What Has Putin Been Up to Lately?

While all eyes are on ISIS and terrorism, there is little talk about Vladimir Putin and Russian ambitions.  Unfortunately, taking one’s eyes off the Russian bear is fraught with disaster.  In Russia, things are not great.  Their economy is highly dependent on energy exports and with falling oil prices on the international market, Russia lost a lucrative source of revenue.  Despite what Putin says, sanctions placed on them by the EU and the United States as a result of their actions in the Ukraine have further hurt Russia’s economy.  There is another side to the story: the sanctions have also hurt many European economies and some are itching to either end or lessen the sanctions.

But this domestic turbulence within Russia has only allowed Putin to gain in political power and popularity.   There is no mistaking the fact that Putin is an authoritarian leader who, although not Communist, aspires to the glory days of Soviet geopolitical power.  Increasingly he looks around at what used to be a Soviet sphere of influence and sees it drifting towards the West.

Given that Russia can no longer use big infrastructure and energy projects as leverage in diplomacy, he has embarked on another tactic that harkens back to his days in the KGB: propaganda.  That propaganda is designed to thwart and sway the rest of Europe and sow the seeds of disunity.  Despite his statements that he held no position on Britain leaving the EU, he left that to state-sponsored media outlets.  And other than a Russian-backed bank loan to France’s National Front Party, there is no financial chain running back to Moscow.  However, it took the collapse of the Soviet Union to reveal that Moscow was actually financing Communist Party activity in the United States and elsewhere.

Russia has a huge media infrastructure in Europe to sow these seeds of disunity.  It has produced benefits in Serbia, Albania and Montenegro- three countries that support Putin.  Serbian leaders recently met with Putin in Moscow to discuss Serbian plans to enter the EU.  Later that very day, Putin flew to Greece to discuss energy and other investment projects.

Besides the loan to the National Front in France, Russia is using its media and propaganda apparatus to curry favor with Europe’s far Right nationalist parties.  One reason Russia no longer can use energy against Europe is the increased supply of natural gas, mainly attributable to fracking.  There is evidence that Russia is funding environmental movements in Europe to ban fracking.  They are also aiding efforts to oppose the US-EU free trade pact currently being negotiated.

There was a clear pattern of agitation on Russian media outlets for Britain to leave the EU.  British accusations had been met with protests from Moscow in strong language indicating there was likely some truth to the accusations.  The English-language Russian station Russia Today regularly runs stories and editorials against the EU.  In fact, one story accused the EU as being the product of the CIA.  They have unleashed troll factories that have inundated European social media with pro-Kremlin/anti-EU blogs.  The now defunct Voice of Russia has partnered with France’s National Front and Italy’s far Right Lombard League to agitate against the EU.

The Czech Foreign Minister has accused Putin of embarking on a “divide and conquer” strategy in Europe.  A symposium held by the anti-immigrant German party, AfD, was sponsored by the Russian embassy.  There are rumors that Russia has also lent support to Hungary’s far Right Jobbik Party, and similar parties in Greece and Bulgaria.  And why not?  These parties spout an authoritarian, anti-Western, anti-capitalist, nationalistic, “return to traditional values” philosophy which describes Putin.

Just as support for Communists in Western countries were never expected to bring down governments, Putin does not expect support for the European far Right parties to do so today.  Instead, the goal is to keep his adversaries off balance.  He is waging an asymmetric form of warfare against the West which is classic KGB.

But to what ends?  We know that Putin wants to expand the Russian sphere of influence and pines for the days of the Soviet Union.  He has decried the collapse of the Soviet Union as one of the greatest tragedies of the 2oth century.  His most obvious adventure is extending that influence with client states like Syria.  There are reports, of which US intelligence is aware, that Russia is attempting to buy off American-backed rebels in that country with the promise of a seat at the table once ISIS and the Al Nusra Front are banished from that country.  Most diplomats concede that Obama has all but given up on Syria and is going through the motions while rebel leaders are coming to the same conclusions.

Meanwhile, most of Eastern Europe and especially the Baltic states are on edge.  Their concerns have prompted the US in sending combat troops to Europe which Putin has said he will respond “asymmetrically.”  Russian planes regularly violate Lithuanian air space and Russian intelligence officers crossed into Estonia to arrest someone.  Putin commented that Lenin was wrong in his assertions about ethnic identity, especially regarding the Baltic states.  Putin is asserting that the Baltic states had no right to leave the Soviet Union and that the USSR and the Baltic states were really just Russia.  He is making a claim and threat that the Baltic states belong to Russia as a matter of history and right.  As we saw in the Crimea and the Ukraine, Putin always espouses a claim before acting.

And Putin’s Russia is not shy about naming its enemies.  Among them, they list the United States, the European Union, NATO, various revolutions under a rainbow of colored names, and various “Springs.”  But, Russia defined itself as an enemy of the West before 2009 by their own admission and it upsets Putin that countries like the Ukraine and Georgia still exist although in fractured form thanks to him.

This illustrates that there must be a reset to the Clinton Russian reset.  There are obviously areas where the interests of the US and Russia intersect.  Among them are terrorism, nuclear non-proliferation, and checking Chinese influence throughout the world.  The next President will have to walk a fine line in dealing with these mutual interests on one hand and dealing with Russian territorial claims on the other hand.  As far as the EU is concerned, a fractured state clearly is in Putin’s best interests as he prefers to negotiate bilaterally rather than with groups.

Regardless of who wins the White House in 2016, they will likely have to deal with Russian “asymmetric warfare” somewhere, most likely the Baltic states or the unresolved situation in the Ukraine.  The next President inherits a dangerous world of terrorism, refugees (many created by Russian military actions in Syria), and an unpredictable, yet quite predictable Vladimir Putin.  For every claim made in the interest of Russia or Russian-speaking people outside Russia, his popularity grows in his home country.  Our next leader must wake up to the fact that a Putin-led Russia is dangerous.