,” Mr. Putin’s confidant and spokesman, Dmitry S. Peskov, was quoted by Reuters as telling reporters on Friday. “They have nothing to do with the truth.”
No matter who is elected, Mr. Putin has likely undermined one of his own primary goals: getting the United States and its allies to lift sanctions that were imposed after he annexed Crimea and accelerated a hybrid war against Ukraine.
“By actively exploiting divisions within American society and having its activities revealed, the Kremlin has ensured that its longer-term goal of having the U.S. remove sanctions and return to a less confrontational relationship so far has been thwarted,” Angela E. Stent, a former national intelligence officer for Russia and now a professor at Georgetown University, wrote in her book “Putin’s World: Russia Against the West and With the Rest.”
On Saturday, Ms. Stent noted that if the Russians are in fact interfering in this election, “it could bring about new energy sanctions.’’ She noted that one piece of legislation in the Senate, the DETER bill, would require new sanctions if evidence of Russian meddling emerges from intelligence agencies. Ms. Stent noted that, so far, Mr. Putin may have concluded that the penalties are a small price to pay if he can bring his geopolitical rival down a few more notches. And the early intelligence analyses suggest that, by backing Mr. Sanders in the primary and Mr. Trump in the general election, he would probably have a good chance of maximizing the electoral tumult.
Mr. Sanders is hardly a new target for the Russians. The 2018 indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers for their activities in the last presidential election — issued by the Justice Department under the Trump administration — claimed that the officers “engaged in operations primarily intended to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, to denigrate other candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump.”
Robert S. Mueller III, in the report on his investigation into Russian operations, concluded that the release of memos hacked from the Democratic National Committee were meant to inflame Mr. Sanders’s supporters by revealing that the committee was funneling assets to Mrs. Clinton.