No world leader will be watching the inauguration of Donald Trump with as much satisfaction as Vladimir Putin. The Russian President, according to the U.S. intelligence establishment Mr. Trump loves to denigrate, was behind an "influence campaign" consisting of cyberattacks and fake news aimed at damaging the credibility of the hostile (to Mr. Putin) Hillary Clinton.
It turned out to be much easier than even Mr. Putin, a former KGB operative, could have imagined. Hacking Democratic National Committee computers was child's play. DNC staff treated FBI warnings of potential cyberattacks with all the urgency of a two-toed sloth. When they did clue in, they failed to prepare for the release of stolen DNC e-mails and documents during the campaign by WikiLeaks and other witting or unwitting Russian agents.
If an organization as rich and sophisticated as the DNC turned out to be such easy prey for Russian hackers, what can be said about less well-endowed political parties in other Western democracies? We're about to find out as several European countries face elections this year, and the stakes are hardly inconsequential. The entire Western alliance could hang in the balance.
As likely U.S. defense secretary James Mattis said last week, Mr. Putin is "trying to break" the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The election of such an avowed NATO-skeptic as Mr. Trump furthered this aim. But Mr. Putin knows the incoming U.S. president must ultimately defer to the pro-NATO forces in his own cabinet, Congress, the Pentagon and the State Department, or face mutiny.
Hence, Mr. Putin's plan to undermine NATO really runs through Europe. The U.S. election was merely a dry run for an influence campaign he has now embarked on as France and Germany, as well as the Netherlands and potentially Italy, go to the polls this year. Destabilizing the continent's leading democracies, where Euroskeptic parties are on the rise, is job one for Mr. Putin in 2017.
While Mr. Putin's longer-term geopolitical objective is to break NATO and restore his country to great-power status, the near-term goal is relief from Western sanctions that have administered yet more pain to oil-dependent Russia's already teetering economy. France has also cancelled the delivery of two Mistral helicopter carriers to Russia, a decision that angered Mr. Putin.
Top intelligence officials in France and Germany have gone public in recent weeks to alert both voters and party operatives to past, present and future cyberattacks aimed at influencing elections in both countries. Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel, seeking re-election in September, has publicly mused about having to accept such attacks as a new fact of political life.
Mr. Putin likely faces a tougher task destabilizing German democracy than its French counterpart. The pro-Russia Alternative for Germany, while rising, remains on the fringes, and distrust of and disgust for its anti-refugee message are still much stronger than support for ousting Ms. Merkel. It is another matter altogether in France, where the anti-immigrant forces are on a roll.
What's more, the two candidates expected to face off on May's final French presidential ballot are unabashedly pro-Russia. Marine Le Pen's far-right National Front, which borrowed from Russian banks to finance past campaigns, is likely to do the same again this time. Ms. Le Pen's campaign is lifted by favourable coverage by the French versions of the Sputnik news agency and RT television network. She regularly returns the favour by speaking kindly of Mr. Putin and unkindly of Europe.
The National Front "has a fascination for everything that contests American hegemony. It sees in Putin a way to contest the world order, to shake up the most established international institutions," Jean-Yves Camus, director of the Observatory of Political Radicalism at the Fondation Jean-Jaurès, told Marianne magazine last month.
Ms. Le Pen and François Fillon, the Républicains candidate currently favoured to win the presidency, both advocate lifting sanctions on Russia. Though Mr. Fillon got close to Mr. Putin when they served as prime ministers of their respective countries, Ms. Le Pen is widely considered to be Mr. Putin's preferred candidate – if only because she would sow the most chaos.
Only one candidate currently stands a chance of knocking either Ms. Le Pen or Mr. Fillon off the final presidential ballot. Former Socialist economy minister Emmanuel Macron, who is running as an independent candidate, has the highest favourability rating of any politician in France. That makes the defiantly pro-Europe Mr. Macron a sitting duck for Mr. Putin's cyberhenchmen.