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2017: The year a cold war turns into a warm embrace?

Vienna, 1961. The summit between newly elected US president John F. Kennedy and Soviet Union premier Nikita Khrushchev was billed as the first attempt at detente between the two superpowers.

Kennedy had beaten Republican rival and incumbent vice-president Richard Nixon by a razor-thin margin just the year before.

It was the height of the Cold War, six weeks after the Bay of Pigs incident off Cuba which severely tested Kennedy and brought the superpowers the closest ever to nuclear war.

The cocky Khrushchev, a man with a knack for theatricality under his rough, peasant exterior, walked all over the inexperienced Kennedy, toying with him during the meeting. Kennedy conceded as much. "He just beat the hell out of me," he told a journalist.

One Khrushchev remark about Kennedy's recent election threw the young US president off balance. "You know, Mr Kennedy, we voted for you," Khrushchev boomed. Kennedy did little more than laugh, and treated it as a joke, but there was some truth to it.

Trump Tower, 2017. More than a half-century later, the Soviet Union no longer exists but history repeated itself last Friday when US intelligence agencies briefed President-elect Donald Trump on their finding that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered an "influence campaign" to harm Mrs Hillary Clinton's candidacy because he had a clear preference for Mr Trump.

Mr Trump, who had stated his intention to forge closer ties with Russia during his campaign, has reflexively dismissed any suggestion that the Russians helped his candidacy, calling it an overtly political accusation made by the Democrats to undermine the legitimacy of his election.

But with his inauguration as US president only two weeks away, he can afford to bury the partisanship. He can also see - and perhaps even make the case to the American people - that the Russian "intervention" is not as de-legitimising of his mandate as he fears. Or as unusual.

After all, the intelligence community has not concluded that Russian "involvement" tipped the election in Mr Trump's favour. Or that there was any tampering with the vote itself. Nobody has claimed that the damaging Clinton e-mails were "fake" or that the server was not in her home.

But back to the Khrushchev claim that the Soviet Union had "voted" for Kennedy. In his memoirs, written when he was no longer premier, and in disgrace, Khrushchev recorded Kennedy as responding: "You're right. I admit you played a role in the election and cast your vote for me."

In another account of the event by a Soviet ambassador, Kennedy is reported to have said: "Yes, I know that - although I'm sure, whatever position the Soviet Union took in the news... in the public media or what not, I don't think it affected the elections in any way."

It's well known that Khrushchev had a clear preference for Kennedy over Nixon, with whom he did not get along. A 1959 visit by Nixon to the Soviet Union, the first-ever by a US vice-president, had not gone especially well. Ideologically also, the roles in 1960 were the reverse of what they are now. The Republican, Nixon, was more anti-communist and nationalistic than Kennedy, the Democrat, who was left of centre. In 2016, it was the Democrat Clinton who had a more hardline approach to Russia than the Republican Trump. The antagonistic relationship between liberal Barack Obama and nationalist Putin has long been in plain view. Russia was bound to favour the election of Mr Trump over Mrs Clinton, who had pledged to continue Mr Obama's policies. In fact, Mrs Clinton was much more hawkish than Mr Obama and wanted to establish a no-fly zone in Syria, potentially escalating tensions with Russia.

In a post-election meeting with party donors, Mrs Clinton had blamed her loss on Russian hacking. She claimed Mr Putin had got back at her for what he believed was her role in instigating large protests in Russia during her tenure as secretary of state.

Khruschev's attempts to help Kennedy were more direct. In 1960, a few months before the election, Khrushchev deliberately delayed the release of a US spy pilot captured by the Russians so that the news headlines from the emotionally charged event would not benefit Nixon. In fact, there are even records of Khrushchev's meetings with senior leaders of his administration on how the Soviets could aid Kennedy's election.

The KGB in Washington DC was under orders to follow and inform headquarters about the campaign. Just that much would not have been other than routine. But the instructions went far beyond that. The KGB station was asked explicitly "to propose measures, diplomatic, propaganda, or other" to encourage Kennedy's victory.

It is not known whether the Soviet spy agency did propose measures to help Kennedy, or if it did, whether Kennedy was indeed helped. But it is known that the Soviets also attempted to persuade Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1952 and 1956, to run again in 1960 instead of Kennedy. They saw Stevenson as more pragmatic than either nominee in 1960 and offered to support him.

Stevenson's biographer and aide has recounted in a book that the Soviet ambassador himself made the proposal to Stevenson, telling him that it came directly from Krushchev.

The ambassador asked: "Could the Soviet press assist Mr Stevenson's personal success? How should press praise him and if so, for what?" Or should it criticise him, in the hopes that that would get him support at home? Are there other ways that "we could be of assistance to those forces in the United States which favour friendly relations?"

Stevenson refused, according to his biographer, and did not contest the election.

Most countries pursuing their own self-interest are anxious to understand the political processes playing out in another - to better deal with the eventual winner. That much is understandable.

But during the Cold War and earlier, big powers overtly and covertly tried to engineer election results. There is a history of the CIA trying to overturn popular will around the world for geopolitical ends. The Bay of Pigs fiasco was the result of a botched attempt by the US spy agency to overthrow Fidel Castro. But the Iran coup is still the most famous example.

In 2013, the CIA publicly admitted that it was behind the 1953 coup against Iran's democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddeq. The coup, codenamed TPAJAX by the CIA and Operation Boot by Britain's MI6, was staged to protect British interests in Iran's oil.

But 2017 is not 1961. And the world not as brittle as during the Cold War. Maybe the unthinkable can come true this year: The US and Russia can just get along. Now, that would be H-U-G-E!

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 08, 2017, with the headline '2017: The year a cold war turns into a warm embrace?'. Print Edition | Subscribe