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Russia has been meddling in foreign elections for decades. Has it made a difference?

- January 8, 2018

Russian interference in the 2016 election has gotten an enormous amount of U.S. media attention. But Russia has been intervening in foreign elections for decades. Has it been effective?

We decided to find out. To assess the impact of Russian meddling, we put together and examined a data set of all 27 Russian electoral interventions since 1991.

We identified two waves of Russian meddling since the early 1990s. The first wave lasted until 2014 and targeted only post-Soviet countries. Since then, a second wave has expanded dramatically into established Western democracies.

However, an examination of both of these waves shows that Russia’s efforts have made little difference.

First wave: In the former Soviet states, 1991 to 2014

Shortly after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russia began to interfere in elections of the countries that had been part of the U.S.S.R. Many observers have argued that Russia sought to promote authoritarianism. In fact, its goal wasn’t primarily to undermine democracy but to support pro-Russian candidates. Indeed, in some cases, as in Ukraine in 1994, Russia inadvertently bolstered pluralism by trying to undermine anti-Russian autocrats.

Russian interference also frequently failed. Despite Russia’s power in the region, only four of 11 cases of interference turned out in Russia’s favor. Only once — in Ukraine in 1994 — is there plausible evidence that Russian intervention was decisive. There, Russian television gave the pro-Russian opposition candidate for Ukraine’s presidency significant media exposure that he would have otherwise lacked.

Second wave: in Western democracies, 2014 to now

In the past three years, Russian interference has expanded into such countries as the United States, Germany, France and Britain, among others. These efforts have ranged widely. For instance, to prevent Montenegro from joining NATO, the Kremlin likely sponsored an October 2016 coup attempt.  In a number of European countries, Russia helped fund far-right parties such as the National Front in the run-up to France’s 2017 election. Russia waged disinformation campaigns in other countries. In the United States’ 2016 election, that included creating fake Facebook accounts that may have reached as many as 126 million Americans; disseminating leaked emails and fake documents to WikiLeaks; and launching cyberattacks targeting state voting registration systems. And in Norway and Germany, Russia launched phishing attacks against parties and campaigns.

Have Russia’s efforts to steer elections changed the results?

Let’s consider the 16 elections in which Russia appears to have tried to influence the results since 2015. Of these, two — Brexit in 2016 and the Czech Republic in 2017 — turned out the way the Kremlin apparently hoped, and seven had results that partly reflected Russian interests. One example from the second group is the 2017 French presidential elections. The National Front won an unprecedented amount of support — but the pro-European Union Emmanuel Macron won. Similarly, in the United States, Hillary Clinton was defeated, but U.S. sanctions against Russia remain in place. The others were the 2016 elections in Austria, Bulgaria, a referendum in the Netherlands, and the 2017 elections in Germany and the Netherlands.

Favorable outcomes in nine out of 16 elections may seem like a lot. But it’s not at all clear that Russia’s efforts made any difference. Other factors also affected the elections: increased immigration, for instance, and the perception that established party systems weren’t responding to ordinary voters’ concerns. In fact, only three election results can be plausibly attributed even partly to Russian efforts.

And even in these, a closer look shows that Russia’s actual influence is far from clear.

First, in April 2016, a Russian disinformation campaign may have helped sway Dutch voters to reject a nonbinding referendum on the E.U.-Ukraine Association Agreement. But maybe not. Many Dutch citizens had long resented European policymaking on a wider range of issues. In any case, the Dutch parliament ignored the results and enacted the Association Agreement.

Second, in November 2016, Bulgaria elected as president Rumen Radev, a pro-Moscow candidate who had received assistance from Russian intelligence. That prompted the pro-Brussels prime minister Boyko Borisov to resign. But Borisov’s party won a plurality in the March 2017 elections — and he returned as prime minister.

Finally, as the U.S. intelligence services have unanimously concluded, Russia was heavily involved in the 2016 U.S. election. In addition to releasing hacked emails that embarrassed Clinton, the Russian government appears to have created fake Facebook and Twitter accounts to distribute negative and often false news intended to stir up outrage.

But there are reasons to be skeptical of the claim that Russia swung the election for Trump. First, Russian information warriors produced far less fake news and polarizing rhetoric than did domestic and other international sources. Russia simply added to the already deafening cacophony of inflammatory rhetoric and misinformation.

Second, the hacked emails had little obvious impact. The first batch of Democratic National Committee emails was released in July 2016, amid the two party conventions — after which Clinton’s lead increased. Similarly, after WikiLeaks released John Podesta’s emails in October, Clinton’s support increased, apparently in response to such other campaign events as the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape. Trust in Clinton remained more or less the same throughout October — not what we’d expect to see if the emails had made a difference.

Of course, Russia may still have influenced the outcome. As FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten notes, “the drip, drip, drip” of these email releases “makes it all but impossible to measure their effect precisely.” And Trump won by such a thin margin that even a small Russian impact could have tipped the election.

But there is far stronger evidence that other factors were more critical. For instance, public opinion shifted suddenly after Oct. 28, when FBI Director James B. Comey announced that he was reopening an investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server while serving as secretary of state. And the closeness of the election mostly resulted from polarization between Democrats and Republicans that long predates Russian President Vladimir Putin or the rise of Trump.

It’s true that Russia has been increasingly trying to meddle in Western elections. But it hasn’t gotten much for its efforts — and these efforts have often backfired. For instance, the U.S. uproar about Russian interference has almost certainly made it less likely that the United States will lift its sanctions. Thus, on balance, Putin’s expansion of Russian interference may not be in Russia’s interests.

Lucan Ahmad Way is professor of political science at the University of Toronto and author most recently of “Pluralism by Default: Weak Autocrats and the Rise of Competitive Politics” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015). 

Adam E. Casey is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Toronto. 

Note: Updated Oct. 2, 2023.