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Putin’s Chaos Strategy Is Coming Back to Bite Him in the Ass
The Russian president has sown confusion and conflict around the world the past two years. But his short-sighted meddling isn’t the work of a mastermind.
Back in March, when the U.S. elections still seemed far away — back before anyone had heard the name Fancy Bear and before everyone knew John Podesta’s risotto secrets — I was in Moscow talking to a Russian who had previously worked in the Kremlin. Over the course of a wide-ranging conversation, it became clear that we agreed on one key characteristic of Vladimir Putin. He called it the “Putin Paradox” and defined it thus: The Russian president’s tactical instincts for how to seize an opportunity are so brilliant, and yet the strategic outcomes are almost invariably disastrous. Seven months later, the saga of Russian meddling in America’s presidential election has managed to illustrate the “Putin Paradox” perfectly.
There can be little serious debate at this point that Moscow is indeed meddling. Despite Donald Trump’s skepticism, the U.S. intelligence community has collectively blamed Russia for the hack of Hillary Clinton’s campaign emails, which were released by the website WikiLeaks, and the hack of the Democratic National Committee. In addition to this more hands-on interference, Russia’s foreign-language state media, notably the RT television network and Sputnik press agency, consistently push a partisan, anti-Clinton line and spread claims of election rigging and other shenanigans. (This is tame, by the way, in comparison with the over-the-top rhetoric of Russian TV host and propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov, who claimed the U.S. establishment might kill Trump rather than let him become president — but such bombast is intended for domestic consumption and not to influence the U.S. vote.) There are also concerns, still unproven, that Russians could hack electronic voting systems on Election Day.
And yet, for all this effort, what has been achieved? There have been some successes — but they seem likely to come at a very high cost.
The success of Russia’s intervention must be measured relative to its goals. Although a Trump victory seems increasingly unlikely, there’s little reason to think that’s what the Kremlin ever really wanted. The Republican nominee may seem like something of a fellow traveler now — it was noticeable that even during the third debate he batted away opportunities to distance himself from Putin — but he would be an unpredictable president. Putin has gotten used to operating as the wildest man on the geopolitical stage; a Trump presidency might severely cramp his style and his strategic calculations.
Rather, the aim of all of Russia’s election interference was to do two things. First, to weaken Clinton, such that on her inauguration she would be too busy coping with a disgruntled Democratic left, an embittered Republican right, and a divided country in between to devote energy to confronting and toppling Putin. It is too early to be sure, but if anything, the hacks actually seem to be doing the unthinkable and bringing Democrats and mainstream Republicans together in their shared anger at Moscow.
Second, by undermining the very legitimacy of U.S. democracy, Russia’s hacking sought to weaken U.S. legitimacy abroad, dismay its friends, and provide fuel for a global propaganda campaign that, at its heart, tries to convince people not that the Russian system is better than the rest, so much that it isn’t any worse. That propaganda has resonated somewhat, but it is hard to demonstrate that anything the Russians are doing is more damaging than the Trump campaign itself.
But just like the Crimean annexation (which led to sanctions and massive costs to the state treasury), the Donbass adventure (which led to more sanctions and has mired Russia in an expensive, undeclared war), and the Syrian intervention (where Putin backed away from an early withdrawal, leaving him stuck in yet another open-ended war), today’s Russian achievement is poised to become tomorrow’s debilitating disaster. Russians who chortled at the original WikiLeaks revelations and felt sly satisfaction at the havoc created by “their” hackers are now expressing concerns about possible U.S. retaliation and, more importantly, what this will mean for future Russo-American relations. As one bitterly grumbled, “Let’s get used to sanctions until we’re in the grave.”
Clinton is no friend of Putin’s. But she is a pragmatic operator less interested in starting new crusades than clearing up old conflicts; had Putin waited until her inauguration and offered some kind of deal on Syria, maybe even Ukraine, it seems likely that she would at least have considered it. With his smear-and-leak antics, though, Putin appears to have managed to convince Clinton and those around her that the Kremlin represents a clear and present danger to American democracy and Western unity. As a Washington insider put it to me, “Expect now to see Putin’s nightmares” — maybe even that long-rumored quiet support for regime change in Russia — “come true once Hillary’s in the Oval Office.”
In Moscow, the realization is growing that a few months of schadenfreude during the U.S. presidential campaign are not going to be worth the likely fallout. The foreign-policy elite fear that Washington is preparing to call Moscow’s bluffs in the Middle East and Europe and also push harder on a wavering European Union to maintain and even step up pressure on Russia. The political and business elite are concerned that even if the United States does not actively push for regime change, it will clamp down all the more tightly on their opportunities to travel abroad and invest. One senior parliamentary aide recently expressed to me the worry that “Russia is becoming the new South Africa,” referring to the 30-year era of boycotts and sanctions that isolated that country when it was still white-ruled and characterized by apartheid.
Even the spooks who orchestrated all this have their qualms. Putin’s patronage and his enthusiasm for their ability to stir up trouble abroad have served them very well until now. However, their methods and capabilities are now coming under a scrutiny unseen since the Cold War, and a new U.S. retaliatory strategy seems to be taking shape. An analyst close to the Russian intelligence community expressed a real worry, for example, that cyber-espionage capabilities, “which could have been real assets, were wasted on emails full of gossip.”
To understand why Putin’s American adventure has gone so badly wrong — and to understand why it illustrates so well this idea of a “Putin Paradox” — it helps to look at it in the context of how the Russian president likes to operate. Putin is a sort of improv player on the world stage, riffing off current events and others’ concerns. In particular, he has for some time engaged in what I’ve called “troll geopolitics,” which involves dramatic stunts that cross all sorts of lines and generate plenty of breathless press coverage along the away.
Examples of this sort of trolling include rhetorical and gestural displays like sending long-range bombers to skirt NATO airspace and, recently, deploying nuclear-capable missiles to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. These are relatively meaningless — but do attract alarmed attention from the West. At other times, his trolling can take a much more serious, and risky, form. The intervention in Syria was meant to prop up one of Russia’s last allies and serve as a brazen response to Washington’s efforts diplomatically to isolate Moscow. But it has also increased the odds of two nuclear powers coming into direct military conflict.
As for the meddling in America’s elections, it may have started as the more inconsequential sort of trolling, but when Putin succumbed to his usual tendency to double down in the heat of the moment, it became a more consequential intervention — an overt challenge to the very integrity of U.S. democracy.
For Putin, the temptation to meddle in America’s domestic politics must have been irresistible. Massive and diffuse political machines, especially those relying heavily on volunteers, are by their nature insecure, easy targets for Russia’s extensive, aggressive, and active intelligence services. And America’s increasingly bitter and divided political landscape produced an exceedingly hostile presidential campaign that maximized the impact of strategic leaks and other “active measures” — as the Russian spooks call political operations. The opportunist in Putin spotted the weaknesses within the U.S. political system this election and seized the moment with glee, and American democracy has indeed suffered. But Putin has also managed to make Russia’s role so evident that it demands some kind of U.S. response.
The Kremlin’s problem, among others, is that Putin the Opportunist is consumed by the moment. He is focused on what he can accomplish tomorrow, without necessarily thinking through to what the consequences may be the day after. He also too easily assumes that he will remain in control of what he started; this, too, is something we’ve seen before.
When the Kremlin decided to intervene in Ukraine’s Donbass region, arming local malcontents and sending men and guns to back them, it must have looked like a shrewd tactic. Kiev, the thinking went, would be forced to capitulate, and Moscow could claim not to be involved. More than two years later, Russia is still mired in a vicious and bitter conflict, bankrolling the thuggish pseudo-states of Donetsk and Luhansk out of a shrinking state budget.
In some ways, the story of Putin’s foray into American politics follows the same trajectory. A cute plan to use deniable assets to stir up trouble abroad and force an opponent into a weak position has once again proved too cute for its own good. Putin’s claims that his hands are clean look increasingly flimsy; the chaos takes on a life of its own and even begins to threaten its maker.
Photo credit: ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images