In the first two parts of this series, I laid out a theory that Putin pines for the days of the pre-Soviet Russian empire and most closely associates with Czar Nicholas I who ruled in the early part of the 19th century. His adoption of Nicholas I’s mantra of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality” is what guides and motivates Putin domestically and internationally. Being a former KGB agent and surrounding himself with political theorists who advocate for asymmetric warfare explains his personal vendetta against Western culture and politics. It also helps explain why he would want to interfere in the US elections.
To be sure, the United States in 2016 was not his first target, just his biggest and most audacious. Russian propaganda tools and the FSB- the successor to the KGB- had fomented anti-Western demonstrations in Western Europe and had funded some political parties against the EU and NATO. It is known that Russia is heavily invested in the the environmental anti-fracking movement in Europe and in the United States. This makes sense since Russia is heavily dependent on energy exports and the more produced in Europe means the less they purchase from Russia.
The general consensus in the MSM and among the Left which suffered a bitter loss in November, 2016 is that Russia interfered because Putin did not want Clinton to be President. This writer finds this theory rather naive. The purpose of any Russian interference was not to tip the scales in favor of one candidate or another, but simply to wreak havoc. There is no deeper ideology at work other than a reductive cynicism that sees geopolitical battles as a zero-sum game. A weakened, disorganized, questioning opponent is good for Russia.
Without Putin’s help, Trump was proving himself to be the chaos candidate and this started almost from day one of his candidacy. Did Putin help empower the one candidate most likely to question the status quo? Long before accusations of Russian influence surfaced, Donald Trump was doing a fine job of it himself. The timeline indicates that Russia started to exert influence some time in early 2016 through their propaganda arms and dissemination of fake news. Yet, Trump had been creating his own chaos prior to securing the nomination without any Russian help.
Regardless, even if another candidate other than Trump had emerged- including an interventionist like Marco Rubio who has no love for Russia- he likely would have been the unwitting beneficiary of Russian interference. Many sources state that Hillary Clinton sealed her fate in 2011 when she was widely seen by Putin as being behind the middle class demonstrations that were plaguing Russia. That is giving her too much credit. This writer seriously doubts, given her tenure at the State Department, that Putin had anything to fear from a Clinton presidency.
What made them (the demonstrations) unsettling to Putin was their proximity to the Arab Spring uprisings and the toppling of dictatorships in Egypt and Libya. Coupled with his vision that revolutions in the Ukraine and Georgia in the 2000’s were a Western plot to reorient former members of the Russian sphere of influence against Russia, Putin acted. The result was to launch a counterattack not against Clinton or the United States in particular, but against democracy itself. The result was diabolically genius. Whoever prevailed as a result of their efforts, they would suffer as a result. It made no difference if it was Clinton, Trump, Rubio or Cruz.
Hence, Trump’s victory was never an end unto itself. Trump was an unwitting beneficiary and victim of a broader effort to subvert confidence in the electoral process. They did this by suggesting that in a new information environment, a seemingly weak country like Russia could interfere and there was little Western values could do to stop it. The apparent belief on the Left and expressed by several Democrats is that Trump’s victory was partially the result of Russia’s actions. If Russia can convince enough Americans that was the case- and the continued investigations that drag on seemingly forever help in that effort- then confidence in democratic procedures like elections decline.
And the American Left, media and Democratic Party are proving themselves to be the best tools in Putin’s arsenal right now. If the American system can be divided and weakened, it helps Putin. He is not inflicting a fatal blow against democracy because he knows full well there is no blow that would prove fatal. But it does allow him the opportunity to continue a policy of promoting disorder and chaos elsewhere. Simply, the more people talk, investigate, hypothesize and wring their hands about Russian meddling, the greater is Putin’s victory.
Certainly, there are Russian weaknesses that can be exploited which would cause Putin to think twice in the future. Probably the biggest weapon the West has is economic, but even here Russia has emerged a winner by fomenting the seeds of displeasure with globalization and free trade agreements. Their economy is weak and we have exploited a weak Russian economy in the past during the Reagan administration whose Star Wars initiative basically started to bankrupt the Soviet Union. Being so dependent on energy exports, if US exports eat into Russia’s world market share, we can push them into better behavior.
Of course, the deepening economic crisis in Russia is inevitably blamed on the West. But as Russian history has demonstrated in the past, the nationalism of the peasants sometimes takes a back seat to an empty stomach. Furthermore, as Russia becomes more repressive, more people are affected. It certainly instills some fear into the population, but with each measure it brings the danger of increased anger. What may have been acceptable yesterday may not be tomorrow and law-abiding Russians may suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of the law or a Kremlin dictate. And despite his best efforts, there exists a rather vibrant opposition movement against Putin in Russia.
The problem with exploiting these latter two weaknesses- increased repression and a vibrant opposition- is that Putin has played an excellent game of class warfare against his opponents. Russians have already demonstrated a willingness to surrender liberties for security and stability. And despite the repressive nature of some of Putin’s actions, they pale in comparison to the repression they suffered under Communism which is still familiar to many Russians. Putin will never go there because he is too smart to go there. As for the opposition, Putin portrays it as a fringe group of malcontents who care less about Russian nationality- a portrayal many Russians believe. And if that fails, there is always that inherent conspiracy-behind-everything mentality ingrained into the Russian character: its the CIA behind the opposition. Hence, the best tool is economic.
There is a line in a movie where the star, Kevin Spacey, states: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled is convincing the world that he didn’t exist.” This is Putin in reverse. Vladimir Putin’s main strength and source of national pride among the population is convincing the world that he IS the “devil” behind every setback. This misinterpretation of what Putin and Russia are up to plays nicely into the hands of the Kremlin. The longer we chase our own tail, the more exhausted and weaker we become and the more Putin wins the game. For to Putin, this is a game where he dictates the rules by taking advantage of the existing rules of the game.
It is people like Charles Schumer and Adam Schiff and a Democratic Party smarting from a stinging electoral loss who have become caught up in this game and are the true dupes of Putin. It is their political spin and the Russian paranoia in the media that have created the meme of an unholy alliance between Trump and Russia. There is nothing in any CIA or other intelligence report nor will there be anything in the outcome of the many investigations underway to suggest that Trump is some Manchurian candidate.
When one man can inject himself into the psyche and minds of the American Left and the Democratic Party chasing phantoms and ghosts, then Putin is clearly winning the game. He is achieving what no Russian czar or Communist dictator from Lenin to Gorbachev could ever achieve in their lifetimes- a crisis of confidence in Western political institutions and processes.