First, Moscow will continue to assist Putin-friendly U.S. candidates and seek to hurt his critics through methods such as messaging tailored to suppress voter participation. Russia pulled this off in 2016, targeting African Americans with negative claims about Hillary Clinton. Already in 2018, Russians have continued to support efforts to undermine the Democratic Party. The #WalkAway campaign, purportedly an organic campaign of lifelong Democrats leaving the party, has been amplified by Russian social-media accounts and featured on the Russian propaganda outlet RT. Between now and the election, the Kremlin may set up websites through third parties and post misleading or incorrect information about voting locations and times, or derogatory information about candidates. It could continue to organize demonstrations through Russian agents or unwitting citizens.
Second, political players close to the Kremlin will continue attempting to make financial contributions to U.S. politicians. Moscow could try to use Russian Americans such as Andrew Intrater, who contributed to Donald Trump’s inaugural fund and is a cousin of the Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, or Len Blavatnik, a U.S.–UK dual-citizen partner of Vekselberg (with his own close ties to the Kremlin) who suddenly became a top GOP donor in 2015–16 with total giving at more than $6 million. This helped Trump and garnered these men invitations to inaugural events where they interacted with incoming policy makers. The FBI is also reportedly investigating whether money from or directed by Russian sources was donated to the National Rifle Association specifically to help Trump.
Russian businessmen will likely attempt to fund think tanks working on U.S.–Russia relations to push a narrative favoring cooperation with Russia and opposition to sanctions—a tactic China appears to have adopted in Australia. American businesspeople will continue to be targeted for their dollars, as evidenced by the Russian spy Maria Butina’s work in 2015 to convince Hank Greenberg to further invest in Investtorgbank, a failing Russian bank. Such big-money relationships could also create advocates for cooperation with Russia and against sanctions. Russian businesses need access to capital, and big donor supporters of political candidates could sway politicians to take a softer line toward Russia.
Third, the Russian government will try to cyberpenetrate U.S. election infrastructure, just as it did in 2016, and could even access and manipulate data. While there’s no evidence that Russia has done so to date, at minimum it will likely use its ability to access voter-registration databases and election-related sites to undermine America’s confidence in its own electoral integrity. As extreme as it sounds, the Kremlin could even shut down power or other infrastructure in key districts, as they did in Ukraine in 2015 in order to alter turnout or sow chaos on election day.