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- William Burke-White
Vladimir Putin got both less than he wanted and more than he bargained for by meddling in the 2016 US Election. When Putin launched Russia’s cyber efforts to influence the election in spring 2016, he hoped for a Trump presidency that would simultaneously respect Russia’s place in the world and offer a more favorable policy toward Russia. With Trump’s signature on the new sanctions bill, Putin’s demand that 755 US Diplomats leave Russia by September 1st, and escalating rhetoric of a “trade war,” it is apparent that Putin’s hopes have failed, but he may have gotten more than he bargained for in the process. In fact, he may have gotten exactly what he needed to advance his grand strategy – a weaker US and instability in world politics.
Meddling in the US election was a tactic with a narrow set of goals – removal of sanctions and recognition of Crimea. Putin’s broader strategy is and has always been grander. Ultimately, Putin seeks to lead a country that is –and is recognized as—a great power, akin to what it was during the Cold War. Putin’s 2015 National Security Strategy clarifies his goals: “further increasing the Russian Federation's economic, political, military, and spiritual potentials and for enhancing its role in shaping a polycentric world.”
A more Russia friendly US regime, the removal of sanctions, and recognition of Crimea would have been useful for Russia’s reemergence as a center of global power. However, as Russia’s election meddling became public and investigations of Trump’s possible collusion with Russia raised the domestic political stakes in Washington, Trump cannot offer Putin accommodations without risking his Presidency. The new sanctions legislation removes that choice from the President’s discretion and likely keeps sanctions on the books for years or decades to come. Even if Putin has a kindred spirit in Trump, he cannot have a friend today.
Putin’s long-game, however, does not turn on lifting sanctions or recognizing Crimea as Russia’s. Rather, his grand strategy seeks global geopolitical space for Russia’s reemergence as a great power, which is fostered by US weakness and global instability. That is exactly what Putin got from election meddling. In part because of the investigation in Washington and Trump’s response thereto, Trump’s presidency is under threat and his political power, both at home and abroad, is imperiled. The Trump administration has no meaningful foreign policy strategy nor the personnel to implement it even if it did. With a US tied up with political infighting and a President struggling to save his political future, there is far more space on the world stage for Russia than there has been since the Cold War. Putin has achieved the very “increase in global and regional instability” he wanted and a polycentric world may not be far behind.
Global events have played into Putin’s hands, putting Russia ever more in center stage as was evident at the G20 summit in Germany earlier this month. Europe is mired in an internal fight of its own over BREXIT, limiting its ability to resist a more aggressive Russia. The Syria conflict continues, with Russia playing a greater role both on the ground and in diplomatic meeting rooms. North Korea’s successful ICBM tests exacerbate instability in north Asia, with Russia in the middle of global politics. Putin retains the ability to heat up conflict in Ukraine at a moment’s notice, spreading instability on Europe’s back door. Ultimately, Putin wants the resolution of these conflicts to run through Moscow, assuring him great power status and, again to cite the Russian National Security Strategy, an “increase in the Russian Federation's role in resolving the most important international problems….”
With his short-term goals from US election meddling off the table, Putin is moving back to his grand strategy. His July 30 speech demanding the departure of 755 US Diplomats from Russia was an overreaction—there are only about 345 American diplomats stationed in Russia—and was a statement that Russia is prepared to escalate, rather than supplicate. Russia’s July naval exercises with China in the Baltic Sea are an intentional provocation of NATO and a signal that Russia can look East. Russia has stepped up its efforts to be the key broker of an ultimate peace agreement in Syria on Russia’s terms. And back in May, Putin appeared on the world stage in Beijing in a political embrace of President Xi’s One Belt One Road initiative, making clear Russia would remain—with China—at the core of Central Asian political and economic development.
So what’s Putin’s next move? Vis-à-vis the US, hands are tied. Trump can give little and Putin must respond in kind to demonstrate his status and stature. US-Russia relations will continue to sour, but Putin’s eyes will be focused elsewhere. On the global stage, Putin will seek alternate platforms to show his influence and advance his strategic ambitions. He will continue to heat up conflicts on Europe’s borders when it suits and engage China both as a partner and competitor. He will do as little as possible to assist the US in hotspots like Iran, North Korea and Syria with one critical exception -- where his help elevates his and Russia’s role on the global stage. And there may lie the last potential for US-Russia cooperation today. Neither the President nor Congress can or should give in to Putin on sanctions or Crimea, but where the US needs Russia—particularly on North Korea and Syria—allowing political space for Putin’s ego to shine and Russia to claim its global influence may leave room for cooperation where it is most important, even if leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.