I must admit the argument that Russian President Vladimir Putin prefers either Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump or Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton perplexes me. Why would Putin prefer an erratic, uninformed narcissist, with the campaign slogan “make America great again,” over an exceedingly corrupt candidate, whose email server he possesses and who oversaw President Barack Obama’s “reset” policy? The question is a distraction from Putin’s attempt to discredit our institutions, starting with the most fundamental: our elections. He hopes to bring America down to Russia’s level. The chances are that he fails, but that does not mean we should ignore the attempt.
Putin yearns to reclaim the Soviet Union’s former glory — brought to an end, so he thinks, by the end of the Cold War. It disrobed Russia, so the world could see what a third world dump it had become under Soviet mismanagement. Even today, the United Nation’s human development report ranks Putin’s Russia behind NATO ally Montenegro, all three NATO ally Baltic States, and equal to Belarus. None of those countries even existed independently under communism, and Montenegro did not regain its independence until 2006.
Putin knows that modernization will not put him within grasp of superpower status. Thus, his only option is to sow chaos and bring everyone to his level. Russian elections are a farce; America’s should be too. Etc.
At the same time, fiddling with our elections allows Putin to punch above Russia’s weight. That keeps him relevant. Not militarily — the Russian military cannot secure just three percent of Ukraine.
But Russia is a nuclear power you say? One word: Pakistan.
The Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum correctly points out that Putin likely has more up his sleeve for November, and it is safe to assume he will not stop even then, regardless of how much Trump believes Putin adores him, or whether Clinton conjures yet another “reset,” which I think highly probable. Putin likely has thousands of pages of compromising materials on both and will not let them go to waste. (It is fantasy to think that Putin does not have the goods on Trump — for years, Trump worked with someone from the Mogilevich Organization, one of Russia’s shadiest crime syndicates). Expect an “October surprise” — further meddling in our election — but also expect more around Inauguration Day and any other time Putin needs a distracted United States or sees a chance to discredit our institutions, regardless of who is president.
Nothing here is a revelation, so I am genuinely perplexed when I read articles like this one written by an American in Moscow. The author both identifies Clinton as a preferred candidate for Putin and rationalizes that view with the same arguments we hear from France’s Marine Le Pen and Trump: Clinton will be too hard on Russia. She of the “reset” button? C’mon.
We need a Russia policy to end this nonsense.
Obama sent exactly the wrong message last week with his comment about Putin’s cyber and information warfare attacks. Putin will not stop until he finds resistance, thus far absent from our policy. We must use our world-class cyber capabilities and start throwing his information and political warfare tricks back at him.
After the Cold War, we mistakenly tossed our information warfare capability into the Foggy Bottom black hole. Until we fix that, we should begin with discrete projects. We should establish an internet-based samizdat network and help it spread the truth: Putin is mortgaging Russians’ future and living standards to line his pockets and indulge his visions of grandeur. Putin has WikiLeaks. We should counter by inventing a fake opposition party in Russia. Have it organize opposition rallies and release embarrassing information about Putin — say, his actual bank account information with stolen billions.
Here, black and white propaganda compliment one another. In World War II, the British Political Warfare Executive discovered that it needed the cover of real news to lend credibility to its propaganda, disseminated through its network of anti-German radio stations.
Tie Putin down by challenging Putin’s power from every angle. Make sure Russia’s rich patchwork of ethnic minorities understand the ramifications of Putin’s ethnonationalism and his new cadre, including the unashamedly Stalinist Education Minister Olga Vasilyeva.
Then, ignore him.
Attention — status — motivates Putin, and Secretary of State John Kerry’s aspiration to reprise the Cold War summits in fancy Geneva ballrooms elevates Russia. No more phone calls with the U.S. president. No more summits. No more secretary visits. Treat Russia as we do Pakistan — respectful, but no red carpet. Russia should get superpower treatment when it earns it, not because of the administration’s Cold War mentality. “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years,” as someone once said.
Sure, Putin will go berserk, but it is not like he is showing restraint now. Clinton’s remarks about Putin’s rigged elections in December 2011 reportedly angered him, but notice the date. The reset policy still reigned, Obama had gifted Russia the New START that year, and, just three months later, Obama would tell then-president Dmitry Medvedev that he intends to be even more flexible. The year prior, Putin lambasted Clinton about the deficient U.S.-Russia trade relationship, even though U.S.-Russia trade had increased 40 percent. Pro-tip: Putin will act angry no matter what. Neither another reset nor a bromance will restrain his anti-American impulses. Obama tried the former, and Bush the later. Both failed spectacularly. Best to make sure that anger is well-deserved.
Putin is no mastermind, Russia’s military is no threat, and Russia is a former shadow of the Soviet Union, but that does not rule it out as a strategic threat. Threatening our Constitution, the institutions that built this country, and the very things that underpin our freedoms is the very definition of a threat to the country. A president’s job is to protect it. Obama: Drop the hammer.
Photo credit: ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images