PHILADELPHIA • Any suggestion that a US presidential candidate could be in cahoots with Moscow would, in previous eras, have spelt instant political disaster. But the times are changing. On Monday, the Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump felt able to laugh off suggestions that Russian intelligence agencies have tried to help his candidacy by deliberately leaking embarrassing internal e-mails from the Democratic National Committee (DNC).
Mr Trump used his preferred method of communication - Twitter - to chortle: "The new joke in town is that Russia leaked the disastrous DNC e-mails... because Putin likes me."
A lengthy report in the New York Times on Monday said: "Researchers have concluded that the (Democratic Party's) National Committee was breached by two Russian intelligence agencies."
But some caution is in order. The link between Russia and the leaked e-mails, while alleged, is not yet conclusively established. Even if it is proven that Russian intelligence hacked the e-mails, it is still speculation to argue that this is part of a deliberate effort by Russia to put Mr Trump in the White House.
And yet there is good reason to suppose that Russia would look very favourably on the prospect of a President Trump. The Republican has made little secret of his admiration for Mr Vladimir Putin. In a recent interview, he predicted that he would "get along very well" with the Russian President.
The Russian government will certainly be delighted by Mr Trump's suggestion that America's security commitment to its Nato allies may not be iron-clad.
The expansion of Nato into the former Soviet bloc after the end of the Cold War remains a source of bitter resentment in Moscow. So Nato's unravelling or the watering down of the US security guarantee for its European allies would be a foreign policy triumph for Mr Putin. Any such development would also cause deep alarm in the Baltic states and Poland - countries that are already on edge following Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea, in Ukraine.
Mr Trump's publicly-expressed doubts about Nato reflect his "America First" ideology - and his transactional approach to foreign policy and to treaty commitments. But there are also suggestions that Mr Trump may be influenced by his business interests - and by advisers with links to Russia.
Mr Trump has extensive commercial ties to Russia and, for example, staged the Miss Universe contest in Moscow in 2013. The Trump campaign's chairman, Mr Paul Manafort, was an adviser to Mr Victor Yanukovitch, the pro-Russian president of Ukraine who was overthrown in 2014.
The leaked DNC e-mails so far reveal little more than internal backbiting within the party. But the evidence that the party apparatus was deliberately trying to damage Mr Bernie Sanders, the strongest opponent to Mrs Hillary Clinton, was still sufficiently embarrassing to force the resignation of the DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz. The row has reopened the split between the Clinton and Sanders supporters - just as the Democrats were poised to unite on the eve of their convention. Worse, there is a strong suggestion that the leaked e-mails may just be the first instalment of a treasure trove that could be released over the course of the election campaign - ensuring maximum and continuing damage to the Clinton candidacy.
A recent biography of Mr Putin was subtitled Operative InThe Kremlin. If the Russian President and former KGB agent is indeed manipulating the US presidential election from Moscow, it will rank as the most audacious and successful intelligence operation of his career.
THE FINANCIAL TIMES
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 27, 2016, with the headline 'The audacity of hope - from the Russian side of the curtain, presumably'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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