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Why Putin is Smiling

July 24, 2017

Vladamir Putin – President of Russia, autocrat, and opponent of the Western Liberal system

The Weekly Standard last week featured Vladamir Putin with the question, “Why is This Man Smiling?” Russia’s meddling in last year’s presidential election to my mind had three objectives. The first was to reorient American foreign policy. Second, to disrupt and paralyze American decision making. And finally, to tarnish the idea of liberal democracy inside of Russia.

The most straightforward objective of last year’s election operation was to reorient American foreign policy. Putin saw an opportunity in Trump. If the Republican candidate could be taken at his word, Russia might have – for the first time since World War II – a friendly chief executive at the helm of its greatest rival. If a pro-Russian President, appointed a pro-Russian Cabinet and made pro-Russian Executive Orders, then obviously the Kremlin would benefit. This was the best case scenario for Putin and was only half achieved. Although the President may be favorably disposed toward Putin and Russian goals, portions of the Cabinet – notably Secretary of Defense James Mattis – the bureaucracy – principally the F.B.I., the intelligence community, and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster – and most of Congress still oppose Russian aims. Thus, American foreign policy is still mostly in line with what it has been since 1945.

This leads us to the second goal of Putin’s meddling: to disrupt and confuse American decision makers. The Russia investigation is important, but it provides a Catch-22 to the United States. On the one hand, to not find out exactly what happened during the 2016 election, and to hold no one responsible, will almost certainly encourage future meddling by the Russians or any other hostile power. This is a grave threat to our political system and our civil institutions. On the other hand, the investigations have become a large distraction from the business of governing. These investigations are part of the reason why Congress has accomplished virtually nothing this year. Furthermore, as Trump and his surrogates continue to defend themselves, these investigations will inevitably take on partisan hues, further destabilizing our government. Whichever way one slices this, Putin wins.

Protests after the fraudulent 2012 Russian elections

Finally, even if the first two objectives are not achieved, or are reversed by American resistance, Putin can still claim some victory. This is because of the damage that was done to the image of American democracy. In this reading, last year’s operation was for domestic political reasons, rather than as some grand scheme to defeat the United States. A reporter for the Guardian, who was expelled from Russia for his reporting, summed it up for NPR back in January,

It’s an operation … designed internally for Russians. The message is that actually, if you look at the West, it looks a bit shinier than Russia, they’ve got better roads, better infrastructure, but essentially, everywhere is the same — all politicians are corrupt. All elections are fixed. The establishment will cheat if it can. You can hire any politician if the price is right.

And actually, Putin has been very successful at doing that, if you look at Gerhard Schröder, the former chancellor of Germany who was on the Kremlin’s payroll, if you look at Silvio Berlusconi, the ex-prime minister of Italy. And in the U.S., I think the goal of this hacking operation was not primarily to get Donald Trump to win — although they’re delighted that he did win — but to sort of discredit American democracy and say that “Your democracy is no better than our democracy.”

The ability to discredit American democracy provides job security for the Russian autocrat. The next time the people rise – as they did in 2012 – he can say, “do you really want to be like the United States?”

Why is Putin smiling? Because he is winning, and I do not believe that the current administration is up to the job of beating him.


From → Current Events

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