Who wins if Vladimir Putin meddles in the U.S. election?

Updated 10:46 AM EDT, Tue July 26, 2016
LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 19:  Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) 42nd International Convention at the Las Vegas Convention Center on July 19, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Clinton continues to campaign for the general election in November while the Republicans hold their national convention.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Ethan Miller/Getty Images North America/Getty Images
LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 19: Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) 42nd International Convention at the Las Vegas Convention Center on July 19, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Clinton continues to campaign for the general election in November while the Republicans hold their national convention. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Now playing
02:15
Russia suspected of hacking DNC emails
Supporters of presidential candidate, President Vladimir Putin gather for a pre-election rally at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow on March 3, 2018.
Russians will go to the polls on March 18, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Kirill KUDRYAVTSEVKIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images
KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Supporters of presidential candidate, President Vladimir Putin gather for a pre-election rally at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow on March 3, 2018. Russians will go to the polls on March 18, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Kirill KUDRYAVTSEVKIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images
Now playing
02:13
Daily Beast: DNC email hacker is a Russian spy
Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz attends a campaign rally at Florida International University Panther Arena on July 23 in Miami, Florida.
Alexander Tamargo/WireImage/Getty Images
Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz attends a campaign rally at Florida International University Panther Arena on July 23 in Miami, Florida.
Now playing
01:47
DWS: Election impacted by Russian interference
Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a speech during a state awards ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow, on March 10, 2016. AFP PHOTO / POOL / PAVEL GOLOVKIN / AFP / POOL / PAVEL GOLOVKIN        (Photo credit should read PAVEL GOLOVKIN/AFP/Getty Images)
PAVEL GOLOVKIN/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a speech during a state awards ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow, on March 10, 2016. AFP PHOTO / POOL / PAVEL GOLOVKIN / AFP / POOL / PAVEL GOLOVKIN (Photo credit should read PAVEL GOLOVKIN/AFP/Getty Images)
Now playing
02:50
Trump encourages Russia to hack Hillary Clinton
donald trump russia hacking putin sot atthishour_00003126.jpg
CNN
donald trump russia hacking putin sot atthishour_00003126.jpg
Now playing
01:01
Donald Trump directly addresses Russia
trump and russia labott dnt_00000111.jpg
trump and russia labott dnt_00000111.jpg
Now playing
02:31
Democratic Party suffers another hack on its computers
Bernie Sanders
CNN
Bernie Sanders
Now playing
00:49
DNC offers 'deep and sincere' apology to Bernie Sanders
congressman chris van hollen on dnc emails controversy the lead_00011925.jpg
congressman chris van hollen on dnc emails controversy the lead_00011925.jpg
Now playing
05:24
Van Hollen: DNC chairwoman was right to resign
dnc debbie wasserman schultz steps down nr_00004911.jpg
Getty Images
dnc debbie wasserman schultz steps down nr_00004911.jpg
Now playing
03:49
Wasserman Schultz jeered by protesters
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz speaks at a political gathering in Charleston, South Carolina in January..
Andrew Burton/Getty Images North America/Getty Images
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz speaks at a political gathering in Charleston, South Carolina in January..
Now playing
01:26
We asked the delegates: Did Debbie have to go?
Robby Mook State of the Union
CNN
Robby Mook State of the Union
Now playing
02:08
Clinton camp: DNC hack a Russian plot to help Trump
Donald Trump Jr.
CNN
Donald Trump Jr.
Now playing
01:23
Donald Trump Jr. slams email hack claim
dem ticket campaigns amid new email scandal pamela brown pkg_00011022.jpg
dem ticket campaigns amid new email scandal pamela brown pkg_00011022.jpg
Now playing
02:45
Democratic ticket campaigns amid controversy
Scott Olson and Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Now playing
02:06
Wikileaks releases hacked DNC emails
wikileaks bernie sanders intv tapper sotu_00005429.jpg
CNN
wikileaks bernie sanders intv tapper sotu_00005429.jpg
Now playing
02:08
Sanders: No question DNC was supporting Hillary Clinton
wikileaks-hacked-dnc-emails julian assange intv ac_00001502.jpg
wikileaks-hacked-dnc-emails julian assange intv ac_00001502.jpg
Now playing
15:22
Julian Assange: We have more material on Clinton

Story highlights

Putin nurtures personal animosity against the Obama administration and Clinton

The Russian president has made no secret of his desire to weaken the West

(CNN) —  

No one knows for sure whether Russian President Vladimir Putin is playing in the U.S. election.

But if allegations of a Russian espionage operation to leak damaging revelations from Democratic Party documents are true, it is a sign the Kremlin strongman already has his sights on the next U.S. president.

The unprecedented claims injected an explosive new element into the unpredictable 2016 campaign, after emails purportedly from a Russian hack and published by WikiLeaks appeared to show collusion among top Democratic officials – who are supposed to stay neutral – against Hillary Clinton rival Bernie Sanders.

On Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed the criticism that Russia would meddle in US elections. When asked by reporters about the allegation, he responded, “I don’t want to use four-letter words,” according to Reuters.

But the spying drama also poses much deeper questions about Moscow’s stance towards the next president – whoever it is – and the escalating East-West confrontation between major powers whose leaders are more estranged than at any point since the Cold War and still maintain competing nuclear arsenals.

Putin’s grudge against the West

Disclosures that cause discord in the U.S. and sully American democracy can only benefit Putin’s core political project – chipping away the West’s political institutions to weaken the power of what has been called the free world.

And the Russian leader clearly nurtures deep personal animosity against the Obama administration and Clinton, its former secretary of state.

It’s beyond question that the former KGB agent in the Kremlin has the means, through Russia’s sophisticated intelligence services, to sow mischief in the U.S. presidential election. And Putin has the motivation – a long-simmering grudge against the West.

“Was the 2016 election a target?” Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center, said of Russian intelligence agencies. “The answer is very plausibly yes.”

A harder case to prove is Democratic accusations that Russia carried out the DNC hack in order to advance the candidacy of Republican nominee Donald Trump.

RELATED: Sources: U.S. officials warned DNC of hack months before

“What the experts said when this breach initially happened at the DNC was that they believed it was Russian state actors who took these emails,” Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook said on Monday.

“What further experts are saying is that then, because they possessed those emails, that Russian state actors were feeding the email to hackers for the purpose of helping Donald Trump,” he claimed.

While forensic evidence will likely prove conclusively whether the hack originated in Russia, it may be impossible to clearly establish Putin’s own complicity in the operation, or the motivations of the Russian government.

The FBI confirmed Monday that it was investigating a hack into the DNC. U.S. officials suspect the intrusion was a Russian cyber hack, though the State Department said it was important for the investigation to run its course before making any determinations. But private-sector cyber security investigators hired by the DNC concluded that hackers working for the Russian government were behind the year-long breach of the committee.

Putin the super PAC?

But Putin’s behavior since returning to power in the Kremlin – after being the silent hand behind former president Dmitry Medvedev for the preceding four years – lend credence to the idea that Russia is attempting to play politics in the U.S.

The Russian president has made no secret of his desire to weaken the West, his belief that the U.S. and its European allies have conspired against Russian interests in Georgia, Ukraine, Libya and Syria, and sees a restoration of Russian global prestige at the expense of the West as paramount.

Undercutting America’s political system and thereby impeaching its ability to judge others would further that goal in Russian eyes.

“It is very consistent with a Russian approach,” said Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution, who co-authored the book “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin.”

“The whole purpose of Russian propaganda is to show that the U.S. and U.S. politics is filled with hubris and hypocrisy and to show it is not better than anyone else,” Hill said. “Putin operates like a super PAC, taking advantage of opportunities for negative campaigning. The purpose is to show that the U.S. has no moral authority.”

Putin’s beef with Clinton