Putin To Exploit U.S. Economic Pain To Bring Biden Midterms Misery—Experts

Russia retaliated again this week to U.S. sanctions with its latest blacklist of Americans, which included Joe Biden's family. Experts warn Moscow could try to harm Biden more directly in the midterm elections by raising questions about the cost of the Ukraine war.

The intelligence community has already raised concerns that Vladimir Putin will draw on the playbook of cyber attacks and propaganda which evidence shows impacted the 2016 and 2020 U.S. elections.

But costly U.S. support for Ukraine as Americans battle soaring inflation, which Biden blames on Putin, as well as a possible recession, could give the Kremlin ample opportunity to exploit division as voters go to the polls in November.

"Anything Putin can do to sow doubt in Americans' minds about the moral necessity, economic cost and practical impact of our support for Ukraine's sovereignty, he surely will attempt," Stephen Hanson, vice provost for academic and international affairs at Virginia's College of William & Mary told Newsweek.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen at the Novo-Ogarevo state residence, outside Moscow, on June 24, 2022. U.S. security officials have warned that Moscow will try to exploit division in the U.S. ahead of the midterm elections in November. MIKHAIL METZEL/Getty Images

The concerns come as former U.S. intelligence officials have warned that Putin will try to get Americans to question their support for Ukraine and promote politicians who can reverse sanctions.

Homeland and national security officials told CNN that Russia might be considering staging hacks of local election authorities, with the deliberate purpose of being noticed. They could then use that to promote more conspiracies about the integrity of American elections, which could be amplified on Facebook and Twitter.

A declassified report by the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Office of Intelligence and Analysis warned that Russia would likely depress voting and undermine the midterms in revenge for the U.S.-led response to the invasion of Ukraine.

The DHS report, which also described threats coming from China and Iran, said that Moscow would view this as an "equitable response" to U.S. actions over Ukraine.

These include tough sanctions on Russia as well as Washington providing $1.4 billion in a security aid package to Kyiv that included High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS.

But with inflation in the U.S. at 11 percent and Biden repeatedly connecting Putin's name with the economic turmoil they are feeling right now, Americans might balk in the coming months at their support for Ukraine, which the Kremlin could tap into.

"They can exploit a number of existing realities. One of those realities is the economic toll that the war is taking on the United States, especially as we see in inflation and gas prices. That creates an enormous political vulnerability, a political opportunity," said Ken Osgood, humanities professor at Colorado School of Mines.

"People will start asking 'is this war really worth all the economic pain or suffering?' and Russia will almost certainly exacerbate those concerns," he told Newsweek.

"It has a tremendous power of amplifying messages," he said, "It can take the voices that are already out there and add more, make them louder, through Twitter feeds and bots and things of that nature."

Osgood said Moscow does not need to push a linear argument that the war is directly causing inflation but instead exploit how people "see the connections between parallel arguments." He said conservative outlets like Fox News might pin inflation on Biden, noting the war in Ukraine, while hosts like Tucker Carlson might "put out the message, raising doubts about our framing of Russia, and 'is Putin really all that bad?'"

"Russia doesn't necessarily need to connect the dots. It just needs to put those fears out there. And then other people connect the dots and then those voices get amplified," Osgood said.

Polling in June on the Russia-Ukraine crisis tracker showed a dip in support for U.S. financial help for Ukraine. Less than a half (46 percent) of U.S. voters say their government should impose sanctions on Russian oil, even if it causes prices to rise, down 9 percentage points since April.

Andrea Molle, assistant political science professor, at Chapman University, California said that Russia and other hostile foreign interests "would try and frame the financial and military efforts in support of Ukraine as a waste of resources that should be used domestically instead."

"The focus will be on increasing polarization and criticism towards President Biden and the democratic majority," he told Newsweek.

"The U.S. is traditionally a country with a very short attention span for all things international, coupled with what I call 'conspiracy theory epidemics.' Linking the narrative of the alleged inability to face the current economic crisis to the efforts and involvement in Ukraine would catch two birds with one stone."

"On the one hand, it will hinder the current administration's chances of maintaining control of Congress. On the other hand, it will force the president, and his majority, to reconsider the U.S. involvement in the war, potentially jeopardizing Ukraine's chances of effectively resisting the invasion. All this, in the long term, could also weaken NATO."

Man at voting station
A man casts his ballot at a polling station at Rose Hill Elementary School during the midterm primary election on June 21, 2022 in Alexandria, Virginia. Homeland and national security officials have warned that Russia would seek to interfere with the U.S. midterm elections in November. Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Kremlin's actions leading up to the midterms would be the latest chapter in its attempts to sow discord in U.S. politics.

Influence operations linked to the Russian government Internet Research Agency (IRA), which was at the center of U.S. election meddling claims, exploited vaccination debates even before the COVID pandemic.

Before Trump's election victory in 2016, Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) tried to stoke racial divisions by creating fake Black Lives Matter groups on Facebook, a Senate inquiry concluded. Recent Supreme Court rulings on gun control and abortion rights, added to the questions raised about U.S. democratic institutions by the January 6 committee, provide fertile ground for the Kremlin to exploit.

"It's not clear which divisions in the U.S. they'll focus on or how they'll combine them," said Diane Nemec Ignashev, Russian professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota and an observer of Russian media and propaganda.

"It will be hard for them to get involved in post-Roe v. Wade abortion divisions for which they have little feel. But they'll definitely put gun control as the top issue and likely combine that with the misery inflation is causing so-called blue-collar workers.

"They will only be able to take advantage of an otherwise bad situation here—they won't create that situation. It will be interesting to see what they do after their own [gubernatorial] elections [on September 11] are over," she added.

The DHS intelligence team expects the Russian government to continue to use troll farms, state media outlets and other proxies online to spread pro-Russia narratives and divide Americans, according to CNN. However, there is hope that the U.S. will be better prepared for Russian meddling ahead of November.

"The U.S. intelligence services and military are now far more savvy about the threat of Russian disinformation than they were during the 2010s," said Hanson of the College of William & Mary, "so there are at least some grounds for hope that Russian influence over America's electoral process might be contained during the upcoming Congressional elections."

"The bigger problem is that there appear to be no signs at all of any healing of the deep political divisions within the U.S. that have made Russian disinformation efforts so effective in the first place."

Newsweek has contacted the Kremlin for comment.