Putin's Trolling of the West Is Not Just a Tactic
Putin's Trolling of the West Is Not Just a Tactic
The White House snubbed Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday by announcing that President Donald Trump wouldn't formally meet with him at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Vietnam -- even though the Kremlin had said repeatedly that a meeting would take place. It's clear that the dialogue between the US and Russia is broken to a greater extent than the Kremlin is comfortable with.
Could it be that Putin made a strategic mistake by openly trolling the US and other Western democracies as they held critical elections in 2016 and 2017?
Smart people are saying he did.
"Tactically, great job," former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves told a conference on Thursday. "Strategically, what they have done is a failure. They managed to alienate many of the biggest countries in the West, the same countries that they launder their money to."
In a recent piece for the Guardian, Mark Galeotti, one of the most insightful Western academics writing on Russia today, made a similar point.
If Putin ever deluded himself that his campaign of hacks, disinformation, covert political donations and other gambits was going to allow him to shape the western political agenda, he ought now to be having second thoughts. Putin’s self-harming passion for subversion seems to be the toxic product of a KGB background, a nationalist’s anger at the decline of the superpower and a lack of other, more acceptable, ways of advancing Russia’s agenda. As Putin pushes his spies, trolls, diplomats and lobbyists to take every opportunity to divide, distract and disrupt the west, whatever the long-term cost, he risks making his country into a pariah state.
Western experts on Russia have been arguing for years about what Putin's forte is: Is it strategy or is it tactics? If one believes that the campaigns to sow chaos and, in some countries, to promote populist candidates in elections have backfired for Russia, Putin is a tactician who can't help playing a short-term game at the expense of a longer one.
I've been watching Putin since before he came to power, and I'm not so sure about that. The Russian leader attempted to play two different long games in his first eight years of power.
During his first presidential term, he tried to follow the rules of Pax Americana, striving for economic efficiency, forcing his government to pursue the doubling of economic output and aim for top spots in international rankings such as the World Bank's Doing Business. He even talked about the possibility of Russian membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Even if his domestic policy wasn't liberal even then, the first-term Putin was little different from, say, Hungary's Viktor Orban, Poland's Jaroslaw Kaczynski or Italy's Silvio Berlusconi.
Second-term Putin was getting fed up with Western rules and was trying to put Russia on an equal footing in talks with the US and European powers. In those years, Russia received a huge windfall from rising oil prices, and Russian wealth spread internationally, adding to Putin's confidence. It culminated in Putin's 2007 speech to the Munich Conference on Security Policy, in which he accused the US of being too eager to use force in international relations. That Putin, however, was still into an arm's-length partnership with the West, which included Russia's participation in the G8 and a joint war on terror.
As he sat out four years as president from 2008 and 2012, he clearly developed a conviction that neither partnership-based strategy worked. That explains his bitter and public argument with stand-in President Dmitri Medvedev over the Western intervention in Libya in 2011. As Russians protested a rigged election, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton openly supported the protesters, Putin's second long game, which Medvedev had continued playing, was over.
Putin didn't act chaotically or unpredictably for most of his reign. He was probably more strategic than any Western leader of his era, if only because he didn't care as much about winning elections. So it's unlikely that he suddenly turned into an opportunistic tactician during his third term. It's just that his current game is a grim journey into the unknown, and it appears to scare his underlings -- and perhaps Putin himself -- from time to time.
It's tempting to describe everything he had done since the 2014 Crimea invasion as a series of reactive, opportunistic, ultimately mistaken moves. He grabbed Crimea because he could; instigated a war of secession in eastern Ukraine because it was easy; went into Syria because there was a vacuum there; ran propaganda and "active measures" campaigns in the UK, the US and other Western nations because they were unprepared for it; and had his underlings befriend and support far-right politicians throughout Europe because they needed friends and, in the case of France's Marine Le Pen, money. He influenced people and outcomes but didn't gain any friends -- in fact, he appeared to make enemies at every step.
That, unfortunately, is likely Putin's third long game. He doesn't believe there's any upside to cooperating with the West. It has been his refrain in recent years that sanctions against Russia won't be lifted no matter what it does. So he's out to prove that the West, and above all the US, is so shaky that the slightest push could throw it off balance. The demonstration is intended for the rest of the developing world. It's supposed to embolden Asian, Middle Eastern and Latin American nations to challenge US hegemony -- to treat the West as a colossus with feet of clay. It can work: In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte is a Putin admirer. Putin's demonstration of Western weakness may even be working on China, which increasingly appears to have abandoned any intention to continue liberalizing.
The path of the global troll, the global joker, the eternal challenger is a lonely one, though it fits the Russian character and its love of winning as an underdog. Putin appears to get phantom pains where G8 meetings, high-level diplomacy and soulful conversations with Western leaders used to be.
His circle is by now resigned that any Western assets they might own are threatened, but, as Russia settles into its new role, the billionaires and managers who remember Putin's previous long game get uncomfortable tinges when sanctions are stepped up and old business partners no longer want to drink together. These twinges of regret, as well as the Kremlin's feverish attempts to maintain a semblance of diplomatic contact, may look to Westerners as signs of remorse and attempts to find a face-saving way out.
They probably aren't: The evolution of Putin's views is irreversible, and Russia's capacity to take pain is constantly underestimated. Putin clearly believes it's higher than his Western adversaries think, and it's not clear at this point who's right.
The best Western response to Putin's game is to prove that democratic institutions still work, that they still reflect what people want from government, that the West can still be an example and a moral compass to the developing world and eventually to Russians. So far, the US and the UK are failing this test. Continental Europe is doing better, although its weaknesses are also there for the world to see. Putin's strategy is to frame the divisions and failures as an existential crisis, and he's not necessarily losing -- yet.